TM Bonus Content – January 2009

January 2009 Teaching Music, Vol. 16, No. 4

More Songs, Please

To perform at its best, a chorus needs great repertoire, but what works well for one group may not suit another. Here are some practical considerations to keep in mind when hunting for material that will make your students sing like … well, birds. By Susan Poliniak Choosing appropriate music for a school choir can be a daunting task. So much needs to be taken into account—the dictates of the curriculum, your pedagogical goals, the cultural and religious contexts of your students and the community. Juggling all of these needs and influences is crucial to creating a successful, lively performance program, not to mention a worthwhile, enjoyable, and educationally rewarding choir experience for your students.

Differing Grade Levels, Common Goals

Choral programs at different grade levels share some common ground with the issues that must be taken into account during music selection. Here are a few considerations that you’ll encounter, no matter what age-group your choir may be.

Technical Considerations

There are various practical issues to bear in mind when evaluating a piece. The most important of these often come down to “yes/no” questions. Does it mesh with the vocal range and skill level of the choristers? Is the instrumentation possible given the resources available? Will this piece fit into the demands of my school’s curriculum? Regarding that last question, be wary of pigeonholing a piece into a curriculum just because it’s something that you want your kids to sing. “Often, in my opinion, teachers choose the music first and then plug it in to a curricular goal or standard,” says Susan Young, adjunct professor of choral methods at Northwestern University and a specialist in elementary and middle school choral music. “It is my thought that if the goal setting is accomplished first, the music selection is more liable to be a long-lasting one and not just a ‘one time and then put it away in the files forever’ approach.”

Teaching the Program

Foremost in your mind should be your pedagogical aims: “What do I wish to teach?” and “How will this music help me to accomplish these goals with my students?” As wonderful as a piece of music may be, as much you may wish to program it, and as much as your students may be clamoring to sing it, it does little good if it’s simply “ear candy,” with little or no merit outside of its own performance. However, there are many ways in which music can teach. Besides strictly musical considerations—teaching young voices to sing in a choir, phrasing, music theory, ear training, and so forth—there are historical, cultural, and other extramusical lessons to be learned. Mary Jennings, a teacher of general and vocal music at the Hammond Middle School in Howard County, Maryland, notes that choral directors, through their music, teach the full curriculum: math, English, foreign languages, history, etc. So ask yourself: What can I do with this piece to increase my students’ knowledge of a specific topic, or to engender cultural awareness? It may help to consider the community you’re in. “What is its cultural makeup?” Jennings asks. “Is there any way that this can be used to connect with your audience? This has to be done through a context—not just for the performance. What touches one person could be a praise band song, it could be Gregorian chant, it could be something heard back in his or her country.” In any of these cases, the careful selection of a given piece can forge a real link between your choir and its community.

Textual Considerations

It almost goes without saying that the text of a piece must be age appropriate, but one should otherwise look to the pedagogical goals for guidance here. “Musically, the first thing I consider is the text—familiarity with famous literature is often in my thoughts,” says Susan Young. “An excellent text makes students consider things and open up worlds they would not have known otherwise. This is not to say that the text must be ‘highbrow,’ but neither should it be ‘lowbrow.’” Texts in foreign languages can open up opportunities for cultural and linguistic explorations as well, although the amount and type of foreign-language repertoire will depend on the age and skill level of your choristers.

Preparing the Score

While you’re selecting your music, don’t fail to take into account the amount of time that will be needed to prepare to teach it and for your students to rehearse and learn it. Leave yourself plenty of time for both of these—after you’ve chosen your music. “Don’t confuse prep with selection!” warns Mary Jennings. In your personal preparation period, there are some big questions that you’ll need to ask yourself. “What is the overwhelming musical concept that is first noticeable, and how am I going to teach this chorally?” Jennings asks. “What are the things that stick out? What are the hardest things about this piece? What will require the least amount of prep time? Does it have instruments?”

Preparing Your Attitude

Your primary goals should always be pedagogical. Don’t be distracted by the competitions and the choir trips, or you may be communicating to your choristers that it’s not about the lesson. “Never, ever communicate back to your kids that you’re going for the trophy,” advises Jennings. “Never give up, never surrender, stay firm to your musical goals. Why did you do this? Maybe somewhere you had an amazing choral experience, and you want to communicate that.”

Elementary School

Once you have your pedagogical goals in place, the biggest challenge in choosing music for very young choirs centers around finding music that is appropriate in terms of skill level. The age, grade, and/or skill recommendations that are generally provided along with sheet music by publishers can be of some help in the winnowing-down process, but this is only a first step. Speaking more specifically, Susan Young finds that pieces featuring parts in unison, particularly with stepwise motion, work well. The occasional “partner” or layered song can also be fine, but the addition of parts for their own sake will not necessarily be beneficial. Offering students a bit of a stretch to instill a sense of accomplishment can be a worthy goal, but be careful: Choosing pieces that prove to be too much of a challenge easily leads to disappointment and frustration. As Young points out, “How fair is it for the teacher to expect the students to achieve at a level that is actually impossible? In doing so, we are setting the student up for failure from the get-go. And who cannot believe that the student musicians have not also suffered, trying hard to do something they are not capable of, but working very hard in their eagerness to please?”

