HomeBlogsbspaldin's blogGuest Blog: Matt Woodward on Auditions

Guest blog by Matt Woodward

Recently, I was asked by a number of my local colleagues how I run auditions for PFC. As I explained our process, I wondered if I am doing something dramatically different from other folks in our genre or if I am unknowingly treading through old waters. To that end, I picked the brains of four of the best high school directors out there: Lisa Forkish, Dennis Gephardt, Brody McDonald, and Ben Spalding. These auditions are the first step in keeping the high standards that these groups have established over the past few years. With an incredible amount of attention to professionalism, talent, and compatibility, you can see why they are the best in the world at what they do.

Lisa Forkish – Vocal Rush – Oakland School for the Arts, Oakland, CA

Vocal Rush auditions are two parts, an initial round and then a callback. For the first part of the audition, students come prepared with two contrasting songs from a contemporary genre (pop, rock, soul, R&B etc). They will have to do sight-reading, pitch recognition (aural check), and a brief interview. They also submit an application that includes a detailed questionnaire and a letter of intent stating why they want to be in Vocal Rush. If a student excels in all areas above, or at least most areas and show promises in whatever areas are lacking, they receive a callback. I send out a 1-2 minute excerpt from a 5-6 part arrangement with accompanying "part mp3"s and they have a week to learn their part. The callback audition is essentially a mock rehearsal; I give musical direction, work certain sections, add dynamics, nuance, etc. and at the end of about a 30-minute rehearsal, they sing the song in septets or sextets (one on a part). They are graded on accuracy of notes and rhythms of course, but also stage intonation, vocal presence and projection, how they responded to/retained the musical directions I gave, how well they self-direct in their small ensemble, STAGE PERFORMANCE, whether or not they are engaged in the music and lyrics... etc! I will take no fewer than 8 singers, and no more than 14. Vocal Rush was 10 when we started in March, then grew to 12 when we did fall auditions (ALL MEMBERS HAVE TO RE-AUDITION EVERY YEAR TOO!). With it being HS group, the students sign a contract agreeing to learn all their music outside of class. I also have academic requirements of them, that they must be attending all their classes, receiving a 2.0 GPA or higher (moving to 3.0 or higher standard next year -- raising the bar!!!), and that they are general respectful of their teachers and peers. Students are put on probation if they fail to meet any of the requirements outlined above. The one thing I'm adding this fall is a mandatory parent meeting and parent contract.

Dennis Gephardt – Limited Edition – Port Washington HS, Port Washington, WI

I am in a school of about 840 students with 180 in choir.  I am the only choir teacher, so I see and hear them every day.  I know who is involved in what and who is motivated, a team player and "wants it more than the other kids" I simply have a take home madrigal they sing with other pre recorded parts.  Then I give them a sight reading test on a middle and high difficulty level vocal jazz chart.  I make them sing some vocal patterns as well.  I test their voice range 2 times a year so I already have a good idea of where they would fit in and their personal vocal color. Lastly I sit down with them and just talk to them.  First we talk about what they are doing and then lead into how this would fit into their goals.  We discuss what their strengths and weaknesses are.  In all it takes about 15 minutes a kid. When they ask when the auditions are I tell them it started on the first day of school.  I feel if I am doing my job, I already know what combination of students I want.  The audition is merely a formality to verify what I already know. Lastly I pick the group that has the best attitude and works well together before I pick for talent.  As you probably have had, a group that doesn't work well together can't make that up with talent.

Brody McDonald – Eleventh Hour & Fusion – Kettering-Fairmont HS, Kettering, OH

We have two rounds. There is an initial audition in which every student sings a solo piece a cappella (think American Idol "Golden Ticket" format) and also sings their part to an SATB song in a quartet. After that, we make a cut. Callbacks (round 2) entail each student to sing a clip from a current Eleventh Hour or Fusion song on microphone with the current group to see how they "hang." We have a separate audition for VP built into each round, but VPs are required to also sing. Basses just audition on the bass part. This is the first year that I had some altos and tenors listed at callbacks to audition for the bass part on an octave pedal. While I ended up with a great bass for Eleventh Hour and didn't need to use a pedal-person, the results were fascinating. We also require completion of an audition packet and a letter of recommendation. All members of Eleventh Hour and Fusion must be in a MUSIC class - band, orchestra, or choir. If the auditionee is NOT in such a class, they have to join choir to join the a cappella group. We do have "target" numbers - 8 for Eleventh Hour and 16 for Fusion - but we do sometimes deviate from those numbers based on the ability "grouping." I have had anywhere from 7 to 11 in EH, and Fusion this year is 18. The most important thing is having an approximate number of students who all function on the same level.

Ben Spalding – Forte – Centerville HS, Centerville, OH


There are three steps to my audition process. For the first step, I basically judge them throughout the year with singing quizzes, etc. The actual audition process has two steps.  I hold two days of auditions for round one to audition for Forte.  In this round, each student needs to sing around 30 seconds to a minute a cappella.  They need to select the song and I advise them to pick whatever song shows off their voice the best.  After the round one auditions, I post a call back list.  Usually round one is on a Monday and a Tuesday and then call backs take place on Friday.  Those that make callbacks get sheet music for an a cappella song that they need to learn.  On Wednesday I will have a rehearsal for anyone that made callbacks and I will teach the song and help out as much as possible. I also post links to learning tracks for their part online.  For round 2 on Friday, I bring in a panel of judges.  It's usually myself and two other people. I have each person called back re-sing their solo for the judges.  After that I bring in everyone and we sing through the a cappella song that they’ve learned.  From there, I hear anywhere from 1 person at a time on their part to 16ish.  The goal for my group is for the numbers to be around 16 to 18. I just continue to swap people out and hear the song over and over again until I know what I need.  Sometimes I may have the entire group sing but just have one bass sing at a time.  I can do that for each voice part to see who really holds down parts without help from others.

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