Unauditioned Excellence?

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I had a letter recently from someone who has returned to singing since retirement, telling me about his musical journey, and asking some specific questions about choral life. I’m answering here because I know the issues he is grappling with are ones that many other people in the choral blogosphere care about deeply too. I’ll start with a few (edited and anonymised) extracts from his letter so you can get a feel for where he’s coming from:

You remember the slogan “Sport for All”? My abiding passion is “Music for All” or specifically “Choirs for All”… I spent a lifetime in comprehensive education, a lot of it in the inner city, so the issue of social inclusion was important to me and [the cathedral choir] seemed to me to be about choral apartheid. … I don’t think that “Music for All” needs to preclude choral ambition.

The position he finds himself in seems to me to articulate a central question of choral life, certainly in the UK and possibly further afield too. He would love to sing the ambitious choral repertoire of the classical tradition, but finds the choirs available for someone lacking the experience and confidence to audition don’t have the skill levels to handle it. Hence he asks:

So…have you come across much in the way of non-audition choirs who achieve surprisingly high standards, or who have development strategies for their members?

There’s an interesting theoretical question about repertoire and identity in there that I am going to put to one side right now, but want to come back to another day. Today, I want to attempt to keep more practical answers.

The first thing that I always think when asked this kind of researchy question is to point the asker to places where they can access more brains than just mine. I used to quip to my students that I like to keep my head empty in order to maximise my mental flexibility, but it’s disturbingly close to the truth. Whenever people ask me questions like this (or bibliographical ones, or questions about repertoire) I always feel rather blank. I just don’t store lists very effectively.

Fortunately, we have the internet these days, so you can ask lots of people at once rather than being stuck with the paltry contents of my head. Two places I would recommend to ask this kind of question are the forums at ChoralNet and Gerontius. The latter is better for UK-specific examples, while the former draws on a bigger pool of participants and so is good for the bigger questions of how open-entrance choirs can achieve top-class results. And if anyone who reads this has thoughts to contribute, I’m sure my correspondent would appreciate your comments!

After my rabbit-in-headlight moment of blankness, I also started to think of some examples. Both the university choral societies I sang in as a student (Bristol and Southampton) were unauditioned, and whilst I didn’t at the time have the perspective to judge many aspects of choral craft (especially from within the middle of the soprano section), they were both certainly well up to tackling big works. Things have to be going reasonably well if one is to enjoy singing the Missa Solemnis I think.

Next a tickle of a memory took me to check out the Royal Hollway Chapel Choir. There is a choir of auditioned choral scholars here, in the Oxbridge mould, but there is also an unauditioned chamber choir that sings many of the regular services. Something is going right there, too.

So, are ambitious non-auditioned choirs a feature particularly of student life, I wondered, or is it simply that I spent too many years in academia for a balanced view of the world? It is easy to stereotype students as particularly well-suited to doing well in choirs: they have youth on their side, and are well-practised at learning, as well as being both self-selected and academically tested for the willingness to engage with challenges.

Google came to my rescue. (As an aside, isn’t it wonderful that you don’t ever have to leave a thought that starts ‘I wonder…?’ unanswered these days?) I found a working majority of student choirs proclaiming themselves as unauditioned, but also a goodly smattering of unauditioned choirs for ‘real’* people that embrace substantial classical works, such as the Shaldon Singers in Devon and the Islington Choral Society, which brands itself as ‘Probably the best unauditioned choir in London’.

So, to answer my correspondent’s primary question: yes, it is possible to engage successfully with the ambitious repertoire you love without requiring auditions. How these choirs achieve it is a different question, and will wait for another post. As will the big question about the cultural meanings of repertoire in all this.

* I took to referring to non-students as 'real people' in an ironic comment on the social status of students when I was one. I keep forgetting that it sounds rude to continue saying that once you've graduated, as - like many people who overdid their student years to take higher degrees - I've never really got used to the fact that I now count as a grown-up.

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