Video transcript
@The Arts Unit Art Bites – Choral singing tips – 09 Trust your ears

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[Music playing]

IAN JEFFERSON: Have you ever recorded a video audition of your choir and wondered, 'How is this evaluated? And, how does my choir compare to the others auditioning?' Well, today I'll explain the process of how a choir audition video is scored, and also give advice on how you can evaluate your own choir, simply by listening, trusting your ears.

[Music playing]

The score that an auditioning choir receives, while it does play a major role in a choir's acceptance, or otherwise, it is not the only component of an application that's taken into account. But, I think it's fair to say that the audition video carries the most weight.

[Music playing]

When a panel is convened to evaluate choir video auditions, the first few videos are viewed and discussed to calibrate the scoring standard. We might give the very first video a fairly high score of, say, 8 out of 10. The following auditions are evaluated and given scores in relation to that first video, and compared with each other, so that a choir ranking system evolves. You can see the raw scores in red, ascending by half points.

We're able to adjust each of these raw scores by adding an up or down arrow to fine tune the ranking - they're the purple numbers - which ultimately enables the computer to sort the scores. To show you as an example, in 2019, 124 choirs auditioned for the Festival of Choral Music. This graph that I'm showing you now shows that 66 schools, nearly half of those that auditioned, received a score of between 7.4 and 7.9, as depicted on the graph in green.

You can see to the right that 30 schools achieved a score higher than this, in red, with 28 schools falling below, in blue to the left. This scoring remains relative to a particular cohort, whether it be secondary choirs, Stage 3 choirs, or Stage 2 choirs. And, the bell curve will always look the same, regardless of the overall standard. This type of scoring may seem subjective and arbitrary, which it is, so today I will play the audio of some of these auditions, and explain what we listened for, and how a score was decided upon.

[Choir singing]

There is an evaluation criteria list which informs the audition panel on how scores are achieved. It's by no means a comprehensive list. But, it gives focus to the elements to which we listen, including things like pitch, rhythm, blend, and tone, particularly the employment of head voice. Some negative comments may include a lacklustre performance, a tired, breathy sound, strident singing, lost voices, indistinct harmony, scrappy unison, individual voices poking out, vowels very Aussie.

Choirs don't gain a point for every element they address correctly. Instead, every choir starts with a perfect score, 10 out of 10, and then loses points for not addressing elements in the criteria absolutely successfully. No one gets 10 out of 10. There's always room for improvement.

[Choir singing]

Song choice is important. Gone are the days of every choir singing the same set piece. So, deciding to sing a slow, lyrical song, a ballad, allows your choir to show off their skills, displaying things such as phrasing, use of dynamics, and their ability to achieve an energised, gentle sound, which can be tricky. It is the mainstream pop songs, which are often set in keys far too low for treble voices, and often contain syncopations not suited for large ensemble singing.

[Music - 'Lost Boys' - Ruth B]

'There was a time when I was alone, nowhere to go and no place to call home. My only friend was a man in the moon. Even sometimes he would go away, too.'

[Music - 'Lost Boys']

'Then one night as I closed my eyes, I saw a shadow flying high.'

[Music - 'Arlington' - Wailin' Jennys

'Where do you go, little bird.'

The Wailin' Jennys folk song, 'Arlington,' is an atmospheric, esoteric piece of music that was used as an audition song by over 30 choirs for the 2019 Festival of Choral Music. So, we received a good bit of variation in standard. It's a good audition piece because it's reasonably simple, it's in a good key, has a slightly tricky harmony part, and plenty of scope to display controlled energy and some nice phrasing.

Today, I have selected the audio of four auditions of varying standards to share with you. I'm going to keep the choirs you hear anonymous, so don't ask. I'll start in the middle of the pack and play two similar auditions, one of which scored a 7.5, and the other, 7.9.

The first section of the song is in unison and offers a good opportunity to ascertain the quality of blended singing. Here's the 7.5 school.

[Music - 'Arlington']

'Where do you go, little bird when it snows, when it snows?'

And here's the 7.9.

