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A preschool girl wearing a sheep mask participates in a Christmas musical tryout.
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Christmas Musical Tryouts: Terrific or Terrible?

Are Christmas Musical Tryouts: Terrific or Terrible? Should you hold tryouts for your kids’ Christmas production?

The Trouble With Tryouts

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.

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

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 Lead to Success

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.

Tryout Tips

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. 

Carmen Kamrath was the former associate editor for Children’s Ministry Magazine.

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