Choosing Festival Repertoire

Choosing Festival Repertoire

By NAfME member Tom Dean

Article Originally Posted on JW Pepper Blog


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You have decided on the trip, made all the preparations, and your students and parent groups have been hard at work raising the funds to ensure that every student can participate. Now it is time to choose the repertoire that you will be presenting.

In order to provide some advice and guidance in choosing the repertoire that your group will perform, we have gathered some of the editors here at J.W. Pepper for choral, orchestra, band and jazz to give some thoughts, insights and suggestions. Between them, they have almost 100 years of classroom education and contest adjudication experience.

Q. What are the different types of festivals you have participated in and what was the motivation or reasons for taking your groups to them?

A.  There are three major types of festivals—many directors choose different types of festivals for different groups within their programs. There are national invitational competitive festivals for the top groups, state and district festivals, and festivals that center around a theme park for your other groups or full programs. It is important that you have an instructional goal for participating in a festival—not just to be able to justify it to supervisors and parents, but more importantly to know what you expect to get out of the experience. One of the primary motivations for participating in any of these festivals is for evaluation—to get valuable feedback from professional musicians for you and your students. This provides incentive for improvement to the students individually and the ensemble as a whole, as well as for you as the director to get a clear idea of the progression of your ensemble. No less, participation in a festival is a wonderful way to build unity among your group’s members and your department as they work towards a common goal. It can also help build a program by generating excitement among the entire student body while pushing the capabilities of the individual students and ensembles. Choosing a festival that includes an onstage workshop with a clinician/adjudicator can be a fantastic experience and works to improve your ensemble in a meaningful way.

Q. When selecting repertoire, what criteria do you use to choose the opening piece?

A.  Depending on the festival, this could be a non-adjudicated warm-up selection or an adjudicated selection. Regardless, it’s a wonderful opportunity to tune the group to itself and the new environment. More than likely, the students have never performed together in this venue, so programming a selection that offers the ensemble a chance to hear and listen to themselves in the new space is important. The selection should also be at a difficulty level at which they are completely comfortable performing to help set everyone at ease.  It’s wise to avoid thinly scored selections or pieces with exposed passages, and you should avoid a solo or feature at this time and perhaps look for something more fully scored. If the (choral) program has some accompanied selections, you should consider making this one of the accompanied songs so you are sure of the voicing of the piano in the space and with the choir. If this is to be an adjudicated piece, pick something more energizing that will “announce” the group; if not judged, then maybe choose something more slow and reflective. If the first selection is not adjudicated, you might want to keep that to yourself so your ensemble doesn’t view it as a throwaway piece—for we all know the judges are watching and listening, and they can’t help but be influenced.


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Suggested first selection titles for chorus:
A Zing-a Za – Mary Goetze
Tiritomba – Dave and Jean Perry
The Bee – Tom Shelton
Je le vous diray – Pierre Certon/arr. Russell L. Robinson
Ye Shall Go Out with Joy – John Ness Beck
Beati Quorum Via – Charles Villers Stanford
Cantate Domino – Hans Leo Hassler/arr. John Leavitt
The Lord Bless You and Keep You – Peter Lutkin
Flower of Beauty – John Clements

Suggested first selection titles for concert band:
Any march from Sousa, King, Bagley, or Grainger
John Philip Sousa Marches
Karl King Marches
National Emblem – Edwin Bagley/ed. Frederick Fennell
Percy Grainger Marches
J.S. Bach Chorales
Reverberations – Brian Balmages
Watchman, Tell Us of the Night – Mark Camphouse

Suggested first selection titles for jazz band:
Advanced High School: A Hefti Dose of Basie – Patrick Williams
Average High School: Breathing – Fred Sturm/arr. David Springfield
Average Junior High/Middle School: Dreamsville – Henry Mancini/arr. Vince Gassi

Suggested first selection titles for orchestra:
Theme Park Festival: March of the Meistersingers – Richard Wagner/arr. Sandra Dackow
District Adjudicated Festival: Jupiter from “The Planets” – Gustav Holst/arr. Deborah Baker Monday
National Competitive Festival: Adagio from “Spartacus” – Aram Khachaturian/arr. Robert Longfield


Q. What do you consider when selecting the middle piece for your program?

A. When choosing the second selection, think first about style. You will want to show that your ensemble is capable of performing authentically in multiple styles, and you will want something that is going to contrast with your first selection but also build on the opener to elevate the performance. This is a good place to have a meatier, more difficult selection that displays how well your ensemble handles the musical, the interpretative—the ability to play with balance and expression—and the technical requirements of the music. Features or solos are very appropriate here.  Consider something that has variations of mood and character that will show off the musicianship of the ensemble members.  This would be a good place to pick something from the Basic Library! Jazz bands should consider a jazz-rock or funk tune as they are becoming a more popular genre with these ensembles.

