Emily Cooper fidgets as she glances around the choir room in Irion Hall. She is auditioning for Late Night Blues, the top vocal jazz ensemble at EC. Although she is sitting down, her movements betray her nervousness — she is swinging her legs and playing with her hands.
Emily is not alone in her nervousness. Each of the approximately 30 students in the room displays varying degrees of anxiety, from the frightened freshman Emily to Tracy Ibeling, the veteran junior who has been through the audition process many times.
The chatter in the room suddenly ceases as Sue Moninger and Gayle Bisesi — the directors of Late Night Blues and Blue, respectively — enter the room. Bisesi adjusts the music stand in the center of the room and accidentally pops the top part off, evoking a ripple of laughter from students in the room.
Approximately 100-300 student go through the audition process every year, whether it be for Philharmonic Orchestra, the Jazz Band, or Concert Choir. Depending upon the ensemble, auditions can be very competitive and demanding. Because of the limited size of the ensembles and the style of the music, the auditions process for the vocal jazz groups is very rigorous. Being in an ensemble one year does not guarantee that you will make the cut the next.
“The initial auditions for Late Night Blues and Blue are held on the Tuesday of the first week of school,” said Bisesi in an interview. “Students sing two pieces of their choice — pop songs, musical theater, jazz — for Sue and myself, and then we have them “scat,” or improvise. Tuesday night, the callback list is published along with the music we have them learn for Late Night’s final auditions on Thursday. The final auditions for Blue are the following week.”
After the room quiets down, Moninger begins to speak.
“The purpose of this callback audition is to see how well each of you can sing in an ensemble. Each one of you has a beautiful solo voice, but what we need for this ensemble is singers who can blend,” she said. “We want to see how well you’ve learned the music you were given three days ago. We want to see if you can feel the pocket and groove of the music and keep the beat. Treat this like a professional audition.”
Moninger has all the students form a circle in the center of the room, and they begin to sing “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” an upbeat, bouncy song. Several of students, including Emily, begin to dance and sway to the beat as they sing.
Moninger has them sing it several times, adjusting volume and tempo until she is satisfied. Then she and Bisesi walk around the circle as the students sing, listening carefully to the qualities of each voice.
Next Moninger selects four or five students from each part — soprano, alto, tenor, and bass — and has this group sing the piece alone. They stop, she switches out a few singers, and the new group sings the song. As this is happening, Moninger is listening for blend.
“The group really picks itself,” said Moninger when interviewed. “When their voices are blending, I can see it in the singers’ faces that they know something has clicked. Jazz is one of the hardest styles to sing, especially a capella. With just your voice, you represent a whole ensemble from the flutes, to the bass, to the trumpets. ”
Moninger has the students sing “Spain,” a ballade, and then “A Time for Love,” a slow, very melodic piece, so she and Bisesi can hear how the students sound singing different styles of jazz. For each new song, she has the group sing all together and then selects individuals to sing in small groups, just as she did for the first song.
Finally, Moninger has the students return to their seats while she and Bisesi talk quietly for a few minutes.
Emily collapses wearily in her chair. She’s still smiling, but it’s a tired smile.
“That was so hard!” she says. Then she sits up straight as Moninger begins to speak.
“I will post the final list for Late Night Blues on the board before I leave today,” she says. “Callbacks for Blue are on Thursday.”
When she hears this, Emily groans. “I’m gonna vomit.” Moninger concludes, “Thank you all for coming today.... Gayle and I have had a wonderful time listening to each and every one of you sing.... Auditions are always nerve wracking because it’s like you’re under a microscope, but I hope you learned something from this experience.”
The students file out of the room and disperse while Moninger and Bisesi head into Moninger’s office. About 15 minutes later, they post the final list for Late Night Blues on the bulletin board outside the choir room.
Word gets around that the list has been posted. One by one, the students trickle back to the choir room to look for their names. Some leave elated, while others turn quietly away.
Emily runs up the stairs to look at the list. She is still smiling, but you can tell she is disappointed when she fails to see her name. She sees the name of someone she knows, comments on how excited they will be, and then leaves.
“I don’t have any experience singing jazz,” she said later. “I just tried out because I wanted a chance to experience all the different ensembles [Elmhurst College] has.”
Even though she did not make either vocal jazz groups, Emily’s schedule will be crowded with rehearsals, as she is a part of Concert Choir, Chamber Singers, Women’s Chorus, and a jazz combo in which she plays trumpet.
Emily shared her advice for students considering auditioning next year.
“Just relax because it’s a lot easier than you think it’s going to be,” she said. “If you don’t make it, don’t be too hard on yourself because there are always opportunities to be involved in music.”