It’s that time of year again! That’s right, it’s the start of a brand new school year (at least, it is for me). At the University of Missouri, class started this past week, and we welcomed over 8,000 new students to our fine campus. For most schools across the country, this is either the case, or classes are starting very shortly. That means that all collegiate a cappella groups are now faced with an almost daunting task: Taking this class of thousands, finding the handful of new a cappella initiates that are some of the best musical talent around, and getting them to join our ranks. Of course, there’s two big parts of this process, and I’m going to talk about both of them.
First, we need to get them to come out and audition. This has been my project this summer. I have spent a good amount of time trying to get the most visual outreach with minimal cost. Of course, there’s bound to be some cost somewhere. However, some costs are far more effective than others. Consider this: It costs us $50 bucks to put an ad in the weekly info emails that are sent to all students and faculty with a school email. Next, it costs $75 to get an ad in the school newspaper. Third, it costs us anywhere from $75-100 to get flyers in the mailboxes in the residence halls (otherwise known as dorms). There’s also the options of advertising with flyers on virtually every public bulletin board on campus, advertisements on dining hall centerpieces, and the like. Don’t forget internet advertising through websites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Myspace (yeah, right), or even group websites (we don’t have one, but it still is an option). Finally, we have something at our school called the activities fair, which is essentially a fair of a whole bunch of student organizations on campus.
Which ones do you think I should pick?
It’s going to naturally vary for every group, because not all of these options are possible, and it depends largely on the student body and how the campus processes information. It also depends on how much money your group can afford to spend. From what I’ve learned about our student body through 3 years of going through the audition process, my goal was to be largely visual and minimally expensive. Therefore, if you guessed that I did everything except the email, the newspaper, and the mailboxes, you guessed correctly. Overall, I’ve spent approximately $30-40 on auditions. I anticipate spending maybe another $20 on audition forms, ratings sheet (what some of us use to judge auditionees – I use just a spiral notebook, but that’s a personal preference), and anything else necessary for the day of auditions. From what I’ve heard from people in the community (for example, “Hey, I saw your flyer for group auditions”, people email me to ask questions, facebook event RSVP’s), we could be looking at about 50-75 people auditioning. Considering that we are not (currently) the best collegiate a cappella group in the world (I’m a bit of an optimist) and progress being made to get our name out to the campus is kinda slow, this would be a record for us. Until now, the most I have ever seen is about 25 people. Doubling our numbers, based simply on changing how we advertise ourselves, would be a great thing to note.
Of course, I haven’t even talked about the activities fair. This might be the best thing to happen to us to get people to audition. Here’s why: You need to grab a person’s attention in about 3 seconds. People want to look at a flyer and see the point of it almost instantly. Our flyers have in big letters “Do you like to sing?”. That’s the first thing that catches people’s attention. If they do, they’ll read on. Otherwise, they’ll move on. If they read on, they want to easily see what’s going on. They want to know the event date, time, who it’s for, and how it affects them really quickly. All that information is given in bigger font. The information about who to email with questions (me) is given in almost fine print. We then found a way to make it better. I went around campus a few days ago with a bunch of flyers, a stapler, some tape, and a friend. Of course, this friend wasn’t just any friend. This friend happened to be the president of the women’s a cappella group on campus (shout out to the Naturelles), who also happened to have a bunch of flyers for her group. We put all of our flyers right next to each other, if possible. Therefore, we made the flyers for the men’s and women’s groups essentially co-ed. People see the men’s group, and look over to see the women’s group flyer, and vice versa. We’re doing this same idea for the activities fair. By sharing a table, we make it easier to reach a larger group of people, and have more people to run the table during a busy school day. Of course, since we’re both singing groups, we’re going to be singing during the event. We have two songs that we did together last year, but we can also ad lib songs that are fairly easy to fake (I Want You Back, Little Bitty Pretty One, Happy, or anything else if people are creative). When people see us performing and having fun, they want to see what’s going on. It’s not just about reaching them, it’s about how much they retain. Every group is different, but for us, this is the best way for retention.
Of course, throughout this entire ordeal, where is the co-ed group, you ask? Well, that’s a good question. Naturally, I want the best for my group, but I also want the best for all groups. Therefore, I gave the co-ed group virtually all of the same information I dealt with. However, what they have done has been largely independent of what we have been doing. I want to see them succeed, but it is a bit of a war between the groups. Men’s and Women’s groups can work together because of no talent pool overlap. The co-ed groups have talent pool overlap with both. It’s a bit of a struggle for power to get the best musicians for each group, and I hope that they come audition for us. This power struggle, however, should be dominated by respect. If I see one group trying to sabotage another group’s chances, I will have words with them. Should new musicians go to “the dark side”, I’m happy they found a spot in the a cappella community here. On the other hand, don’t expect me to help the co-ed group by helping them flyer.