Suggested second selection titles for chorus:
Alleluia – Randall Thompson
Omnia Sol – Z. Randall Stroope
Ubi Caritas – Ola Gjeilo
Lux Aurumque – Eric Whitacre
There Will Be Rest – Frank Ticheli
Oh How Beautiful, This Finely Woven Earth – Greg Jasperse
Sleep – Eric Whitacre
Diu Diu Deng from A Set of Chinese Folk Songs, Volume 3 – Chen Yi

Suggested second selection titles for concert band:
First Suite in E-flat for Military Band – Gustav Holst/ed. Colin Matthews
Second Suite in F for Military Band – Gustav Holst/ed. Colin Matthews
English Folk Song Suite – Ralph Vaughan Williams
Anthem for Winds and Percussion – Claude T. Smith
Symphony No. 1: In Memoriam – Dresden 1945 – Daniel Bukvich

Suggested second selection titles for jazz band:
Advanced High School: Funk Tank – Lars Halle
Average High School: Arnge Drank – Paul Baker
Average Junior High/Middle School: Along for the Ride – Mike Story

Suggested second selection titles for orchestra:
Theme Park Festival: Contrasts in E minor – Francis Feese
District Adjudicated Festival: Mozartiana – P.I. Tchaikovsky/arr. Todd Parrish
National Competitive Festival: Waltz No. 2 – Dmitri Shostakovich/arr. Paul Lavender


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Q. What should be kept in mind when choosing the closing piece?

A. This may sound like a broken record, but it is still important to think about style as you will want to contrast with, at the very least, the second selection—but you will probably want to contrast with everything that has come before. Think about something with show-stopping appeal or that adds a bit of the WOW factor. It is important to emphasize the strengths of your ensemble. Avoid something that might be too heavy. Something with a powerful ending and something that certainly shows off the ensemble’s musical, interpretative and technical skills, leaving a lasting impression of the group’s strength. In a choral setting, consider something in a less frequently used language like Japanese or Swahili. In any case, end with a big statement—something with lots of energy!

Suggested third selection titles for choral:
All That Hath Life and Breath Praise Ye the Lord! – Rene Clausen
Witness – Jack Halloran
Jubilate, Alleluia! – Mary Lynn Lightfoot
O Clap Your Hands – John Rutter
Och jungfrun hon gar i ringen – Hugo Alfvén
South Australia – Stephen Leek
Didn’t It Rain – Rollo Dilworth

Suggested third selection titles for concert band:
Irish Rhapsody – Clare Grundman
Trail of Tears – James Barnes
Bayou Breakdown – Brant Karrick
Scramble – Todd Stalter
American Hymnsong Suite III – Dwayne Milburn

Suggested third selection titles for jazz band:
Advanced High School: Count Bubba – Gordon Goodwin
Average High School: The Big Band Theory – Larry Neeck
Average Junior High/Middle School: Let the Good Times Roll – arr. Paul Murtha

Suggested third selection titles for orchestra:
Theme Park Festival: 1812 Overture – P.I. Tchaikovsky/arr. Sandra Dackow
District Adjudicated Festival: Hoedown – Aaron Copland/arr. Stephen Bulla
National Competitive Festival: Final Movement from Serenade for Strings – P.I. Tchaikovsky


Q. Any additional advice?

A. Don’t over-program. Make sure that the repertoire selected, while challenging, is still within your group’s abilities as an ensemble and your skills as a director. Select literature that displays the strongest aspects of your ensemble and avoid selections that may expose weaknesses or fail to hold up to close scrutiny. It is better to show mastery of easier selections than to barely get through and have everyone (including the adjudicators) suffer through more difficult pieces. Details matter—give special attention to dynamics, articulations, diction, precise intonation and tone quality. Remember, the indicated metronome markings are suggestions—help your group find their correct tempo for the piece. Make sure that you have enough performance run-throughs so that you and your ensemble are confident that you can go from the beginning of the program to the end. Be careful about programming works with solos—what if the soloist gets sick or suddenly will not be at the festival? Pay attention to the nonmusical details as well, for they can distract or take away from the performance. No perfume or cologne. Make sure everyone is dressed uniformly, guys have the right color socks, girls have the same color headbands, no dangling earrings.  You would be surprised how many times these nonmusical aspects are mentioned and seem to distract judges from the performance.

Having pre-festival concerts, performing the program for others prior to the festival, or even having a mock festival and asking other educators to adjudicate your group can be very helpful in preparing you and your students for the performance.

Some additional things to consider:

  • Talk about relaxing with your group and establish some routines—prior to going to the festival.
  • Make sure that you do some performance run-throughs where you do not stop!
  • Don’t count off 1,2, ready, go for every rehearsal and then try a silent entrance on stage.
  • Rehearse your rhythm section (jazz) away from the rest of the ensemble. Make sure that they are cohesive and playing in the style of each tune.
  • Listen a lot to good groups. What does a really good group sound like in performance? It fits right into the new national standards in music!
  • If you are going to have a soloist, feature the strongest soloist in your ensemble.
  • Don’t forget the show-biz aspect.

We’d love to hear from you about works that you’ve used successfully at contests which you’d like to recommend to other directors.


About the author:

NAfME member Tom Dean is School Choral Editor for J.W. Pepper & Son, Inc.  Prior to working for Pepper, Tom taught instrumental and choral music as well as audio engineering at the high school level in Delaware public schools for 32 years.  He is a member of the ACDA and is active in the Delaware Music Educators Association where he served in numerous positions including President, All-State Coordinator, Technology Chair, and Composition Chair, and NAfME where he served as Eastern Division President and National Executive Board member.  He was a member of the music writing team that developed the new music standards for the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards project.

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