[Music - 'Arlington']

'Turns to sleep, do you know? Do you know?'

The real crunch comes in the middle section, where the choir splits into parts. First, here's 7.5.

[Music - 'Arlington']

'Is it something in the wind, breathes a chill in your heart.'

And, now 7.9.

[Music - 'Arlington']

'Does it whisper start again? Start again.'

You really have to listen closely to determine the slight differences. Often, when I'm listening to these choirs, I like to have my headphones on, so I can really hear what's going on. Now, here's a lower scoring version, a 6. And immediately, you can hear the choristers struggling.

[Music - 'Arlington']

'When the world turns to sleep, do you know? Do you know? Is it something in the wind?'

By contrast, here is a pretty good choir that scored an 8.9.

[Music - 'Arlington']

'Life in your wings. Does it whisper start again? Start again.'

Visually, we might gauge how engaged the students appear, the shape of their mouth, and their ability to stand fairly still and watch the conductor. We don't focus on school uniform issues such as height of socks, the colour of sneakers, or the haphazard distribution of sports uniform versus normal school uniform, although it seems that many teachers fixate on these things. We do prefer the camera remains still and doesn't pan or track through the choir, which can make the panel feel seasick.

The sound on the video, as opposed to the sound of the singing, can be quite varied. Many schools film their audition in a very live, 'reverby' hall, or conversely, in an extremely dead and muffled carpeted room. We fully acknowledge the rehearsal space restrictions placed on many choir conductors, and that audition filming may encounter audio interruptions, such as unexpected announcements over the PA ...

VOICE: Could Ian Jefferson please make his way to the office? Your mother forgot to pack your lunch today.

IAN JEFFERSON: ... school bells ...

[School bell]

... and, deafening playground shrieks.

[Children playing]

Of course, the conductor cannot control all these issues. But an attempt should be made to ensure that, for the recording, the balance between the choir and the accompaniment is right, making sure we can hear the choir foremost. If you're using a backing track, a little trick is to turn the speakers towards the choir, and away from the recording device, so that they can hear the backing without it swamping the singing. Of course, not too loud, or the choir will yell.

[Music playing - A Sea Change - Ian Jefferson ]

[Music - NSW Public Schools Junior Singers]

'No more than a whisper, no more than a sigh, a sense of excitement is filling the sky. A flourish of trumpets, could never compare, to the tangible tension beginning to flare. So let the spinnaker fly, blow, winds, blow. Play the game, and keep the flame alive. A sea change, a sea change, a sea change, a sea change.'

Ultimately, it's best to stop thinking of filming an audition video as a hideous task. My advice is to record your choir, not as an audition, but as an exercise. This can be a way to work out the optimum placement of the camera, to get the best vision and audio balance.

Most importantly, you can listen back to your recording afterwards, without the distraction, and sometimes stress, of conducting. It gives you an opportunity to really analyse the sound that your choir is making. And, you can play this recording back to your choir, and let them hear and see how they come across, often surprised by their own habitual, sometimes irritating, fidgeting.

I get the sense that on many audition videos, teachers are just hoping to get through the piece without it being an absolute train wreck. I can almost hear them thinking, 'If I follow the music, and the choir comes in at the right place, and sings the right words in the right order, and we all finish together, then at least we got through it.' Yes, getting the music technically right, by which I mean singing the sheet music correctly, the notes, rhythms, dynamics, and lyrics, is very important. And, conductors do need to listen to ensure these elements are achieved accurately.

But, that in itself is not quite enough. Really listen to the quality of the sound. Trust your ears.

It may seem that every year fresh, new students arrive, and you have to start from scratch. But, in 'Groundhog Day' ...

PHIL CONNORS: Catch you tomorrow, huh.

NED: Hey. Phil? Phil? Hey, Phil Connors.


Well, slightly inappropriate clip to show, but it's quite funny. As he learns, you will accumulate knowledge, and skills, and develop your little tricks, so that every year you improve, which will, of course, benefit your choir. So, what should you do? Keep singing.

[Music playing]

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