Part 1 – The Music!
Many conductors believe that programming for their ensemble is one of, if not the most, important responsibilities of their position and I am one of them! The selection of repertoire at all levels has a major impact on the development of our students and should help their musical understanding and appreciation. In the academic setting, the music chosen for performance by our ensemble becomes their textbook. Each piece becomes a vehicle for exploration through all of the necessary characteristics of music. Due to this, it is imperative that each piece be of significant quality. The search for music that has imagination, authenticity, craftsmanship, sensitivity, symmetry, surprise, and expressivity is a worthwhile and tireless pursuit. Spending the rest of our time as teachers and conductors searching out the finest repertoire for study and performance would be a noble endeavor indeed! The music we choose to study and subsequently perform should, above all else, elicit an aesthetic response from the conductor, performers, and audience members. The consideration of pragmatic issues such as ensemble level maturity, cost, duration, and other realities cannot be overlooked, but the necessity for choosing music that is soul stirring and allows for significant enthusiasm in rehearsal and sustained interest from all parties is incredibly important.
I can recall many accounts from colleagues about choosing pieces due to constraints within their ensembles at the very beginning of the programming process such as:
- “My trumpet section is weak this year. Do you know of a piece that is grade 4 that doesn’t have significant trumpet parts?”
- ”I have a really good flutist but my saxes are really weak. I need a piece that features flute and hides the saxes.”
- “It’s amazing! My low brass is really good but my woodwinds are really struggling. Do you know a piece that has easier woodwind parts?”
I have always thought these “challenge areas” of my ensembles are where I need to focus my teaching the most! I need to find repertoire that highlights my ensemble and fosters growth for them and myself, not caters to specific strengths and weaknesses that already exist. Then no learning will occur! It is my belief that we need to program towards quality repertoire within the abilities of our ensembles and not program with solely the limitations of our ensembles in mind.
Where do we start? THE MUSIC!
The process to create more programming possibilities for your ensemble(s) is by learning about more music! Every director needs to expand his or her knowledge of repertoire. Every single one! I am constantly on the search for new music. Not the “hottest” pieces off the press, but the ones I do not know. A limited exposure to repertoire is reflected in programming choices of directors. One of the first questions I ask aspiring conductors is to name their five favorite pieces. Surprisingly, many of them cannot do this! Often, I cannot discern whether it is the lack of knowledge of repertoire or if they have not been asked to identify pieces that are important to them. Both are important and further illuminates a deficiency in knowledge regarding repertoire. Through this small exercise, once completed, I am able to learn what type of repertoire each student has been exposed to and enjoys. It also provides a set of “musical values” that each musician believes in and champions. Do you know yours?
Here is a small exercise to find out: First, what are your three favorite pieces in the genre that you teach? Next, what are three to six characteristics of these pieces that make them your favorite? Use the characteristics listed below or create your own.
Once you’ve thought through these questions, ask: What do you consider three great pieces in the genre that you teach? What are three to six characteristics that make it great?
Compare the two lists of characteristics. Do they match? Are they completely different? Are they half and half? The takeaway from this exercise is simply trying to identify your set of musical values. Notice the questions were not “Identify pieces that the profession deems the favorites and the greatest.” They were around your personal thoughts and beliefs. Your value system is important to your pedagogy because it is what will reign in your classroom. If you are passionate about what you are teaching and believe in, your students will be passionate as well. You should have an opinion about what is important and defend it. It may change over time. That is okay!
Expanding Repertoire Knowledge
There are no shortcuts to expanding one’s knowledge of repertoire. One learns more by having an intense curiosity about music, all kinds of music. I find that a majority of music students had this curiosity when they entered music school, but it was either browbeaten out of them or they began prioritizing the “treasure hunt” from the necessity of completing tasks. Discovery fills a childlike void that we all have and need filled from time to time. Every time I find a piece of music that truly engages me, it fills that void. It is like finding a twenty-dollar bill in the back of a pair of jeans on the floor. It is something that was not expected and is inexplicably exciting.
