To audition or not to audition: approaches to assessing members' musical ability

Many music groups choose to assess potential members in a variety of different ways – from a simple voice test, to a trial period or a full blown audition. The benefit of these approaches is that by ensuring certain levels of ability are reached, your group can aspire to a performance of a higher standard, and this in turn presents a challenging and rewarding experience for your members.

But assessments can also be off-putting to potential members, who may worry that their standard is not good enough, or who feel uncomfortable in an assessment situation.

In some cases a person who is capable of singing or playing to a very high standard as part of a group may fall to pieces when put in a more formalised situation where all the attention is on them. If you are thinking about introducing assessment for your group, here are some tips to help make the process as approachable as possible. And if you are already assessing potential members, you can use these tips to help you review your process.

  1. Know why you are assessing and what you are looking for
  2. Choose the appropriate format for assessment
  3. Choose the right people to make the assessment
  4. Make your process consistent
  5. Make your process transparent
  6. Be considerate of your potential member
  7. Give structured feedback, sensitively, and help your potential member to improve
  8. Be consistent and considerate in your re-assessment process
  9. Review your assessment procedures regularly

1. Know why you are assessing and what you are looking for

The first thing to consider is why you need to assess someone. Groups choose to assess potential members for a wide range of reasons. It could be:

  • you want to find out what a singer’s voice type is, so that you can allocate them to the correct vocal part
  • you want to find out if they are a good sight reader
  • you want to get an idea of their standard, technical skills or tone
  • you want to see how well a potential member blends with others in their section
  • you simply want to find out if they can sing in tune

There may be other reasons – but before you can assess someone, you must have a need to find out something about them, and be very clear about exactly what that something is. If you don’t have a need to find out something about their musicality, then the process is unnecessary - don’t assess just for the sake of assessing.

2. Choose the appropriate format for assessment

Once you know what you want to find out about your potential member, ensure that the format used for the assessment is an appropriate one. You can’t assess how well someone blends with other members in an individual assessment, for example! Some formats to consider include:

  • a traditional audition – where the person is assessed individually, behind closed doors. Tasks often include a performance of an own choice piece, some sight reading and/or scales or technical exercises.
  • one or more trial rehearsals/trial period, where they sit next to one of the people who are making the assessment during a normal rehearsal.
  • a small group situation where 3 or 4 potential members are assessed together.
  • a simple voice test could take place during the break of a main rehearsal at the piano in the same room rather than being a formal audition.

For most people, an individual assessment will be nerve-wracking and will also feel slightly artificial, whilst a trial rehearsal will allow them to feel less ‘on-the-spot’ and be a bit more relaxed whilst playing or singing.

An assessment as part of a small group bridges the gap between these two – it allows the potential members the security of being with others, whilst being small enough for an experienced MD to be able to pick out the individual voices. For this format, choose two or three reliable and sympathetic members to complete the small group and help the candidate feel at ease.

Try not to assess two different people in the same small group, so that your potential members do not feel that they are competing with each other.

Finally, refer back to your reasons for assessing. Make sure that every task you set enables you to find out what you need to know. Be clear to both yourself and your potential member what you are looking for, and don’t ask your potential member to do something which is superfluous.

3. Choose the right people to make the assessment

The people who assess any potential member should be impartial in all respects, and have sufficient musical authority to make a judgement. Some things to consider are:

  • your Musical Director should always be involved if possible – they are best qualified to make a musical judgment.
  • don’t allow people to assess a potential member if they have a personal connection to them.
  • ensure your assessors are calm people who are not given to snap judgements or sudden outbursts, particularly if an individual or small group format is being used.
  • ensure your assessors don’t let any prejudices colour their judgment.

We also recommend that at least two people are involved in an assessment, particularly if it takes place in a separate room. Safeguarding requires that if your potential member is under 18, for an individual audition you MUST have at least two people in the room – but in general, it is always good practice to have more than one person assessing a potential member if the process is taking place behind closed doors – this helps to protect your assessors and your group/committee as well as the potential member.

4. Make your process consistent

Every potential member should be assessed in the same way and ideally by the same people. Try to avoid:

  • making any exemptions for someone because they know another person in the group
  • asking one potential member to go through more or fewer exercises than another
  • causing someone to wait longer than others for an outcome

Ensure that everyone who applies is treated the same as far as possible (though do see the section on Being Considerate below).

5. Make your process transparent

Nothing is more off-putting in an assessment situation than being surprised. Your potential member will already be nervous, and they don’t want to feel worse!

