Introspection on Selection of Choral Music

At a recent choral festival, I listened to a high school choir sing a Moses Hogan piece that included four-part male divisi. The group’s 6 young men struggled to sing their parts, and the young ladies encountered difficulty singing the high soprano line. Later, I heard a junior high choir of 100 perform the same selection musically with all parts well-balanced. As a choral judge, I often hear choirs singing music that is too difficult, frequently due to divided parts but just as often, because the range is too low or too high for the students’ current ability. These choirs could be successful with more appropriate music.

One of the choral teacher’s toughest but most rewarding tasks is selecting the best piece of music for a particular ensemble. Sometimes, teachers select literature that they performed as a university student or choose music that they loved as a high school student without taking into consideration their own group’s ability. New teachers, who start teaching in a school that previously had a reputation for excellence, may not yet be prepared to teach the same level of music. The result can be poor tone quality, inaccurate parts and lack of balance. Spending a lot of time considering music for an upcoming concert or festival may seem overwhelming, but it is essential for a successful performance.

Here are a few suggestions for new choral teachers: After you are hired, catch your breath by taking 30 minutes each day to search and organize your school’s music library, finding selections that students haven’t sung during the past two years. To determine what was performed, ask one of the students or the previous teacher for concert programs to identify this music. Don’t repeat any of these pieces. Students need new literature to learn new things, and it will help them relate to you without comparing you to the previous teacher.

“All music should teach something.”

Publishers want to get their music in your hands. Look through their catalogues and web-sites to peruse music. Organize this information, reviewing a little at a time and listing pieces you feel would work for your ensemble. Create a data base, including ordering information and a note of which ensemble and concert you intend to use the music.

1. Check with teachers in your area that have ensembles with similar numbers and talent pool. Ask them to give you a list of their favorite pieces that they recommend for the beginning of the year, holiday concerts, festivals and lighter music that could be used for the end of the year. Some of these selections may already be in your library. Keep in mind that an established choral program may be performing higher-level literature. 2. During the school year, attend concerts of schools similar to yours, and listen to choirs as they perform at festivals. Write down titles and ask directors if you can look at the music. Check the range and individual parts to see if the music will work with your school’s numbers and talent. Put these ideas in your data base and indicate where you heard the selection. 3. Assuming that you have discussed your budget with the principal and know what you can spend, the next step is selecting music for purchase, remembering to allow a reasonable amount of time for delivery – usually three weeks. Try to have the music for the next concert in the folders before the current concert is finished. Another idea is to place all of the year’s music in folders, knowing that you can make adjustments if some selections don’t work out. This way, students can look forward to singing new music and know that something is prepared for them to start on as soon as the current concert is over.

Experienced teachers can run into the same difficulties with music selection. Just because you hear an excellent performance of a difficult piece doesn’t mean it is right for your ensemble. First compare the number of students in the choirs that you hear with the balance you have in your groups. Then determine the ability of your students with regards to range, technique and reading ability. Keep in mind that each ensemble has a different skill-set and music that works at one time may not work another time.

Music needs to be on a level that students can perform well based on their talent and potential talent. All music should teach something. At the beginning of the school year, students should develop a beautiful choral tone with correct vowels. That music should be more lyrical in style and not too rhythmically challenging. Holiday music should be selected that has variety in styles and periods, and has sacred and secular texts.

Appraise your literature, asking these questions: What do you want students to learn from the music? Does it teach students something of lasting value? Will it develop good singing tone? Is there rhythmic variety, or does it provide a tool for teaching rhythm? Does the text have depth of meaning, or is it thought provoking? Is the text rhythmic in nature? Does it have value as choral literature? Is it beautiful, rhythmically appealing and challenging?

There is a big variety of choral music in all genres. Experiment with all genres, but remember that music selection should be based on what students can learn. A mistake can be made when singing pop selections by labeling as “fun” music. Hopefully, everything you sing is a choral gem. By labeling one genre as “fun,” it indicates that everything else is not. If a pop song has an intricate rhythmic passage, use that passage to give students a deeper understanding of rhythm. You could have students clap the rhythm as an assignment for part of their grade. You could also use selected passages to develop ensemble tone as opposed to solo tone.

Put music of varying degrees of difficulty and styles in the folders. This helps break up routine and provides many opportunities for teaching theory and vocal technique. With correct music selection, your students will perform well and have a feeling of accomplishment. As they gain more advanced skills, you can select more difficult music. Keep the quality of the performance high so students will feel musically satisfied. That is something that will draw more students to your program. Always remember that performances should be about perfecting musicality and singing beautifully; not about who can sing the most difficult piece.
LeAnna Willmore NAfME, Choral Education Council Chair
Posted by Jeffrey Bauman, NAfME Choral Education Chair-Elect Young Harris College