Listen to anything and everything you can, regardless of level or genre! There are dozens of repertoire lists that can be found and these are great starting points. Some of the best ways to find literature is to ask people you trust: fellow conductors, musicians, music teachers, etc. Go to music retailer websites and composer websites, go to conferences and new music reading sessions, go to concerts (!!!), as many live concerts as possible and listen to as much music as you can and remember the pieces that “move” you. Write them down. Keep a database. I keep many lists of music that I do not want to forget. This allows me to keep my ears fresh at all times and stimulates my teaching, conducting, and programming. I am not sure it is ever possible to know enough repertoire. The more music I experience stimulates my curiosity even more. Feel free to let this kind of curiosity take over. It will only enhance your musicianship and teaching.
Some specific ideas for repertoire knowledge expansion in your genre:
- Find a respected colleague or mentor and request a repertoire list or top-ten list from them. Then find another…and another…and another.
- Visit another state’s prescribed or required music list and investigate music related to your genre.
- Identify five composers’ music you would want to perform and identify all possible compositions available for your genre. If they are living, go to their websites to do this. Then find five more!!
- Visit JWPepper.com, Penders.com, or Stantons.com and browse their lists of music that fits your ensemble. Search by composer or genre and look for lists like “classic repertoire” or “important” literature. Be cautious of “hot off the press” or “new release” lists.
Part 2 – Analysis and Programming
Ensemble Programming. How do we do it? Where do we start? What do the best ensemble leaders do to prepare to program? I have spoken with several conductors and programming is always a subjective and very personal process. I am not sure that there is one way to program. One tool that has emerged to be helpful is the grading of compositions. I believe it can help streamline the process. Knowing your ensemble is playing at a “grade 4” level is helpful as a place to start. But, there is a lot of difference between many “grade 4” pieces. The grading system, by and large, is based upon technical considerations. It is hard to put a measure on the musicality required of a piece. Or the endurance needed to perform a piece, both emotional and physical. Even with the grading of pieces, you still have to filter through and find repertoire that speaks to you. That is why I believe the first step in the programming process is finding your individual musical values. These are characteristics of music that you find most important. Finding these characteristics will help illuminate pieces that you should program. After identifying these characteristics, go on the never-ending treasure hunt for repertoire. Once you have a large or many lists of repertoire, you are ready to begin!
Before ever deciding upon any music to perform, I complete a couple of analyses to assist me with narrowing down the scope of my repertoire choices. These analyses assist me greatly, and I recommend them to all. They allow a more thoughtful approach to my programming, and I believe assist with selecting more appropriate repertoire choices.
The first step is to do an ensemble analysis. This is something that most, if not all, conductors complete at some level already. It cannot be stressed enough that this be undertaken at a very specific and honest level. The intense understanding of what our students can and cannot execute is important for their development as musicians and ultimately for their success in our ensembles. Some characteristics to consider:
- Number of students in each section (appropriate numbers?)
- Current Knowledge/Ability level (technique – specifics?)
- Current Maturity level (musicianship)
- Soloists within each section (chamber music)
- Potential for growth (aptitude – ability to learn concepts – speed of learning)
An assessment of these characteristics for each instrument will assist in understanding where the ensemble is as a whole. For younger ensembles it may be important to get even more specific. Would it be important to note what concepts have and have not been taught? (i.e. specific notes, rhythmic concepts, or key centers) The awareness of the capabilities of your ensemble will be important moving forward toward analyzing and subsequently selecting repertoire. The other benefit to this ensemble analysis is that it can be traced over time. Assessing it concert-by-concert, semester-by-semester, or year-by-year, can show the effectiveness of teaching, always very helpful for self-evaluation. Lastly, this analysis will also provide some global strengths and weaknesses of the ensemble. This should assist with identifying larger goals for the concert programming.
