One of the oldest and most unique aspects of Oxford University is the large number of chapels and the plethora of student choirs who sing them. Every choir is different – from ones featuring boy choristers and men to ones made up of mixed gender undergraduates, and those who sing everyday to those who sing once a week. Choral Evensong is a musical highlight of British Anglican chapels and, even if you don’t choose to sing at university, I recommend you go and listen to your peers perform at least once!
Most chapel choirs are made up students who hold choral scholarships at the college. As much as the experience and opportunity is wonderful in itself, there are other perks of being a choral scholar, including singing tuition, a small stipend, tours, free formals and the chance to wear a scholar’s gown as soon as you begin at Oxford (a very exciting prospect at Matriculation when everyone else is wearing the standard commoner’s gown). Yet, as grand and niche it seems, the scholars come from a wide range of backgrounds – some have sung in prestigious cathedrals and some have only taken up singing at university. Even if you haven’t had a lot of experience before, you can by all means take up and flourish, singing in the chapel choirs (scholarship or not). There is no ‘type’ of person in a choir – you don’t have to be religious, can read a range of subjects, and come from any background!
As an organ scholar at my college, Worcester, I have assisted and accompanied applicants for choral scholarship auditions for two years running, so know a thing or two about the process of applying and what makes strong candidates. It’s worth a try – it won’t impact your academic application, and you can learn a lot by coming to Oxford for the auditions, even if you don’t become a choral scholar.
Given the difference in commitment and expected experience on arrival into a choir, it is important to consider this when applying to different colleges. If you want to study medicine and also row, then perhaps singing at Magdalen College, which has daily services, is not as feasible. My college, for example, has two choirs, featuring the same altos, tenors and basses (ATB), but one choir has boys on the top line, and the other has female sopranos. Each choir sings for two services a week (so ATB sing for four services a week). This is quite a big commitment for those keenly singing in both choirs, but for the sopranos, singing for two high level services per week allows a lighter commitment. It is definitely best to explore this first when you choose your college options. Some colleges (New, Christ Church, and Magdalen) also do not accept female choral scholars (even in 2018…) so female altos should look to sing at one of the many other brilliant colleges.
Once you’ve decided which colleges you are interested in, you apply to audition by simply filling in the fairly cursory form, that can be found online, and provide references from people who can discuss your singing experience and ability. Make sure these are people who know you well rather than somebody who you think is a prestigious name in the business – we want to know how you’ve developed and how much effort you put into your music, and the most important part is your audition anyway!
When you come to audition in September, you’ll need to bring a song (or possibly two). As an organ scholar, I accompany the first choice choral applicants to my college (which means lots of learning accompaniments quickly!). The audition with your first choice college is short, but you may possibly be asked to sing for other directors of music too.
You are far better off singing a piece that can you feel comfortable with singing well rather than a very difficult piece. Directors of music are ultimately listening to your vocal quality and your potential for progressing in the scholarship. I have heard applicants offered places singing everything from Purcell to contemporary song! My college has a very strong mixed choir and many of the members had only sung in school choirs prior to starting university - you are not expected to be a professional singer, but have the volition and ear to dedicate to developing you skills at sight singing and choral work.
As for sight singing tests, I know this is something that people can feel very nervous about – everyone feels nervous, and the directors of music auditioning you are aware of this too. Each Director of Music has a different way of approaching it – but many will not throw you in the deep end with a complicated atonal work, but instead perhaps some sort of Tudor anthem (they may even accompany you with the other vocal parts) to see your level at reading more standard intervals and patterns. The best thing you can do is give it your best go and keep going, trying to keep going even if you feel you have made a mistake. They are not trying to catch you out but see how well you can cope and have a go at a challenge, even if you haven’t had much experience previously.
Most importantly, while you’re in Oxford you will interact with the organ scholars and directors of music outside of your audition, as well as other college staff. Ultimately, we all want to have good singers but we also want people who we can enjoy performing with and also spending social time with. Being polite to college staff and friendly with other applicants is a fab way to present yourself and get the most out of the audition experience, even if you don’t eventually end up with a scholarship.
Even if you have received your choral scholarship offer, you still have to make it through interviews and get an academic place in order to take up the scholarship. And if you’re beginning your studies at Oxford this Autumn and missed the choral scholarship auditions, don’t fret; it is entirely possible to audition for a scholarship during freshers week at chapel choirs with vacancies or even sing for a non-auditioning chapel choir.