Choosing Literature

Deciding on music for your ensemble is an important part of an orchestra director’s job. NAfME member Carol Pederson has some tips for choosing literature.

Participate in a reading orchestra: Playing through music with a group has benefits not gained from listening to a CD. Teachers can play through new and old titles, or play on a secondary instrument. Doing this helps put teachers at the same skill level as some of their students. It’s also a great way to swap literature ideas with other string teachers.

Listen to other groups: Promo CDs are certainly helpful, but try the following:

  • Attend other schools’ concerts
  • Go to performances at state and regional conferences
  • Watch groups during a festival, or
  • Hear groups that play at annual NAfME and ASTA meetings.

Look over the score before buying: Going to a local music store allows you to look at scores, but more often than not, this option isn’t available. Fortunately, newer scores are becoming more readily available online, and some publishers will mail out scores on approval.

With older scores, try looking in other teachers’ libraries. While a piece may sound great, looking at what happens in each part can be quite revealing. Ideally, each section will get to play high-quality literature while being challenged to develop musically.

Mix up genres and time periods. Too much of any one thing can get mundane for you, the students, and your audience. Trying new music as well as bringing back “golden oldies” helps to keep the program varied and of interest to the players and listeners. Get feedback from students, and more important, trust your own expertise and instincts when determining what is high-quality literature.

While choosing literature for individual groups, a great rule of thumb (recommended by Ian Edlund) is that for every five pieces of literature, pick one that is challenging and a little beyond your group, choose two that are right at their level, and have two that are relatively easy. Mixing the levels allows you and your class to work on various skills and helps to challenge the students by giving them material that will promote success.

Adapted from Carol Pederson’s article “Literature Ideas” in the October 2011 issue of Voice, the Washington Music Educators Association journal. Used with permission.

Carol Pederson is the Washington Music Educators Association’s orchestra curriculum officer and is the orchestra director at Ferris High School in Spokane, Washington.
Head over to the NAfME Orchestra forum to discuss issues related to your classroom ensemble.
—Gregory Reinfeld, November 10, 2011. © National Association for Music Education