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In the first of a series of articles, Sub-Organist of Manchester Cathedral Jeffrey Makinson offers practical advice in the setting up of a school choir. Here he looks at how to audition children and, importantly, how to spot potential.

Choir training always seems to be something that musicians baulk at, generally because they have little experience of singing themselves. In schools, problems are often compounded, especially when dealing with adolescents, since street credibility and the lure of computer games, sports and television generally puts paid to many extra-curricular musical activities. But starting a choir is not that difficult to do, as long as you are consistent in your approach and make sure that you know what you are listening for at the outset.

Stage 1:

The First Audition: The initial background has been set: you have made an announcement in assembly that you will be starting a choir and that anyone interested should contact you as soon as possible. With a string of potential singers, it is up to you to sort out the wheat from the chaff…

There are two possible approaches to take in auditions. You have to bear in mind that many children would be somewhat hesitant to sing alone and would prefer to be auditioned alongside a friend, or in a larger group of children. So it is perhaps best to start by having all your potential choristers in a large group; position them in a circle if you can, and teach them some basics of posture: both feet should be placed firmly on the floor, their heads should be up and shoulders back. This frees the diaphragm and allows them to breathe more naturally and also helps them immediately to project the sound they make.

Teach them a three-part round such as:

firstly making sure they can say the words as a choir, being clear in their diction. As far as the melody is concerned, teach them the final part first, then work backwards until they have got to the first line – that way, they will know the end as well as the beginning, a practice that you might wish to adopt with every piece you sing.

It is best to make sure that, when they do sing it as a round, each of the three groups has a smattering of stronger singers in it: if it seems unbalanced, do a bit of swapping and changing around until you are happy with the overall distribution.

Sing it as a continual round – don't allow them to stop, because you are going to walk around your group checking who can do what. Always ask the following questions of yourself:

1. How loud is s/he?
2. What sort of vocal quality does s/he have?
3. How much is s/he relying on others for help?

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