The second step is to identify the type of repertoire that the ensemble needs to play, in other words, setting larger goals for the ensemble. Some examples might be:
- learning to play more musically
- having better ensemble cohesion
- expanding speed of technique
- working on soft dynamics
- developing soloists
- developing chamber musicians
- developing better articulation variance
As I referenced earlier, identifying ensemble strengths and specifically weaknesses provides the areas where MORE teaching should occur. If the ensemble has great articulation and can play fast, spend time on slower pieces with rubato to expand their musical abilities. If the ensemble has great tone, slower music or broad music may be the obvious choice, find a piece that pushes dynamic variance with tone. If technique is an issue (It always is!), be sure to find appropriate pieces for all sections. I believe that many conductors already do something VERY SIMILAR to this! However, the ENTIRE ensemble needs to be considered when doing this process, not just the best and worst sections — the whole ensemble.
Narrowing the Repertoire
After assessing the overall ability level of the ensemble and identifying characteristics or goals to address in your teaching, the selection of repertoire can occur. Ideally at this point you would have (from your tireless searching of all music) a list or lists of music that you would be interested in doing with your ensemble. That was the tangible outcome of the exercise above, as it would directly relate to your classroom. If you do not have lists at this point, no worries, you are equipped with the knowledge to begin your search from an informed point of view. Consider your championed values first, then your ensembles strengths and weaknesses, and finally, your identified goals for the ensemble.
I usually end up with a list containing twenty to forty pieces for an academic year or performance season. These are pieces I am considering programming. With most performing ensembles having three to six programs a year/season, containing three to six pieces each, it is desirable to start with more than is needed in order to filter down even further toward repertoire that really fits the ensemble. It should be noted that most of the decision-making in narrowing down repertoire was done via recordings and cursory looks at scores. No in-depth score analysis has been done yet. If this process has been done honestly, then there will most likely be some works that just do not fit an ensemble because of difficulty, or duration, or type of piece. For instance, if your values are grounded in slow sustained music, there may be too much of it on your list. If you enjoy long symphonic-type works, a program usually cannot be filled with more than one or two of those. All of this is OK! I do not believe in many restrictions at this point in the process. No actual programming has been done.
The final step in deciding appropriate literature is actually going to the score. Many directors will look at this and scoff. “Look at twenty or more scores before deciding on performing a piece? Who has the time?” We absolutely should be looking at that many or more scores before deciding to play the piece for our ensemble. Do English teachers teach a novel without reading it first? Do science teachers teach from their text without really knowing what their next lesson is going to be? Remember, the scores are our textbooks. We need to really understand what they are saying and asking of our students. Recordings can only illuminate so much of what is actually being played due to what our ears can perceive. The score illuminates all. I cannot stress enough how important it is to go to the score before programming a piece. There have been many times that I was sure a piece was going to go on a program and then I began looking through the score and changed my mind. This task is not as daunting as it may seem.
Taking your identified strengths and weakness of your ensemble into consideration, scan through the score section-by-section, part-by-part. Take note of what the composer is asking of your players range-wise and technique-wise. What is the orchestration like? Is it mostly large group scored or is there chamber music that could be troublesome? Do this for any and all characteristics that need to be considered! This surface “analysis” of each score is not an in-depth formal analysis for conducting and teaching the piece. It is merely a deeply thorough scan of what is present and whether or not ALL of the ensemble members can execute, within the timeframe allotted, what is in the score. If a piece “passes” this analysis, it stays on the list. If it does not “pass,” it is moved to a “to be programmed later” list. Remember, if a piece has reached this stage, it is important and should not be forgotten.
