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    Auditioning for the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus

    By Dr. Tim Seelig–

    Over the three plus decades that I have been conducting LGBTQ choruses, I have had many people ask, “How do you get in SFGMC or any gay choir?” Some really do want to know. Others are just curious, and figure that it’s impossible. They only sing in the shower—no choir there. They think that they can’t carry a note in a bucket. They probably can.

    “Not everyone can sing,” they say. (I need to know who keeps saying that!) They were probably told that somewhere along the way and it has become their reality. Maybe someone at the office heard them sing “Happy Birthday,” and, when they did not hit one single note, mentioned that, and the criticism stuck ever since.

    They should be able to sing “Happy Birthday.” The “Star Spangled Banner,” conversely, is not for the beginner or the weak of heart. It’s fine in the recorded version that they play at the Olympics. But many a singer had fallen apart singing it as a solo. Careers have been crushed on YouTube with singers wandering around the melody and messing up the words.

    Chorus Auditions from One Extreme to Another

    The audition process is different for every LGBTQ chorus. There are those that do not audition at all. Show up, pay your dues, and you are a member. They assume that someone can teach them to sing and sing together. Those are the “I’d like to teach the world to sing” choruses. They absolutely make a joyful noise and have fun.

    At the other end of the spectrum, there are choruses that put the singers through the ringer. They sight-read—sing a song they’ve never seen before, do ear training exercises, and may even be required to sing in a foreign language. They then make them wait for the results while they ponder the worthiness of the singer. They might even put them on a waiting list, or even a “training” choir.

    Most GALA (Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses) fall in the middle—as does SFGMC. We start at the top, not the bottom, with our auditions. In the clouds, not the weeds.

    SFGMC’s Twins: Music and Mission

    At its very core, SFGMC has twins: Music and Mission. They are equal. We feed each of them every day. If we stop feeding one or the other, the whole thing goes off kilter. So, we are looking for members who are coming to us for both of those things. If they audition not really caring about one or the other, they will drop out. If they come looking for anything else, like looking for a husband, they will be very disappointed. Obviously, the two chorus types I mentioned above are focused on one, not both. For us, “You can’t have one without the other.”

    Being very clear about our twins sets our audition process apart from any that I know. It also makes our auditions one of the most labor-intensive processes that goes on behind the scenes in the entire organization. Whom we welcome to the family changes the chorus. We are also very clear on the kind of change it has in each person who auditions.

    It begins with the announcement of auditions in June. They are not publicized widely. Word of mouth is our best friend, although we have been known to recruit singers at Martuni’s or the Lookout Karaoke. Our two New Member Co-Chairs, Raymond Gonzales and Dan England, begin immediately communicating with those who sign up. They follow them through to the first rehearsal where each one is greeted with welcome hugs and name tags, and is assigned a “rehearsal buddy” for the first two rehearsals—which are overwhelming beyond imagination!

    Many are gone before this. Being in SFGMC is serious business. During the first two meetings, they are told how hard it all can be: lots of rehearsals, lots of performances, and lots of money. What?! Yes, singers pay dues, pay for their own wardrobe, and travel and touring. That includes a twice a year 2 ½ day musical retreat. But don’t freak out! We have a fund, called Ryan’s Fund, which provides up to 100% of that based on need. Ryan was our beloved staff member and singer who tragically died on stage at a concert. We have a group of singers, the Divas, whose only job is to make sure that fund has enough money to do its work.

    Interview + Audition

    Unlike most other GALA choruses, we have two parts to the audition: Interview and Audition. There is no evening gown portion. Sitting through two rehearsals before auditions works wonders. At least 25 percent of those who signed up drop out before auditions. “OMG, it’s hard!” “You want me to memorize the music? OMG!” “I’m not guaranteed a solo in every concert? OMG. Have you heard me sing?” Those people never last long.

    Auditions this year were much different than in years before. Prior to this year, potential new members might have to go to three different locations for various pieces of the puzzle. This year, they came to our “home.” Owning 170 Valencia is amazing on so many levels. It allows us to welcome them in the same place for all gatherings.

    When the audition day arrives, there are then two consecutive evenings of 3 ½ hours for our volunteers and staff. This year, we had 95 sign up to audition. That whittled down to 80 by auditions, 40 per evening. By then, we have a file on each one. The auditionees arrive to a room of 10–12 singers who divide up. We visit with them about who they are and what brought them to audition. It is basically allowing them time to tell their story, get comfortable, breathe.

