How to Tell an Auditioner "No"

It started out with an email and ended in heartbreak.

You know what I’m talking about. A beautiful soul with total confidence wants to join your worship team as a vocalist. The only problem is, they can’t sing.

And it’s not always that they cannot sing. It may be that their vocal tone just isn’t of a pleasing quality. In this case, there was no sense of pitch.

I was really hoping they were amazing so I could smile, affirm them and offer them a spot on our worship team.

But I couldn’t do that. I had to be honest. Right there at the audition.

And this person left mad. In their mind, they were the cat’s pajamas of church vocalists.

If you’re a worship leader, you’ve been in this situation. If you haven’t, expect to in the near future. How do you handle a conversation like this? What is the best way to speak the truth without breaking hearts?

The truth is, you will never avoid offending people, but your kindness and up-front honesty will create the best possible situation.

It’s my opinion that I need to be honest with musicians and singers right away. And I can usually tell if a musician is:

A) Ready to play.

B) Not ready but could improve.

C) Not ready and couldn’t improve.

That’s the goal of an assessment. You probably already know the answer when you first hear them, so there’s no need to “get back to them” or “pray about it” or “let them know” this week. You just need to tell them. But “how” you do that makes all the difference.

Six Tips for Better Auditions

Here’s my best advice. It includes some action steps you should take pre-assessment and also some tips for how to handle the assessment on the spot.

Here we go:

1. Know Your Standards—Before you enter into an assessment, it’s important that you know your standards for joining the worship team. Even better, it’s great if you have this documented before it happens and people can be prepared.

For example, requiring drummers to play a song with a click track would be a great way to do an assessment. Having a lead guitar player prepare a worship song that is popular in your congregation is also helpful. That way, you can listen for their tone, technique and effects knowledge, and see their equipment.

This is helpful so you have some leverage for the difficult conversation and you know where to direct them—how they could improve on their own.

2. Create a Policy for Unique Instruments—What would you say to a young man who is a tuba major at a local university? Or the 13-year-old flute player? Or the man with a harmonica? You will have these conversations, so you need to be prepared with how you respond.

Do you have a place for those kind of instruments? If you do, great. Do the assessment. If you don’t, be honest up front. Don’t promise them an opportunity at a “special service in the future.” We all know that never happens.

3. Find a Quiet Place—If you’re doing an assessment (or having a difficult conversation), find a place where there won’t be a lot of noise, people or distraction. No need for complete hiding, particularly if you’re having a conversation with someone of the opposite sex. Just a quiet, peaceful place where you both can hear each other and be comfortable.

4. Get to Know Them—Before you have them sing or play, get to know them. Make them feel comfortable. Believe it or not, they will be incredibly nervous and self-conscious. The more you can go out of your way to make them feel comfortable, the better. Express genuine interest in their life.

5. Prepare Them for “No”—Before I hear a musician or a singer, I prepare them for a “no” answer. Even if they are amazing and I eventually say “yes,” I don’t want to lead anyone on. Make sure you do this before you hear them. I don’t want to promise people a spot if they aren’t ready.

I tell them that there are very experienced musicians whom we turn away because their style isn’t the best fit. I explain that we have very high standards for musicians and the commitment level is intense.

6. Give Them a Chance to Be Heard—If you’re like me, I can usually tell instantly whether someone will be a good fit or not. But that can really get the assessment off to a rough start if you instantly say, “Sorry, not good enough.” Even though you may know the answer, give them a chance to be heard. Listen intently.

7. Tell Them Why—If they are not good enough to join the team, you need to tell them why. I’ve found it’s important to be honest about it, but in a kind, pastoral way. Never laugh at them, spit in their face and say, “Well that sucked!” Tell them—“You did great, but you’re not quite ready. Here’s what you could work on.”

I’d love to hear about your experience with this. How do you say “no” to musicians who aren’t ready?  

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David is a Worship Pastor at Allison Park Church in Pittsburgh, PA.