Large Scale Programming Considerations
After completing the score analyses we can finally start forming performance programs. There are still many issues to consider. At this point you should have a good list of possibilities for your programming needs. The next task is to arrange the pieces that have made it through this difficult vetting process into concert programs. A successful concert is dependent not only on the quality of the performance, but the quality and variety of the music presented. The goal is to form a single, satisfying, experience for the performers and audience alike. In addition to this aesthetic goal, there can be educational goals as well. In my experience, I have seen four types of programming:
- Individual Concert Programming – no connection from concert to concert
- Connected/Theme Based Programming – each piece or concert belongs to a larger theme
- Goal Piece Programming – concerts progress toward performing an identified goal piece
- Goal Concept Programming – a piece, or pieces consistently build upon workable concepts
A majority of collegiate/professional ensembles will program based upon the first two items listed above. It is my belief that educational ensembles should program with either one or both of the last two items listed above in mind. If the goal is to be able to perform “substantial work x,” what pieces should precede the performance of that goal piece to prepare for it? Also, look at the characteristics or musical concepts of the goal piece and find supplementary pieces that support that as well. In the end, the programming from concert to concert will be progressive and should allow for more retention of concepts.
Past these large concepts of programming, there is no single answer of how to program for an ensemble. There are some accepted norms like: “Start with an overture, then a slow piece, then a big piece to end.” In general this form is good. What about the need of a march or specific required pieces within the program for contests or festivals? It is still possible to program with a sense of flow and progression with these required pieces. A great analogy to think of programming is that it is like a meal. The list of pieces that we are selecting from is like a menu. It is important not to eat two appetizers or two main courses. Too much dessert is bad for your health! So, is there a way of thinking about programming related to this analogy to create the desired contrast? Deciding what function each work will serve is important. Some pieces may be able to serve dual purposes. Others are very clearly one “course” of the concert. I tend towards programming with big works or goal works in mind and then place pieces around them to create my programs. With the big piece programming in mind, it should always be placed in a position of prominence within the program.
Some examples of types of programs for “big piece” programming:
- Short Opener & Big Piece
- Big Piece & Short Closer
- Slow Piece & Big Piece
- Short Opener, Big Piece, Short Closer
- Short Opener, Slow Piece, Big Piece & Short Closer
Notice that no indication of length of work is considered. Solely the importance of the works being programmed is relevant. Other factors such as fast pieces vs. slow pieces can also be considered if more pieces need to be added. The more advanced the ensemble, incorporating a soloist or a chamber piece might also be necessary. For me, every program is unique and requires a different concept of how it should be put together. The in-depth knowledge of the repertoire I am considering and the ensemble provide the tools to create programs that, I believe, are engaging for my ensemble, my audience, and myself.
It is my firm belief that the more knowledge we have regarding our ensembles and the repertoire we desire to program, the more it will allow the entire programming process to be easier and more constructive for our students. Really be sure to understand “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of your ensemble. The honest evaluation of what your students can and cannot do is often found to be the “Achilles heel” of programming for many conductors.
- “I really thought my ensemble could do this piece…I guess it was just too hard for us”
- “We almost got there, just didn’t really have the trumpets this year.”
- “The kids really love this piece, we just needed more men to pull it off.”
When I hear comments like these it tells me that the conductor does not really know their ensemble or has made a difficult and often compromising pedagogical decision. There have been times that I have reached a little too far in my programming. That’s ok too! Just ensure that the experience for the students is worth it!
Take some time to see how your programming relates to a bigger picture concept. Ask yourself: “Am I accomplishing any development with these programs or are they just for fun. Or even worse at times: “This music is all music that I really like.” One thought that always sticks with me when I program I found from the great H. Robert Reynolds:
“In choosing one piece you are determining that all others will not be chosen: and this one is superior.”
That thought alone places a lot of pressure on me as a programmer. It requires a certain level of assurance that the music I am choosing is of high quality and fits my ensemble perfectly. It all comes back to knowledge. Knowledge of repertoire, knowledge of your ensemble, and knowledge of how you want to program. Gather as much information as possible, be curious, and take chances. Happy programming!
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