    There are questions about their thoughts concerning SFGMC being one of the leaders in the musical revolution. Each one of them then moves to visit with Dan and Raymond to refine some of those details. Then, they are led to what some people consider the slaughter. That is a huge joke, because it is one of the most welcoming places possible. There are 12 to 14 people seated at a long table in front of them, scoring them, as they sing! These are musical section leaders, artistic staff. It is fair to say that every one of the auditionees is scared stuff-less.

    They give their music to the accompanist. They are to sing a solo, memorized. They actually sing only 16 to 32 measures of their song. Members of the audition committee ask a few questions. Everyone gets “Why SFGMC? Why now?” We ask about their life and ability to commit. At the end of that short exchange, I test their range and their ear—unless they knock it out of the park on their solo, which 80 percent did this year. Every single year, the bar has raised.

    The test takes a total of 4 minutes. Even in that short time, many of them bring tears to our eyes with the sincerity of why they are presenting themselves for membership. It’s a wow!

    They are discouraged to do so, but are allowed to sing with something other than the piano as accompaniment. They can bring a karaoke track, if they wish. One year, we had an auditionee bring his guitar. We worried. He sat down and began to play. OMG. Then he sang a love song in Spanish, and everyone fell out of their chairs. It was one of the most beautiful moments in history.

    We also had another singer who brought in what he thought was meant by an accompaniment recording, back up track, karaoke. He brought in a full-on recording of Whitney Houston! He didn’t blink. He sang along with her. We heard almost nothing of his voice, but he had her moves down. He also swapped octaves, sometimes in her range, sometimes in someone else’s. Everyone fell out of their chairs again! Everyone on the panel applauds for every person.

    Care Given to Every Singer

    Then comes the real thing that sets us apart: both groups—those from our team in Interview and Audition—gather together to go over the “scores” for each auditionee’s interview and audition portions. We begin from the top, scoring singers and working our way down. Interviewers alert us to any red flags or concerns. As we move down the score list, we go a little deeper into each person’s profile. There is such compassion and empathy in that room. It is truly something to behold.

    Doing this takes various groups of people until 2 am to complete. It is not fair to make people wait to find out the results, so everyone is notified by noon following the final (second) night of the auditions.

      The care given to every singer is unbelievable. Even those who do not make the chorus leave feeling 100 percent supported. Last Thursday night, we had a guest from a local GALA Chorus observing us. He was totally blown away. He said, “We might get 8 or 9 people to audition and we don’t take nearly the care with them as you all do with 80.”

    Relationships That Can Last a Lifetime

    SFGMC singers come from towns and cities all over the world seeking a sanctuary. Many come here to come out. Many come because they sang in church choirs or school choirs and were not out. It is very emotional for the two to come together: love for singing and being out.

    We have, and embrace, immigrant singers. Our current age range is from 19 to 84. There are members from every continent, except Antarctica.

    Each new singer is assigned a Big Brother. Great care in taken to match the singers up by profession, birth origin, interest, etc. Many of these relationships last forever. Dan and Raymond, who are amazing and passionate about all parts of the process, support the new members every step along the way before passing them off to their Big Brothers some 4 months after each new member’s first contact.

    So, how do you get into SFGMC? First, be a great guy. We spend a lot of time together. It’s important. After that, be willing to work really hard to maintain our level of excellence. Love to sing with all of your heart and have a deep desire to change the world. And sing and speak in front of groups of people.

    Polls say that the thing people dread the most is Pubic Speaking. That’s because Public Singing is not on the list! It is most definitely the thing that most would dread doing. For those who take the leap, the rewards far outweigh the fear of singing for 12 people you may never see again. Or, may see the following Monday?

    We are so incredibly blessed. We began this season with 314 singers. We had room for 250, but every new member earned a spot. We love every one of them.

    Have you ever thought about auditioning for SFGMC? You have 11 months to practice and to take some voice lessons. The next audition will be August of 2020. See you then!

    Oh, wait. We have many opportunities for you to catch a live concert. Or to attend a Monday night rehearsal any week between 7 pm–10 pm. They are open to guests.

    Dr. Tim Seelig is the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.