  • Make sure your website clearly states that you assess potential members, and make sure any communications with potential members also states this.
  • Make sure you explain to any potential member what you are looking for when you assess, and what tasks, if any, they will be expected to carry out as part of the process. Also communicate clearly what (if anything) they will need to prepare in advance, what they will need to bring with them, where and when the assessment takes place, how long it will last and who will be assessing them.
  • If you are able to send them parts in advance – for example a set piece for an audition or the part they would be playing in a trial rehearsal – ensure they receive this with enough time to prepare it before the assessment.
  • Ensure that you stick to the tasks you have stated, and don’t introduce new ones at the last minute.
  • Have a structured way of making decisions, and a timeline for making and delivering them. Be sure to communicate this to your potential member so they know when they can expect to hear from you.

Make sure you are also clear to your potential member about what is expected in terms of attendance and subscription payments during any trial period.

6. Be considerate of your potential member

It’s worth repeating: no matter what form your assessment takes, your potential member will be nervous about the process. Here are a few things to consider which may help them feel more relaxed and confident about their assessment:

  • Respond promptly to queries about joining your group, don’t let people think you are not interested in them.
  • Communicate clearly with them in advance so that they know exactly what to expect on the day of the audition or during the trial period. Answer all their questions clearly, promptly and politely, even if you think they are obvious, and be very clear about the dates, times and format of the assessment (see Make your process transparent, above).
  • Ask them in advance if they have any special requirements for assessment. If they need large print, require extra time for sight-reading, a chair to sit on or need to bring someone with them for moral support – be accommodating to their requests as much as possible.
  • On the day be welcoming, polite and positive. Ensure they are met by someone and looked after when they arrive. For trial rehearsals, you should also ensure they are looked after during the break, and again at the end of the rehearsal – perhaps you could assign a section leader to take care of this.
  • For individual assessments:
    • Offer a drink if you can, even if it’s just water.
    • Give them the opportunity to warm up first. If they could sing or play with the group for a while before being assessed, this will help to build up their confidence and allow them to become familiar with your MD ‘from afar’ before coming face-to-face with them. It also allows them to make their own decision about whether your group is right for them. If this isn’t possible, they should still be allowed some space and time to warm up on their own – never assess anybody ‘cold’.
    • Acknowledge their nervousness and give them time and space to prepare themselves before they start on any task.
    • Start with a warming-up task such as a voice test, warm-up exercises or scales to help settle their nerves - don’t launch straight into a solo performance or sight-reading task.
    • Always be positive during the assessment, if you can’t think of anything to say just say ‘thank you’.
    • Thank them at the end with a smile on your face and let them know how soon they can hear from you.

7. Give structured feedback, sensitively, and help your potential member to improve

Going through an assessment only to be unsuccessful can be a very demoralising experience. If you are unable to immediately offer your potential member a place, there are a range of options you could consider to help them develop their skills.

  • Decide who gives the feedback – is it the section leader, MD, chair or someone else?
  • How is feedback given – in person, by email? Is it given instantly or at a later date? Have an agreed structure and time-frame for giving feedback.
  • Have other options available – where can someone who doesn’t meet your criteria go? Some examples:
    • You could arrange a partnership with another local group whereby you refer people on to each other.
    • Have your own training group where people can hone their skills before joining your main group. Make sure whatever you offer does not feel like a second best option.
    • Offer training or individual tuition and support to help a potential member to develop their skills in order to join your group.
    • Offer an opportunity for a re-assessment at a later date if you possibly can – don’t completely close the door on them.
  • If you run a trial period, give feedback part way through – don’t allow someone to assume everything’s ok and they’ll be accepted at the end of the trial period.
  • When giving feedback, always remember to point out positives as well as negatives.
  • NEVER tell anyone they can’t sing or play.

8. Be consistent and considerate in your re-assessment process

If your group has a policy of re-assessment, all of the above points still apply. Even though someone has been in the group for some time, they may still find it nerve-wracking to be put on the spot, and you could cause people to worry about being asked to leave the group. Handle them with the same care and attention you would give to a potential member going through an assessment process.

A long-standing member who has been unsuccessful in a re-assessment may feel very upset at being asked to leave, particularly if your group has become a large part of their life, so try to find a way to keep them in the group if you possibly can. Consider allocating them to another part, or offering them some individual support or tuition to help them improve.

If keeping them in the group is not an option, be sensitive to their feelings – is there another way they can remain involved with your group, or do you have alternative groups to suggest to them? Be sure to acknowledge their commitment to your group over the years in a suitable way – perhaps with a presentation at a rehearsal or concert.

9. Review your assessment procedures regularly

Your group will not stay the same for ever – as its membership, governing committee and maybe even the MD change, so will the approaches to the music and to membership. Regularly consider whether assessment is still right for your group, and whether the structure and format you use to assess is the right one to help you find what you need.

We hope you find this Making Music resource useful. If you have any comments or suggestions about the guidance please contact us. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the content of this guidance is accurate and up to date, Making Music do not warrant, nor accept any liability or responsibility for the completeness or accuracy of the content, or for any loss which may arise from reliance on the information contained in it.