Christmas Musical Tryouts: Terrific or Terrible?

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Should you hold tryouts for your kids’ Christmas
production?

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The Trouble With Tryouts
by Rick Chromey

Competition is a fact of life, but should there be losers in the
church? And should children be purposely targeted so they fail?

First, let me say that I’m not against standards or
qualifications. And I understand contests where “the better person”
wins. Often it’s necessary — and reasonable — to give the most
qualified and gifted person the part, the job, or the honor.
Sometimes we must test a child or an adult to evaluate his or her
level of competence.

I just wonder if there’s a better way.

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Here Comes The Judge

“There are no losers here,” one children’s worker instructed her
children as they commenced another musical tryout. But there were
losers. Lots of them. Every child who tried out and failed to land
the part technically “lost.” They lost their courage to take risks.
They lost self-confidence. They lost face in front of peers.
Unfortunately, many children leave tryouts damaged, defeated,
discouraged, and disillusioned.

Tryouts may damage mostly older children who are becoming
socially aware and subject to peer comparisons. Younger children,
less focused on peer evaluations, are more self-confident and
willing to tackle creative risks. You may even notice more younger
than older children at a tryout. Why? Because the older ones have
discovered that it’s better to avoid competition than to be
embarrassed.

“But we’ve always been effective with our tryouts,” one
respected children’s minister told me. “Many of our children are
quite successful performers as teenagers and adults.”

And he was right. However, what about the dozens (perhaps
hundreds) of children who weren’t winners? Those unfortunate kids
who never sang a solo, said a line, or played third base? Where are
they now? Would they try out for an adult choir? Probably not.
Would they play competitive softball? Not a chance. Would they risk
acting in community theater? Nope.

Children learn what they live and grow into the shoes shaped for
them by parents, teachers, and other significant adults. If those
shoes are pierced by negative experiences, poked with pessimism,
and cracked with criticism, children will eventually walk with a
limp. Tryouts and unnecessary competitions to distinguish “better”
from “best” only create negative experiences for the losers (who
really aren’t losers). In the end, tryouts leach optimism, limit
enthusiasm, and choke self-confidence in a child.

Choosing Sides

Adults view tryouts as opportunities to evaluate talent; kids
view them as contests to influence peers, gain respect, and enhance
self-image. That’s why children sometimes cry after tryouts or
consider themselves losers. It’s not so much about performing as it
is about the need to belong, have purpose, be accepted, and feel
valued.

Ever see children choose teams for schoolyard kickball? The two
best players (pegged by their peers) pick their teams. The better
players are snagged first while the lesser talent wait in the wings
for the finger of placement. Every kid knows there’s a picking
order. Different games mean different selections. This elementary
method of selection seems cruel. Yet even the worst players still
get to play. Even if picked dead last, every child participates.
This is quite a contrast to the high-pressure, pick-or-lose tryouts
run by adults and common to churches, schools, and community
programs.

In a tryout, not everyone makes the team. Not every child lands
a speaking part or sings a solo. The hidden message is that adults
are more concerned with success than self-image, the performance
over the person, and winning rather than learning. Everyone knows
children who never miss a practice and work hard to improve their
skills but rarely play in games, while star players can skip those
same practices and start every contest.

Kids are wise to such situations. They learn the hidden myths
(from adults) that talent is more important than hard work. And
yet, most adults know life’s success is due more to diligent effort
than talent. Even overnight successes are years in the making. Life
is filled with talented nobodies.

A Few Solutions

So is there a solution to the dilemma of tryouts? I think
so.

  • Do away with tryouts. First of all, it’s important to ask
    whether a tryout is necessary. What may seem cute and important to
    adults is a battle for children. Most musicals and dramas could be
    performed without a single tryout. A sign-up sheet for parts or
    positions is a better choice. Lead roles and solos can be divided
    among competent children. Some tasks can be creatively multiplied
    for more participation. It’s better to have 24 dancers with three
    troupes of eight than eight select dancers perform three dances.
    Sure, it’s more work. But, ultimately, isn’t the effort worth the
    payoff for kids?
  • Make the goal learning, not winning. I remember when I played
    baseball as a kid. I once played for an undefeated team
    (fortunately stacked with good athletes). Each week our boasts grew
    louder and our play more selfish. Our coach even encouraged our
    braggadocio. He played only the best athletes and even ran up
    scores.
  • I learned more about baseball, though, from another team. In a
    1 win/10 loss season where some of my friends left our squad (they
    didn’t like to play with losers, they said), I learned about
    commitment, to believe in myself, and that failure isn’t final. The
    talent pool was slim, but by season’s end our losses were close
    contests. The coach was kind and believed every player who
    practiced should play. We won our season finale to wild applause
    and standing ovations. And despite our dismal record, we still
    chanted “We’re #1!” during our ride for ice cream.
  • Select children as Jesus chose disciples. The world may still
    find tryouts and contests helpful, but they shouldn’t be the
    methodology of the church. And they certainly weren’t the practice
    of Jesus Christ, who never held tryouts for his disciples. Yes,
    Jesus maintained reasonable standards, but he didn’t hold public
    competitions to determine disciples. Some followers he merely
    approached and said, “come,” while others followed naturally. He
    didn’t even pick the best. Nicodemus was a more religious choice.
    The rich young ruler was more influential and popular. Neither made
    Jesus’ cut.

Jesus changed the world with uneducated fishermen and despised
tax collectors. His tryouts were limited to simple obedience and
self-sacrifice. He had roles for John and Judas, for Simon Peter
and Simon the Zealot. Perhaps instead of having public tryouts,
children’s ministers might do well to follow Christ’s example and
pray all night before passing out parts.