Middle School and High School

For the slightly older student, Patrick Freer, professor of choral music at Georgia State University, advises, “Program the unexpected—but always great texts with well-written voice leading. Consider avoiding stereotypical songs about love and butterflies for girls and sea chanties for boys. With a text, always think, ‘Is this worth spending 12 weeks on?’” You may wish to program pieces in foreign languages, but steer towards texts that are used syllabically (i.e., one note per syllable), with uncomplicated rhythms, in repetition. With students in this age group, it can be a good idea to ask them what they wish to see in a choral program—you may be pleasantly surprised. One of
Freer’s doctoral students did just that and learned that the students preferred a variety of languages and tempos, as well as the use of instruments, movement, color, props, and acting or “getting into the style” of the music.

Changing Voices: Keeping Boys in the Choir

To keep boys interested in choral performance, Freer emphasizes that music selection is key: “Choose repertoire that honors and reflects where the kids are developmentally and cognitively. Choose songs with multiple voice parts—four to six in middle school because of voice changes. Choose music that is not so difficult as to encourage frustration.” Good selections feature ostinati or repeated melody lines. Your boys’ changing voices are adjusting to new territory, so steer away from homophonic textures or block chords. Instead, Freer advises, choose canons, rounds, partner songs, and pieces with interweaving melodic lines. Susan Young emphasizes that boys may need a little more attention during this stage of their lives. “Work with individual boys one on one. I know it will probably mean giving up lunch, but it is worth it. I have had boys so eager to sing that they have come to me and begged to form their own little quartet. We chose music, rehearsed (at lunch), and they worked harder than you would believe. They even would call each other up on the phone and sing! No, I am not joking! I would love to hear them coming up the stairs to the choir room, because they would always sing in the stairwell, loving the acoustics.”


In a college setting, the sky isn’t quite the limit, but certainly there is far more freedom to choose. At this stage, challenging your students (particularly if they’re music majors, or otherwise experienced choristers) may be the biggest hurdle, so be prepared to investigate and program a wide range of repertoire. Mary Jennings’ advice to the college director is, “Don’t let them whine. Challenge them. ‘This is it, guys, you’re here, this is hard.’ Expect to have the highest standards. Do not accept anything less for any piece of music.” Jennings notes that, in both programming and scheduling, choir directors need to be sensitive to other areas of a music major’s studies, which may include voice lessons and other performances. Be aware of the differences between your teaching regarding choral voice tone and a voice teacher’s instruction, which is usually geared more toward solo performance. Don’t program a choral concert the same week as an opera performance in which your students may also be participating. Once you’ve settled these repertoire issues for yourself and have set your own path, remember that you should never show up to a choir rehearsal unprepared. “Be an example at all times of what it means to work hard,” Susan Young advises, “and the students will not only follow, they will be happy about it and proud of their accomplishment.”

Programming Sacred Music

Sacred music makes up a large portion of the choral repertoire and occupies an important place in music history and development. However, its programming in a secular setting (public school concerts, etc.) brings out the issues of church vs. state and the possible implied favoring of one belief system over others. Where can a choral conductor find a balance between the performance of a musically worthwhile work and the need to take into account differing views on and reactions to faith? There are, outside of the broader issues, “deal-breaker” questions that can be helpful to ask oneself at the onset. Does the curriculum allow for the performance of sacred pieces? Does the text under consideration express negative views of another belief system, or is it not entirely sensitive and/or neutral as regards the beliefs of the audience? Is the piece difficult or impossible to perform outside of a purely devotional context without creating a definite aura of worship? Patrick Freer offers a useful piece of advice: Choose a piece with a text in a foreign language, as this helps to “take the focus off of religion and keep it on the music.” It may help to bear in mind a few other criteria when considering the programming of a sacred choral piece. Is the piece musically important? Is it important in an extramusical sense, in that it is embedded in a historical event or culture? Would the piece serve to broaden the horizons of the singers and audience and expose them to a religion or culture that is underrepresented otherwise? “The proactive stance that we can understand each other better by sharing music of all religions, cultures, and backgrounds is more productive than a negative posture here,” remarks Susan Young. “Invite interested administrators, parents, and community members to come in, sit together, brainstorm, and write an exemplary set of guidelines together. Why wait for a problem to arise from the lack of proactive planning? Individual teachers can and should take the lead in developing exemplary guidelines within the community. Go that extra mile to be a teacher-leader in the community as well as in the classroom.”

Programming Popular Music

Pop music, in its many forms, is ubiquitous in this country. It’s likely that at least a few members of your choir are interested in singing it. But is this music worthwhile for choral performance? And what does “worthwhile” mean, anyway—not just to you as a choral director, but to your singers and audience? “We must program pop music,” states Mary Jennings, “and if you don’t, you’re in the wrong profession. You can teach melody through a variety of music. It’s about how you approach it. You can teach a capella music by going back to its background in the Renaissance.” So, even though the piece may be pop, the goals should still be pedagogical. Herein may lie the worth of popular music in a choral program: it can demonstrate that crucial connection between what your students may be listening to and the larger musicological, cultural, and historical contexts of which they are a part. But how can popular music be evaluated for inclusion in a choral program? Does this mean that you have to become an expert in the genre? “If you’re not familiar with the pop music medium,” says Jennings, “allow your students to give you input. But you should still have authority over the situation.” Again, let your conscience be your guide. Otherwise, in considering popular music for your chorus, the usual issues apply. Are the music and text appropriate to the skill and grade levels of your singers? Will the curriculum allow for the programming of this type of music? There are also questions involving cultural context whose answers may prove helpful. Is the piece under consideration musically edifying and/or interesting to both performers and audience alike? Would the piece resonate with the community, or would it provide an opportunity for cultural and generational discourse? Engage in dialogues with your students and the community, investigate, and rely on your inner pedagogical compass, and you may find pop music to be a valuable asset to your program. © 2009, National Association for Music Education