Should your choir or praise team hold auditions to join?

I’ll never forget the first time I went to band class in junior high-school. Where I grew up the elementary schools didn’t have a band, so I was excited to move up to junior high because I knew I’d be able to finally be in the band. So we’re all sitting there in our little chairs listening to the band director give his welcome speech, and then comes the time to start finding out what instruments everyone wants to play. Looking back I’m sure he did this next move just to save time because he already knew what would happen. But before he asked anyone anything about what instruments they wanted to play, he made the following announcement: ” Everyone that wants to play drums go stand by that table in the back of the room”.

Every male child in the room, present company included, bolted out of their chairs and ran to the back of the room. The why is obvious. I mean, to a young boy the drum section was by far the coolest section to be in. So, as I’m sure he’d done year after year, the band director had to come explain to us that not everybody can be in the drum section, or the band simply won’t work. Other sections must have members or we can’t be effective as a band. Through a process of discussion and interviewing, he eventually coaxed most of us away from that back table and got us interested in other instruments. But there were a handful of guys that stayed at that table. Because it was about more than “cool” for them. They were the ones that were supposed to be there.

I started today’s blog with that story because in a sense, church music ministries have the same problem. It’s the biggest, most visible, most “glamorous” ( or so it seems on the outside, lol) “coolest” ministry to be a part of. So much so that often people who would be much more effective in other ministries still gravitate toward music ministries. This presents a problem for directors and music ministers who are faced with the challenge of developing-then maintaining- a standard of quality and excellence in the music department. We’ve already discussed in great detail (and with scriptural proof) why that’s not just important for vanity sake but for effective ministry in our churches.

So at some point music department admins have to start thinking about some kind of evaluation process for new members wanting to join one of the groups in their music department. Auditions come to mind for most. But although they’re pretty common and almost expected in large churches, auditions have always been something mid-to-smaller sized churches have avoided. I had a very enlightening conversation on the subject with my friends on The Music Ministry Coach.com’s fan page . I asked them to discuss with me how they felt about church music ministries holding auditions and specifically, whether or not smaller churches should do so. Some of the group members who do attend larger churches that already have audition processes in place also shared a little about how their process works.

Using the great feedback I got from everyone who participated in that conversation (thanks guys!) let’s break this down to three main categories that will hopefully help smaller churches decide if, when and how they should implement some kind of audition process.

If:

As I mentioned, most large churches- certainly almost all mega-churches- already have some form of audition process to join most groups. But smaller churches struggle with deciding whether or not they should implement such a process or not. When I posed the question to the group, the answer was overwhelmingly “yes”. Group participants felt like pretty-much all churches should have some kind of process in place to help determine if the music department is the best ministry for the person wanting to join, or if they would be of better service in one of the other ministries. It’s not about elite-ism or rejection. It’s about taking steps to to avoid the “drum section” syndrome I described at the beginning of the blog. Everyone “wants” to be in the choir but not everyone should. Same with the band, or the praise team. And sometimes they simply don’t know that. So every music department should have some kind of evaluation process in place for new inquires wanting to join.

But smaller churches have some unique challenges that larger churches don’t have. Like a shortage of members. Very small churches for that reason don’t have the resources or the luxury to pick and choose. When you’re trying to get established from the ground up you welcome anyone willing to participate and you simply work with what you have. “RevTanya” referred to it in our facebook conversation as a “whosoever will let him come” mentality. And it’s one that is definitely needed at the earliest stages. So for very small start-ups it’s less about a matter of “if ” it should be implemted. It’s a matter of:

When:

So we’ve established that every church music ministry should in fact have some kind of evaluation process in place, even if it isn’t a formal “stand-up-and-sing-for-me” audition. Mega-churches already do it, start-up churches can’t afford to yet. So the question is when should such a thing be implemented. Frankly I’ve been thinking about this a great deal for my own church’s music ministry. Ours is what I’d call a mid-sized church. We’re at a stage of transition right now. We’re well over 300 members now and the music department is pretty-well established. Our music department is well-known in the circles we fellowship with. I strive for a level of excellence in every choir and group that ministers there, from the junior choir to the sanctuary choir and everyone involved with supporting them.

So our music department, I believe, is at the stage where I might be submitting a plan to my choir president and pastor within the next year or so. So the “when” has to be based on an individual assesment of your own music department, for sure. But every church that has reached a similar place of growth should start seriously considering implementing something. If your choirs are singing in 3 part harmony, your band is rehearsing separately, you have an established praise team, different choirs singing on different Sundays, I’d say you’ve reached a place of growth where it’s time to start thinking about it.