No one should lose at church.

+++++

Tryouts are Terrific
by Carmen Kamrath

Months after the holidays are over, I find myself singing songs
from our Christmas musical. They pop into my head sporadically,
bringing me back to the evening when more than 100 kids touched the
hearts of the many people who watched them sing. My understanding
of the impact of the experience is reinforced every time I hear my
daughters recall the fun they had performing and the friendships
that began and grew during the many rehearsals. I think the
musicals I’ve been part of throughout the years have been wonderful
experiences for the kids involved — even though and perhaps
because each musical involved tryouts.

Tryouts for a musical or play at church can be a good experience
if they’re conducted in the right way. In fact, tryouts are a key
ingredient for assuring a successful performance that kids will
enjoy and learn from. Tryouts ensure quality, develop leaders, and
build team.

  • Ensure quality. Musicals and other performances are a lot of
    work for the director and the participants. No one wants to put in
    all that work and end up with a poor production. In addition, many
    churches use performances as opportunities to reach out to the
    community. Neither kids nor directors want to invest time and
    energy into a mediocre performance. That’s why tryouts are
    necessary.
  • When a musical score requires individual parts and solos, it’s
    important to have kids who are up to the task in these key roles.
    Churches often forego auditions and fill special parts with the
    same reliable kids or give the role to the child whose parents are
    convinced their son or daughter is a gifted performer. So every
    year, the same kids get the parts. By offering auditions, however,
    you give all children a chance to exhibit their talents. You also
    guarantee that you have children in roles they’re capable of
    doing.
  • Develop leaders. Our Christmas musical auditions enticed a
    quiet girl who was at Sunday school every week to try out for a
    part. She landed the lead role. This gal who barely spoke in class
    blossomed into a leader, a role model for the younger kids, and an
    encourager for every child involved. She was an example of a child
    serving God with the gifts she had been given. Had we not conducted
    an audition, this quiet, talented child may’ve stayed in the
    shadows, and the entire cast and audience would’ve missed out on
    her leadership and example.
  • Build team. Celebrating the accomplishments of everyone
    involved creates a sense of unity and teamwork. A quarterback may
    seem to have the lead role on a football team, but he couldn’t
    throw a touchdown pass without the defensive line supporting him
    and without the receiver to catch the pass. In the same manner, a
    musical can’t be successful with only one or two people. Although
    several children may be selected to dramatize the story or sing
    solos, the entire cast carries the show.
  • When directing a musical production, use these tips during
    tryouts, rehearsals, and your performance to ensure that every
    child plays an important role.
  • Talk with children about what an audition is. Before you
    conduct auditions, talk with kids about what an audition is and the
    purpose for an audition. Stress that the cast plays an integral and
    important part in the musical — not just the kids who get specific
    parts. Let kids and parents know up front what the time commitment
    will be, and have them complete an audition form that clearly
    explains the expectations of kids who receive specific parts.
  • Use unbiased selectors. As someone who works with the kids at
    your church every week, you can’t help but be biased toward some
    children. Ask other children’s ministry directors in your
    community, a local music teacher, or college students to help with
    auditions. Using selectors outside of your church is assurance to
    those auditioning that you aren’t playing favorites.
  • Affirm each child who auditions. Have kids audition in groups
    of four or five, and have their peer audience clap and cheer after
    each tryout. This is a great way to see how a child performs in
    front of peers and an audience. Although an audition can be
    frightening for some, it’s also a confidence booster. I’ve
    witnessed many kids who didn’t get a part but were thrilled that
    they made it through the audition and excited about doing another
    in the future.
  • When kids finish their auditions, give each of them something
    that celebrates their accomplishment. At one audition, I gave each
    child a star cutout that said “Way to Go!” along with a candy
    treat.
  • Cast everyone in a role. Don’t let any child walk away feeling
    cut from the program. Find a role for each child even if it’s being
    part of the choir, stage crew, lighting crew, or other necessary
    role in the production. Tryouts may exclude children from certain
    parts, but they never have to exclude them completely.
  • Choreograph and costume the entire cast. Having a costume for
    each child helps kids know that they’re an important part of the
    cast. Costumes can be as simple as blue jeans and a red T-shirt.
    Develop choreography or motions for each song so the cast members
    don’t feel as though they’re only providing background music. Have
    different groups of kids come up front to help with leading the
    motions at each rehearsal.
  • Give the cast a name. For our Christmas musical, the entire
    cast was called The Christmas Candy Kids so kids actually had a
    stage name instead of just “the choir.”
  • Include every name in the program. Place each child’s name in
    the performance program so they have a memento of their hard work
    and an acknowledgement that their role was important.
  • Celebrate the entire cast. Musical directors will often single
    out children by giving only those with special parts gifts or
    recognition. Instead, have a celebration party for your entire cast
    and their families immediately following your performance. Give
    each child a small gift in appreciation for his or her hard work
    and dedication. At Christmas, we gave every cast member a bookmark
    with the legend of the candy cane printed on it.

Tryouts aren’t a bad thing. They’re simply tools to help your
children serve God with excellence by identifying and using their
gifts. When you use tryouts, always celebrate each child and the
unique gifts and talents he or she brings to your program. It’s not
the individuals who speak the loudest; it’s the group as a whole
who shouts loudly and ministers to the audience through one voice
that’s all in one accord.


Rick Chromey, D. Min., is a professor, trainer, and
consultant in children’s and youth ministry living in Meridian,
Idaho. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and
prices are subject to change. Carmen Kamrath is the associate
editor for Children’s Ministry Magazine.

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