I met with Dr. Don Kendrick in his Sacramento State office on a Thursday afternoon to watch a singer audition for the university choir. Kendrick directs the choral conducting program for graduate music students. He also is the founder and conductor of the Sacramento Choral Society and Orchestra, a 170 piece community musical group that performs around Sacramento and tours across the globe. Kendrick hears more singers than he can count every year, and this summer he will audition dozens to join one of his six choirs, including three at Sacramento State, the SCSO, and the Schola Cantorum at Sacred Heart Church.
Nick Barnhart, a junior piano major in his late 20s who just transferred from Sacramento City College to Sacramento State University, walks into Kendricks office confidently. Barnhart specializes in harpsichord and early music, but he decided to join the university choir to round out his music education.
Kendrick starts the audition with some vocal warm-ups to test Barnhart’s range. Kendrick sits at the piano and leads Barnhart up and down arpeggios with a “vaa” sound around the circle of fifths, changing key signatures every eight beats.
“Good, Nick. Try to sing more connected this time,” Kendrick says. “Not vah-hah-hah, but vaa-aaa-aaa.” Barnhart gracefully floats up and down the register. “Good, really good. I hope you’re a tenor, but let’s try the baritone range too.”
Once they’ve found the upper and lower limits of Barnhart’s range, Kendrick hands him a page of sheet music.
“Let’s try ‘My Country Tis of Thee,’” Kendrick says. “And use your biggest voice.”
Barnhart booms out the first few lines of the song, letting freedom ring with every note. Kendrick gives a quick music theory quiz, an unnecessary formality for the piano major, and Barnhart passes with flying colors.
To complete the audition, Kendrick gives Barnhart a sight reading test to see if he can sing music he’s never heard before.
“Sing each note with ‘lu-lu-lu,” Kendrick instructs. “I don’t care if you make a mistake at all. Make a loud mistake. I hate when people make quiet mistakes. Just look ahead, try to see what’s coming, but don’t stop.”
Barnhart follows along with Kendrick’s piano, making only one or two false steps in the song.
Barnhart has passed the audition, and Kendrick puts him into the Tuesday night university choir.
All he needs is a tuxedo.
After Barnhart leaves, I ask Dr. Kendrick what he listens for in an audition, and how he sorts singers into his six different choirs.
CD: What do you listen for to sort a singer into one choir or another?
DK: I look for a few things. I look for the color in the voice, what kind of sound they have. Is it a rich sound? More of a straight tone? Lots of vibrato? With a smaller choir, I try to match colors as closely as possible. Ultimately, the blend is easier. With a bigger choir, I still look for a clear, very clean sound.
Number two, I look for the size of the voice. How much sound can they produce? This person might have a beautiful voice, but it's very small. How many chairs can I afford to use if I only have six openings in the soprano, tenor or bass section? What is this person's forte compared to another person's forte?
I look for range: how low and high can their voice sing? The ambitus. That's important because sometimes we double down, and the soprano two sings into the alto one if she has access to that range. Same thing if the baritone can sing into the tenor range or vice versa.
[Nick Barnhart] doesn't have a lot in the bottom of his voice, but he's able to access his middle and upper register pretty easily. And he gets into that easier, lighter liggiero sound. He doesn't know that because he doesn't have a lot of experience, but I can see he would be able to, with some help and coaching, be able to float up into that tenor two section because he has more sound up there. And then if it gets too high, he can flip up into that falsetto.
CD: Are there any tradeoffs to singing in falsetto?
DK: For the male voice we call it falsetto, and it's not really their true voice, just a part of their voice. It's the outer fringe areas of the vocal folds vibrating, so they don't engage the whole fold in making the sound. When you sing, we want the larynx to be in a lowered, relaxed position. Without full vibration in your vocal folds, you're not phonating correctly.
I listen for how well the men can access their falsetto, from the chest resonance up to the head voice. Some boys choke on that, but Nick had no problem with it. Everyone has one voice, but you can locate resonance in a number of areas.
CD: You’re Canadian, so why did you have Nick sing ‘My Country Tis of Thee?’
DK: I give them My Country Tis of Thee because it's different singing words than just vocalizing notes. I put it into the key of A flat for Nick to bring him over the top, over the passaggio, from his E flat to F where the break is from a tenor's chest voice to his head voice.
CD: How much does sight reading matter?
DK: I ask them to sight read for me and ask a few theory questions. Theory is important. I love having strong readers in my choirs, but ultimately I do have a lot of folks who couldn't be completely error-free the first time through, but they can get it the second or third time. To me that doesn't matter, as long as they can learn it. They're not going to be sight reading on stage. We have seven to twelve rehearsals before the first performance. I care about if they can learn the piece in an efficient manner.
CD: How often do you hold auditions?
DK: I audition 24-seven. People move into town, leave town. I've had people call me the week they move to Sacramento and they want to audition before they've unpacked their house. They can't find the toaster or the coffee pot, but they want to sing in my choir. Really? I'll be happy to meet you. Let's meet tomorrow!
CD: What’s the hardest kind of singer to find?
DK: I'm always looking for tenors. They are a disappearing voice type among men. If I had the answer to why, I'd make a million dollars. It's just hard to explain, but tenors are disappearing. It must be something in the water. If you ask any choir conductor in any city, any country, tenor is the hardest part of the choir to fill. When my gals leave the choir during pregnancy, I beg them, please promise me you'll have a tenor! Play Pavarotti for them!
CD: Can you tell what part I would sing from my speaking voice?
DK: Most of the time I can. You don't have too much of a neck, no Adam's apple, so you're probably a low tenor or high baritone. Tenors usually don't have any necks or Adam's apples. Like Pavarotti. Physically, yes there are clues, but ultimately you need to hear the vocalizing to tell.
Before I leave, Kendrick gives me my own singing test. We work through the scale arpeggios, “My Country Tis of Thee,” and the sight reading test. It turns out I’m a baritone, which is surprising because I’ve never sung in a choir before. (I confine my singing to the shower and car, seldom in public.)
Kendrick gives me his best sales pitch to join the Sacramento Choral Society and Orchestra.
“Come on, Cody. You have nothing to do on Monday nights. You'll meet 170 new friends. And then maybe you'll find some journalism gigs meeting people in the choir. It's all about connections. You can come to Normandy with us, sing in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris...”
Kendrick gives me a warm smile, and it’s impossible to say no to him. Rehearsals start in August, and they tour next June. I’m definitely considering it, but before I commit, I need some more practice.