The Art of Song Selection 2: Mechanics and Logistics

Not as easy as A and B

Not as easy as A and B

While it’s well and good to know what your group is about, who your target audience is, where you want to take the group, and if your 2nd soprano is single, that doesn’t actually pick your songs. This article is geared towards the practicality of picking songs, and several methods with their pros and cons. Naturally, you can adapt these archetypes to suit the ensemble; you’re the one making the sauce.

  • Doo-Wop Communists:

This method is great for groups that want everyone to have a solo, but has the downside that your stellar soloists will have the same number of songs as your weakest singer. Keep that in mind when figuring out your group’s niche: either everyone gets some spotlight, or you make better use of your home-run soloists. It’s a question of style, McGee.

There is a hierarchy as to whose turn it is for solos: since college groups have regular turnover, it can get as complicated as an attack in Diplomacy.

Always a blast, unless you dont like to lose your friends.

Always a blast, unless you don't like to lose your friends.

Generally, the people who are graduating and the people who have had a solo for a while (or none at all) have priority, then you just go down the list of who has had their current solo the longest. For groups without much of a turnover, the person who has had their solo for the longest gets first dibs.

What I’ve found to work is that everyone in the group puts in a couple suggestions for the chosen soloist, and the soloist-to-be puts in three or four of their own. Then, in true communist fashion, you whittle down the über list to about five tunes that would work for the soloist and for the overall group repertoire. What’s cool about this is that a song that doesn’t make the first cut for one soloist could be a big winner for another. Perks.

The soloist takes these five tunes, prepares them, and auditions them for the group. The group then picks what the soloist sounded best on and would fit into what the soloist would want to sing. Then the tune is arranged, transposed for the soloist, and BAM!

  • Darwinian Selection:

This method works for groups that have ambitious and talented soloists, but the weaker singers may miss out on more opportunities. Never fear, though: songs may be suggested that cater to a particular singer and tip the scales in their favor.

The group comes together and picks the song first, either through what the group wants to sing, what the repertoire needs, or if it’s that juicy too-good-to-wait-for-next-year tune. Whatever process is used, a song is chosen first.

Once the song has been chosen, the playing field is open for whoever in the group wants to nab the solo. Those who don’t opt to audition are the judges, and are of course a fair and unbiased jury. The judging may take into account the number of solos a particular singer already has, but that’s softballing the real intent of this method: getting your better singers singing more solos. It is true, though, that a set made up of only one soloist is pretty lame, so lobbing a solo to a weaker singer could be argued during these deliberations.

  • The All-Star Homogeneous Team

If you have a group of equally talented singers but want to preserve the spirit of competition (which will drive your singers to work harder, or go crazy), this method might work for you. It’s best for single-sex groups, because what it involves is arranging the song first, teaching it to the group, then auditioning soloists. The groove that can make great solos can only be truly felt when it’s working with the actual arrangement. I recommend this for single-sex groups because it will level the playing field somewhat…male basses won’t get a good shot at a songs originally sung by Mariah Carey.

Try to get a baritone to make whistle tones.

Try to get a baritone to make whistle tones.

It’s ballsy to arrange something without knowing if the solo will fit, so when doing the actual arrangement, make it generic enough that someone could drop off their assigned part and sing the solo. If the entire arrangement is demolished because your only soprano sounds the best as the soloist…well, more work for you. Make sure your singers can transpose parts on the fly, as well, in case a soloist hopeful would sound better in a different key.

A perk to this method is that you could record the group singing with the soloist, then look at the group+soloist as a whole (actually, that’s probably the best course of action: a person singing a part can’t fully evaluate a soloist). This holistic way of evaluating a soloist can show important nuances that can tip the scales in one person’s favor. Perhaps one soloist looks painfully awkward even if they sound great. Perhaps one soloist is better at giving heft to the altos rather than at the solo. These considerations are only accessible if the group is singing with the soloist-to-be.

  • Hobbesian State of Nature Solo Selection

Make everyone audition the solo. This method seems like it can be a waste of time, but it will encourage singers that are shy about soloing to stand up in the spotlight. If you have a newer group that hasn’t jelled yet, dominant personalities will be the ones standing up and asking for a solo. Not quite anarchy, but certainly not the best method for picking songs. By creating a collaborative atmosphere that everyone has to engage in, you can build confidence and camraderie between the singers.

Save yourself the time, and don’t arrange+teach the song to the ensemble first. If it’s too intimidating to put your singers up in front of the group and just belt out “I’m Every Woman,” you can arrange the song and extract an audio/MIDI version to support the soloist. A plus for that is that transposition is easy, for both Finale and Sibelius.

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