Selecting Repertoire for Your Ensemble

Selecting Repertoire for Your Ensemble

We, as directors of ensembles, are charged with the amazingly challenging task of predicting the future. What is the band/orchestra/chorus going to be like this year? What music is going to challenge my students yet not overwhelm them? What music is going to be achievable yet not bore them to tears? What musical choices will engage them? What music will my students like? Do I really care what they like?

Let’s face it, often the pieces students do not like in the beginning somehow morph into their favorite when the concert is over!

How about the other challenges we all face? It would be wonderful if we had the perfect instrumentation and ability level every year. There are, however, those years where you may have 3 trumpets, 1 flute, 8 alto saxophones 1 trombone, 12 percussionists and a partridge in a pear tree.

Given these challenges we do not give up. We embrace each and every student. We program music that will highlight their talents and strengths as well as challenge them to grow and connect with music in their lives. 

So the question is how do we go about choosing the appropriate music for our ensemble?

Trust Yourself

My best piece of advice is for you to not choose music with worry of judgment by others. Only you as the professional can choose what is most appropriate for your students. You have to deeply reflect upon the students you are serving and provide them with music that will push and pull them in every direction, both technically and emotionally. You have to commit to spending the time necessary and essentially make an individualized lesson plan for your students.

Those 12 freshmen percussionists need to be as engaged and challenged as your 1 flute player. This is no easy task, but it is one that we gladly put upon our shoulders. We do this because we are dedicated teachers who constantly strive to give our students the very best musical education we can. Every. Single. Day.  

What’s the Score?

The age of computers, MP3’s, PDF’s, and digital delivery have changed the face of music research and selection. I’ve had many conversations with friends and colleagues about how music used to be chosen in the old days. Directors would spend hours flipping through bins of scores, looking for something to catch their eye; the ‘hook.’ Then, they would have to read through the music in their heads, without the aid of an incredible ensemble on a recording.

I love flipping through the bins of music in stores; there is something nostalgic about it. My take-away from this story?

There’s no substitute for sitting with a score, either online or on paper, and absorbing what is there. Use all that you have studied and practiced in ear training, music theory, and educational theory and determine if the piece is the right fit for your band.

The Art of Conversation

I love going to band performances at conferences. They energize me, excite me and inspire me to be better at what I do. I love something even more about conferences. Conversation. Actual face-to-face conversations. Discussing ‘all things band’ with other directors, composers and students can give amazing insight about whatever the topic du jour is. If that topic is repertoire selection, not only will you get a recommendation about a piece, but also insight into the joys and/or challenges of learning, teaching and/or performing the piece(s).

The information you receive from a colleague will be greatly helpful in guiding you to finding the right music. This kind of dialogue isn’t exclusive to a state or national conference. We all are part of a smaller community of directors and have a network of musical friends. A quick phone call or email asking for a recommendation for a lyrical piece or concert opener can be incredibly enlightening. Try it – make a call, not only will you receive pertinent information, but you will also make another band director very happy. We love to share!

Play Every Part!

One of my college professors gave me a piece of advice that has stuck with me throughout my career: when you get a new piece of music – or are seriously considering one – play through every part on your primary instrument.

Think about that.

You learn so much by doing this! You really firm up your sight transposition. You see the musical involvement (or lack of) from the student side of the band room. You learn the ranges required and the technical challenges awaiting your students. You learn the score from a different angle.

This advice has been a piece of gold for me and I am so appreciative to have had it in my pocket for all these years. Go ahead. Try it with a piece you have in your students folders today, it is eye opening.

Band Yoga: Be Flexible

The ‘unknowns’ of the year to come are both terrifying and exciting all at the same time. Even with all of your hard work researching and choosing the right music, be prepared to go off course. Maybe the piece isn’t the right fit after all, for whatever reason. Maybe something has changed. Sometimes the best course of action is to select a different course. Also, however, do not react too early. Remember, the pieces they say they do not like, they often end up loving – it is a fine line.

Our bands are unique. Year to year all things are new. One of the first pieces I had written for band had student names on their parts instead of standard part labels. Think of each of your pieces with student names…how would that change your selection? My “Julia” that played xylophone on Pony Express, might be your “James.” One thing you can count on for sure is your students will feed off of you. Be prepared. Be committed. Be confident. Be realistic. Be flexible. Be passionate and most of all, Be YOU.

Chris BernotasComposer, conductor, clinician, and educator Chris M. Bernotas has been an instrumental music teacher at New Jersey’s Mountain Lakes High School for more than 20 years. An active composer and arranger of concert band music, Mr. Bernotas is published with Alfred Music Publishing, Daehn Publications, TRN Music Publishing, Northeastern Music Publications, Carl Fischer Music and Bandworks Publications. His music has been performed at the Midwest Clinic and has appeared on J.W. Pepper’s Editor’s Choice list and numerous state lists. Mr. Bernotas is co-author of the third and fourth books in Alfred’s Sound Innovations series, called Sound Innovations: Ensemble Development, along with Peter Boonshaft. Mr. Bernotas is also an active guest conductor and presenter at clinics and conferences throughout the United States. Please visit his website or facebook page for more info.

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