Speaking from experience though, this can be a hard place to be. After all if we’re honest about it, isn’t it the “whosoever will let him come” approach that got us here, to a great degree? Sure it is, and that’s why so many of us have a hard time letting go of it. But with growth must come change, or growth can’t continue. Growth without change is actually regression. So if we don’t make changes to maintain the standard we’ve worked so hard to attain we are destined to see that progress began to deteriorate.

Honestly though, most of us just don’t want to think about an audition process or anything that looks like one, because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or embarrass anyone. For a short time we held auditions for lead parts-for new leaders who had never lead a song before only- and I can tell you first hand it can be heart-breaking to tell someone no who really wants to do it. But with some thought, advice and planning, most music ministries can implement some kind of program to help maintain a certain standard of excellence and still not feel like they’re constantly turning people away. Which leads us to:

How:

So once you’ve decided it’s definitely time to put something in place it’s time to figure out how it will work. What does the audition or evaluation process consist of? Do you put it in place for every department or just some of them? My good friends Stacy and Ve’Ronica, who both attend large churches where audition processes are already in place, shared some great insight on how they do it.

Stacy explained theirs this way. “It’s usually Amazing Grace that has to be sung for the first round of auditions. If you make it to the second round then you have to do a vocal test…. a key is played on the keyboard and you have to sing back what you hear. Once you make it past that part, then you have to have an interview. They need to get to know you. Being in a choir isn’t singing only, it’s ministry and it’s more than just knowing how to sing or having a love of singing”.

I love this. It’s very simple and it establishes the presence of key attributes people should have if they want to be a part of music ministry. Like a basic level of vocal ability. The new member is asked to sing a simple song, and then they’re tested for the ability to match pitch. In my own evaluation process I might do the pitch test as the first round, and then if they can do that, ask them to sing a simple song. But the interview is something all churches can certainly do. It’s important to try to understand why someone wants to be a member, and that they understand the work and commitment it takes. They should understand that it’s ministry, and that it goes way beyond just singing every Sunday. In fact in the interview process it’s probably a good idea to try to “un-glamorize” being a part of the music ministry as much as possible. New hopefuls need to understand what it really takes behind the scenes to produce what they stand up and clap to on Sunday morning.

Ve’Ronica explained how her church only holds auditions for certain departments or positions, which is another great idea: ” I am in a large church and yes you do have to audition for the praise team, band, and all soloist. But anyone can be in the choir.”

If your choir is large enough that every section has several members, this method makes a lot of sense. It insures key positions like the band, the praise team and lead vocals all have qualified, capable people in them. But it also insures that your ministry can still continue to have some aspect of an open door policy and keep growing. Something as simple as a quick pitch test may be all that’s needed as your audition process to simply be a part of the choir. But if your choir is large enough you may decide you don’t even need that.

I mentioned earlier that a few years back at our church we held auditions for new leaders who had never done lead vocals before but wanted to lead a song. The process taught us a lot. It was a trying experience, honestly. Having been the one charged with making the final decision it was tough when that decision needed to be no. But it was even harder on the person who had to audition. Auditions are hard enough, but when you’re told no it can be pretty heart-breaking. We all hated the feeling it left us with afterward.

So after putting my head together with my minister of music and my choir president we decided to make some changes to the way we approach the process. We decided that rather than say “no” to people who were not quite there yet, we would simply say yes with the condition of personal coaching with me. This way we can allow people are already in the choir to step up and lead songs and still maintain some standard. In fact we stopped even calling it an “audition”. Then we went back and gave coaching to everyone we originally passed on and they all went on to become song leaders. If your’re in a similar position at your church, where you know you need to do something but the thought of holding auditions and saying no to people just doesn’t feel right, this is a valid option to consider.

For joining the choir could do a simple pitch matching test like Stacy’s church. For graduating to leading a song you could require an audition if the person is new to leading songs. Assuming the person was good enough to get past the pitch test and join, almost everyone can be coached to lead a song. So if the person is on pitch but not quite where they need to be for lead vocals you could simply say yes with the condition they take a couple of hours of style coaching with me to work on the song. In this way I can help support your church’s music ministry by helping you keep growing while still maintaining the standard of excellence.

No matter what stage your church’s music ministry is at right now, the quality and standard of excellence in that music ministry is something you have to think about and address if your music ministry is to effectively and positively impact your church’s ministry as a whole. Does your church music ministry have an audition or evaluation process? Please comment below and share it with everyone.

Special thanks to my Facebook Family for their insight on this one. Love you guys!