Now that I’ve (hopefully) exhausted all my thoughts on getting people to audition. Now comes the hard part: figuring out who to take, and who to encourage to audition next year (side note: always encourage people to audition the next year. They might get better, or find out that they are better on a different voice part. You never know, and it never hurts your group to hear them again in a year). Time is also of the essence. Nobody wants to wait for four hours to audition. Also, your group will get tired of listening to people after a few hours. You want your audition process to have two major aspects: individual and group. Therefore, let’s take a look at both of them.
The individual part has usually been pretty standard. Give the auditionees a survey sheet to fill out when they first arrive at auditions. It’s going to have all the basic information: Name, major, hometown, musical experience, etc. This just gives the group a sense of what to expect from the person. If someone writes on the sheet that they can beatbox, the group might want to hear it. If they don’t write that down anywhere, nobody knows to ask for it. Also, it gives the group an idea to see if they will have any major scheduling problems down the road. These are all little things that I’ve learned to look for over the years. Aside from the survey sheet, the auditionee will be asked to perform a solo of their choosing. This “of their choosing” clause is a great gift. It lets them show themselves off best. When I auditioned, I performed the song “King of Anything” by Sara Bareilles. It showed off my falsetto range, which I felt to be a very important aspect to sell. Of course, I learned later that night that I was asked back because of my beatboxing abilities, but I’ve been a tenor I with the group for 3 1/2 years now, so I must have done something right. Personal anecdote aside, this works for other members as well. Over the years, I’ve heard Jazz, Pop, Country, Classical, and Indian Classical (He nailed those quarter-tones, and it was glorious). These people found the song that best fits their personal and musical style, and apply it. Usually, the ability (or possible lack-thereof) shows through this performance in the same way. Aside from seeing their ability, you also begin to see the personality of the person. If you think I’m lying, think about the song you would audition with right now. If you don’t spend time thinking about it, you pick something that reflects your personality while still best showing off your voice. The song I have is “Titanium”, due to the lyrics always reminding that I’m gonna be myself, however different, and flourish. What does your song say about you? Think about it when you hold the audition or if you audition. It might help give just the smallest push to succeed.
We’ve successfully nailed about a minute of this audition. Here’s where it gets tricky. You want to make sure this person fits in with the group as well. I’ve debated this myself for a while. Naturally, you want the best solo singers you can find. However, if their voice doesn’t blend well, it’s bound to be a problem very quickly. Therefore, you need to see their background abilities, as well as their foreground abilities. We need to spend approximately 2-3 minutes to figure out how they fit in a group. This raises the question: “what is important in a group setting?”. We could teach them a simple chord progression, have them sing the chords, and that could be it. They would have four whole notes to prove their ability to blend. That’s really all they need. However, is that enough for what you need? We’ve heard their ability to blend for about 5-10 seconds on very stagnant chords. Is that enough to test them in a group setting? Some say yes, but I say that we can make the audition last about 2 minutes longer and gain much more information. First, figure out where their range lies. Generally, their solo will give a good idea of their voice. However, to reduce some of the blurriness of voice parts, a simple call and response works wonderfully (furthermore, this will test to see if the person has good pitch memory.). Once you know the range, have them try singing along with the group on one of your old arrangements. Pick a section that is mostly chordal, but might require a bit of sight reading. Give them a couple tries, just to give them the best shot on the music. The section only needs to be about 8 measures, but the extra time will tell you far more than you would get from four chords. The cool thing about this is that it doesn’t matter how good (or terrible) their sight reading is. If the blend is good, you won’t notice wrong notes very much unless you are listening for them.
The debate behind the group section is which part of the audition to do this. Most groups do two rounds: auditions and callbacks. Auditions lets you quickly weed out those you know are not cut out for the group. Callbacks lets you spend a lot more time on each individual, seeing how they work in a group dynamic. Some groups feel that all they need to hear in the auditions is the solo, but I feel that a solo is only half the story. The group could find themselves at callbacks with 5 people who can’t blend in the background, but needing to take at least 3 of them to fill their numbers. Meanwhile, the vocalists who might not have been as stellar at the solo has tremendous blending ability, but didn’t make callbacks. However, should there be a hundred people wanting to audition for the group and only 4 hours to get everybody in, the audition process must be shortened. Therefore, it’s a bit of a trade-off, but I personally feel that the more information you have about somebody auditioning, the better informed you will be when it becomes time to make cuts.
A quick disclaimer: These are my views on how I believe auditions should go. Should your group have a method that works better for you, by all means use it. Don’t change your entire style of auditions based on what you’re reading on my blog. However, feel free to steal as many ideas as you want to help your group best succeed.
In closing, I want to wish both auditioners and auditionees the best of luck in the upcoming weeks. Remember that auditions are stressful on everyone, but also very exciting. If I can leave any advice to both, it’s this: say/learn as much as you can without saying anything. Let your solo reflect yourself. Listen to the lyrics being sung, not just the lyrics. Show that you can hold your own both as a soloist and behind the soloist. Allow each person the best chance to show every facet of their ability. Our judgments are only limited by the amount of knowledge we possess.