Drawing Solo Voices from Within the Chorus

Looking for a soloist for your next performance? Try giving your chorus members a chance to shine in solo roles.

As a choral singer in Seattle in the 1990s, Dennis Lee listened to professional soloists at the front of the stage and thought, “I could do that.” Today, as artistic director of Una Vocis and the North Iowa Oratorio Choir, Lee makes it a practice to tap chorus members for key solo parts. “I try to put myself in the shoes of people who stand on risers, who would like to be given a chance,” he says.

By reason of limited budgets, the type of repertoire they perform, or a philosophy similar to Lee’s, many community choruses give their members a chance to shine in solo roles. “We are not performing major symphonic works, so I am not looking for trained classical singers,” says Mimi Bornstein, artistic director of the Midcoast Community Chorus in Rockport, Maine. The group performs primarily world, community, and contemporary music which provides numerous small solo opportunities for what Bornstein calls the “common” voice. “Our mission is a little different,” she says. “Our belief is that all voices should be heard.”

The Chester County Choral Society in Pennsylvania, a symphonic chorus with a tight annual budget of about $50,000, drew soloists from within the group for its performance of Carmina Burana in 2014. “I was amazed,” says artistic director Gary Garletts. “For the ‘Dulcissime’ aria, I couldn’t have hired a soprano for any amount of money who would have done it better.”

Gretchen Kuhrmann, artistic director of Choralis in the Washington DC area, recently gave her paid section leaders major solos in a program of Bach cantatas. “A plus is that I have access to them to work with them so we can be on the same page musically,” she says. “It worked out very well for everyone.

It’s sometimes a surprise to learn which singers will rise to the occasion. Lee had a particular soprano in mind for the mouse solo in Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, but another singer who auditioned “played up that solo like I couldn’t believe. It turned out to be the highlight of that concert.”

Navigating the Challenges

For all the positives, conductors say there are challenges in using soloists from within the chorus. For one thing, having singers compete for solo parts can work against the community nature of the chorus and possibly the relationship between the conductor and singers. Garletts says selecting soloists from among his choristers is the most difficult part of his job. To help ease the process, he asks a singer colleague to judge solo auditions with him. “Having a third party be part of the audition process calms everybody down,” he says. “It eases my mind. I don’t hear, ‘Oh, Gary’s playing favorites,’ anymore.”

When working with nonprofessional singers, Bornstein encourages conductors to provide lots of preparation time and encouragement. In-house soloists may need instruction on how to manage their voices, the demands of the piece, their nerves—or all three. Kuhrmann uses chorus members for small solos in Choralis’s Christmas concerts, and invariably some get “a huge case of nerves,” she says. “But the only way you’ll know how they will respond is to give them a chance and see how it goes.”

Pacing is a key concern for an in-chorus soloist singing a longer piece, Garletts says. “If you hire a professional soloist, they are sitting there during the choruses. That is not the case with solo volunteers. They are needed with the choir.” Simple reminders can help soloists navigate their dual roles: being well hydrated, refraining from overtalking the morning of the performance, hanging back in the five minutes before their solo, and taking particular care if their solo parts are near the end of a program.

Lee uses a vocal coach who sings with his chorus to help soloists learn the piece and get the best sound. He also often has a back-up singer from the group learn the solo part, so she or he can step in if a chosen soloist has an emergency and is not able to sing.

Life-Changing Moments

Giving nonprofessional singers a chance to shine can have an impact far beyond the concert stage, several conductors say. Bornstein recalls one woman in her choir who was given an eight-bar solo. She was terrified, but she came through it beautifully. Six months later, she told Bornstein that being in the chorus had helped her get sober and stay sober.

“My belief is that when we sing we change who we are at the cellular level,” Bornstein says. “And when we change who we are, we change who we are in the world. That woman was no longer the same after singing that song. That’s why I gave her the solo.”

For more on choosing soloists, see the following Chorus America articles:

The Magic of the Right Match

Tips for Selecting Soloists for Your Chorus