Where do I even start?
Choosing repertoire for my middle school chorus is something I look forward to every year. There is something special about the new energy that comes with new repertoire and new beginnings. I also look forward to sharing this music with students and hearing their thoughts, opinions, and ideas around what works and what will not work with our ensemble. After all, they are the singers and they have thoughts and opinions that matter. They are the ones ultimately performing this music.
In recent years, I've started to think about providing more student voice and choice in my choral classroom (more on that in a later blog post). How can I step away and put them in charge when it comes to tasks like choosing repertoire, planning and rehearsing concerts, and performing? There are so many opportunities for them to learn in each of these settings, and I love seeing them use their musical brains to make decisions.
But where to begin? I'm sure some conductors and teachers read this and think, "Sure, I let them choose all of the music and we'll be doing nothing but pop arrangements forever." Maybe you're right. So let's rethink this. How can we as educated conductors provide opportunities for students to select appropriate repertoire for their ensemble and make choices that are educated and thoughtful with their own ensemble in mind? What groundwork and vocabulary do they need?
First, I make a long list of music that I think might be acceptable for the choir. These lists come from editors choices, recommendations from social media groups, or composers that I've heard and loved. It's my goal to provide them with a diverse list to choose from that includes a variety of styles, composers (more on this in another post), and time periods. From that list, we as an ensemble formulate a diverse concert program.
I've created a list of areas that I discuss with my singers as we listen to recordings and make repertoire selections. These are all given to them in the form of a checklist with room for their own thoughts and opinions (attached below). We first discuss what each of these mean and find examples in music they've performed in the past. Then we spend a class period just listening to the list of potential repertoire I've made. Some of the repertoire they love and some of it they hate (and they let me know it). The most important pieces of this process are the musical conversations we have along the way.
Here is the process:
Before Listening We Notice:
Title of the Piece
What is our first reaction to the title?
Is this a composer we've seen before?
Have we heard their music before?
When did this composer live or are they still living?
Is this composer a person of color (POC)? Diversity in the composers we choose is very important to us as an ensemble and for me as their conductor.
Where did the words come from?
Is the author known?
What do we know about this person?
When did this author/lyricist live or are they still living?
Is this author/lyricist a person of color (POC)? Diversity in the authors we choose is very important to us as an ensemble and for me as their conductor.
Is this text a poem? Do we know any other works by this person?
Musical Items We Notice:
What is the voicing of the piece? How many parts?
What's the time signature of the piece (if we're able to look at the music)?
If we're able to get a copy of the text either from a copy of the score or somewhere online, we read through the text.
During our first reading of the text:
Is the text meaningful to us as a group?
Does is fit for us as an ensemble to be saying these words?
Is it relevant to our lives?
While We Listen
I will often break the ensemble up into four groups and have each group listen for one of these sections. It's asking a lot of them to focus on all of these things during the first listen.
Is the melody interesting and memorable?
Is it smooth and easy to follow or does it include large intervals?
Is the harmony interesting?
Does the harmony fit well with the melody?
Is it easy to follow or does it include large intervals?
Are the rhythms interesting?
Is there variation in the rhythms in the piece?
How does this piece make us feel when we listen to it?
What's the overall emotion and story being conveyed by this piece?
After listening, we have conversations about all of these topics as a class, and students are prompted to fill out the response form via Google Forms. This makes compiling their responses at the end so much easier; it creates a Google Sheet instead of a large stack of papers for me to sort through.
Then, I take all of that information and put together the program. Some are easy winners and some are more difficult choices. When I bring the finished program back to the students, I explain the decisions that lead to each piece being chosen using those same musical words that we used when listening together. Even if it wasn't their favorite piece, they understand why it works for our group. Then, it's time to start rehearsing!
Comment and let me know what your process is for choosing repertoire!