Choosing repertoire is of paramount importance in any music program. There is so much quality music for students to learn and experience and we owe it to them to choose music that is engaging, suitably challenging, and rewarding to learn and play.
There are many things to consider when choosing repertoire and here are some key points to think about:
Is there a suitable variety of musical styles, tempos and dynamics?
Variety is the spice of life. The same principle holds true to choosing music for your students to learn and perform. A folder of music or a concert program comprised entirely of high, fast and loud repertoire is trying for musicians to perform and for the audience to listen to. Mix it up and allow your musicians and the audience to express and experience a variety of emotions.
Are we choosing music that students can perform effectively and successfully?
We owe it to our students to set them up for success so they can take pride in a well-executed performance. Choosing music that is all “above their heads” or their technical skill creates unnecessary frustration for students, teachers and for the audience that has to listen to young musicians struggling. It is important to provide a suitable challenge to your students, but don’t be that director that regularly chooses music that is too hard for them. The music we choose should be there to satisfy their learning and not our egos as band directors.
Try and choose music that satisfies three categories in terms of difficulty:
- Music that can be quickly and easily grasped by the musicians
When students can easily grasp the technical, melodic and harmonic challenges of a piece, they can experience the joy of having something sound good very early in the process. The primary consideration can be placed on matters of musicality and musicianship from the outset.
- Music that is right at their level of musicianship and technical skill
Students will be suitably challenged in preparing their own parts and understanding how their part relates to others while at the same time being encouraged to play with musical expression and emotion. Most of what you choose should be at their current level of ability and understanding.
- Music that is just beyond them in terms of musicianship and technical skill
It is the just part that is the key. For example, just beyond them could mean that brass players have a slight increase in range requirements or a section where they are required to learn some basic multiple tonguing skills. For woodwind players it might be a section where their fingers must move faster than they have ever before or they are performing in a less familiar key. For percussion, it could be more mallet work if they are more adept at batter percussion. You get the point. It just can’t be too much of a jump so that they cannot experience gradual improvement in what they are trying to do and it is solely an exercise in frustration. The general effect of the performance of the piece needs to be a positive experience for performers and the audience and not lessened too much by not quite perfecting certain aspects. By pushing students and choosing music that is just beyond their reach, they will not only gain more overall skill and understanding by working on it, but also have a continued challenge to measure their overall improvement as individual musicians and as an ensemble.
Project pieces are another matter and are those repertoire choices that are currently beyond their skill level but going to be worked on over a longer period of time where students can more gradually develop the skills and understanding required of successful performance.
Are we choosing music in a variety of keys and tonalities?
For the enjoyment of the musicians and the audience alike, mix it up and be mindful not to perform everything in the same key or tonality. There are more keys than Bb Major! This will also help your students gain more technical facility by learning and performing music in a variety of major and minor key centres.
Are we choosing music that suits the strengths and weaknesses of our particular ensembles?
Every band every year is different. There are some years when we have a strong trumpet section and a weak clarinet section. Pick music that can showcase your band’s strengths and to a certain degree, hide weaknesses in skill or instrumentation.
Are we choosing music that offers interesting parts for all of our student musicians?
Try and choose music that fosters overall student engagement. For example, be mindful of ensuring that you are programming at least some music that has interesting or featured parts for the low brass and low woodwind players. If it is one of those years where you have a ‘plethora’ of percussionists in your ensemble, aim to choose enough music that will keep them busy. You might even consider giving your percussionists some percussion ensemble music as a reward for those instances when their parts are less involved such as in slower, lyrical music.
Are we choosing music that increases musical understanding and overall musicianship?
By choosing music that helps us teach musical concepts we can advance student musicianship. For example, make sure to include choosing music that will teach students about compound time, march-style, odd meter, fugue, cut-time, etc. If you’re choosing music for a jazz band, make sure to choose music that will allow students to learn about different styles, feels, musical forms, etc.
Are we choosing music that our audiences will appreciate?
Like we try and push our students forward in terms of musical understanding, we should also be mindful of keeping the audience experience in mind. Program music that keeps your audience interested and engaged and in those instances when you’ve chosen music that may be more challenging for the audience, help them gain greater understanding by providing some insight into what the music is about.
Bottom line is choosing music is one of the most important aspects of our overall planning. Choose wisely and with purpose.