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11 Responses to Should your choir or praise team hold auditions to join?

  1. D. Leigh says:

    This is an old thread so I don’t know if anyone will read this, but we are in a similar situation. Our music ministry is extremely blessed for a parish our size, in middle America. There is a parish choir, in addition to 3 other ensembles, which are either audition-only or invited in, as mentioned above. The groups were mainly formed by the laity, by cantors wanting to join together to pray together and take the music to a higher level and challenge.

    The main issue in these smaller ensembles is looking for what the group needs … For example – an SATB quartet does not need 7 altos, it needs a person for each part. Or an 8-voice women’s group does not need 7 high sopranos and 1 alto. We need a light soprano, a mezzo soprano, an alto, a tenor, a bass, a soprano who can read the bass cleft, members who can read music, members willing to learn ANY part, members willing to come to rehearsal EVERY week, willing to take music home to learn parts on their own, and a super loud soprano willing to pop down to alto in order to equal out the overall sound of a particular piece. The reason a group may ‘sound so good’ and helps the assembly to pray better, is because all these perimeters are in place.

    Now a new music director was hired barely one month ago who came in and disbanded every established ensemble that’s been in place for years, saying these are elitist groups, then said if they don’t all sing in the parish choir, then there will not be any ensembles at all. It’s heartbreaking & confusing & we struggle to question if this person was sent to carry out God’s mission by dismantling a well-established music ministry, and take it back to the ground zero. No amount of meetings or cajoling or pleading or praying and begging seems to change their mind. Do you have any suggestions or advice?

  2. Lynn says:

    I don’t agree totally with this process. I understand trying to avoid those that would be more of a distraction but for those that can sing but turned down cause they way they sing is not their type. Stupid! You have to be careful because if God has led someone to sing and they can i think they should be able. God gives us our special gifts and we shouldn’t let churches or people in them to determine if we should be able to use Gods gift! This is sure way to turn people away!!

    • Ron Cross says:

      Hi Lynn,

      I definitely agree with you. Nobody should be turning away people who actually can sing because of the WAY they sing or the fact that their particular style of singing isn’t what somoene on the panel likes personally/ But that isn’t what we’re talking about here, nor is it what the article is about. I think it’s clear that what we’re talking about is putting in place some process not to discriminate against people who can in fact sing, but rather identify people who can’t sing at least well enough not to be a distraction.

    • Sandy says:

      I agree it is something I would love to do for god but I do not feel I should be judged on my singing when we are suppose to be singing to god not putting on a show

  3. alyce says:

    Nailed it!

  4. Matt says:

    I have mixed emotions about auditions. Although I would not want to include those who can’t sing at all and potentially ruin the ministry, we need to be careful not to project a worldly “American Idol” kind of atmosphere. For those who do not make the cut but sing well, there should be constructive criticism and a plan to get them from mediocrity to a new level of quality of voice. In the past mid-sized churches I have belonged to use the Sunday night “solo” as way to judge your ability. Then if they like what they see then they approach the member to see if they are interested in joining the praise team or choir. Personally I like this approach and find it to be a much less “secular” approach to the process.

    • Ron Cross says:

      Hey Matt,

      I like the fact that churches you’ve been involved with have found different ways to approach this delicate matter. And while I’d be the first to say it’s something nobody really wants to do, I find it quite a stretch to say the notion of holding auditions is a “secular” approach. David had a choir of 288 voices, and the bible says every one of them were highly skilled. That suggest to me that there had to have been some kind of filtering process. Either that or everyone who lived back then was a highly skilled singer.

      The notion of auditions in the secular arena- at least where AA is concerned, is about finding people talented enough to possibly become a star. In music ministry it’s really about identifying people who belong in music ministry vs. people who would be a better asset to another ministry within the church. But auditions need not be strict or overly difficult to pass, especially for choirs. It’s really about having enough natural ability that your presence won’t cause a distraction or hindrance. A simple ability to match pitch and harmonize with others is all most choirs need of the average member. An evaluation process to determine whether someone has those qualities can be done in a very humane, friendly and Godly way.

  5. ssilverforest says:

    Our church is about to start auditions. I appreciate the confirmation and the tips. For those ppl we are going to have to say “no” to singing in the choir….we are offering other things they can do in the music ministry. On our audition form we have options such as seamstress/tailor, carpentry, choir scheduler/organizer, playwright, etc. And instead of saying joining the choir we are saying joining the music ministry. This is our way of not necessarily saying no. Also thanks for the idea of interviewing to find out the applicant’s reason for joining the music ministry.

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