Mike Lawson • ArchivesChoral • September 1, 2003

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Every director has his or her own approach to selecting the music that will be performed during an upcoming concert. From listening to promotional CDs from music publishers to attending as many other schools’ concerts as possible, directors are always on the lookout for new and appealing music to perform with their students.

School Band and Orchestra magazine recently surveyed a sampling of music directors at the elementary and secondary teaching levels about what factors they consider when selecting concert music for their ensembles.

“I keep many lists from great conductors and composers that I have worked with and spoken to over the years that I refer to often when selecting programs. I attempt to listen to as many pieces as possible each year in concert and promotional recordings. A piece that does not work for you now may work well five years from now. Keep as many recordings available as possible for future reference,” advises Bernie Potter, a director at the Roosevelt Fine Arts Magnet School in Peoria, Ill.


As educators listen to and evaluate different pieces of music, all manner of considerations are taken into account, from instrumentation to difficulty level to educational value.

Fifty-three percent of the directors who participated in SBO‘s survey on concert programming said the appeal of the music – to the students, audience and director – ranked high in their decision-making.

“To me, the most important criteria when I select music is: Do I like the way it sounds? Is it beautiful? Is it stirring? Does it elicit emotion of some kind in me? If I get goose bumps when I hear a piece, then I’ll most likely see if the selection is one that can be performed by one of my ensembles,” explained George Edwin Smith, Gustine High School, Gustine, Calif.

Many directors – 51 percent – pointed out that matching the ability level of their ensembles to the difficulty level of the music also ranked high when selecting concert music. Twenty-six percent have tried to incorporate selected literature into some aspect of the curriculum, while 11 percent stated that the instrumentation of their ensembles played an important role when seeking music.

Twenty-three percent of the directors surveyed said they seek a variety of styles and a balanced program for their concerts.

“Always balance the program. If you’re giving a concert, you’re going to have an audience and you’ve got to keep their attention. It’s like a movie or video production – you’ve got to think ‘beginning, middle, end.’ No matter how many pieces you select or what style they are, they must complement each other,” noted Phillip Marcus at William H. Standley Middle School, San Diego, Calif.

Some concerts are modeled after a theme, which all of the selected music reflects. Fourteen percent of survey respondents said they have chosen music according to a concert theme.

” Sometimes we try to fit our selections into a ‘theme’ concert. One year we did an all-Kansas program, and one concert was all music from around the world,” said David Will, director at Norton Community High School, Norton, Kans.

Bringing the Ensemble to a Higher Level

The majority of directors responding to the survey – 82 percent – explained that they program music of varying levels to challenge their ensembles and to generate an interesting variety of styles. The remaining 18 percent of directors acknowledged that they select one level of music because their students are strictly beginners or because their ensembles are performing at such a high level that they program only advanced pieces.

The trend toward selecting multiple levels of music prevailed, supported by a range of rationale. Most directors stated that they usually select at least one piece to challenge the students musically.

“I usually select one (out of the four) that really challenges my students technically or musically, or both. The students have a great feeling of success when they reach their goals of performing the challenging pieces well,” said Harold Walt, Quincy Junior High School, Quincy, Ill.

At Judkins Middle School in Pismo Beach, Calif., director Dina Myers programs three levels of difficulty into her students’ concerts to broaden their experience while building confidence.

“I try to select one challenging piece, one easier piece and one middle-ground piece for each group. That way, we can really work on the finer points in the easier piece and they feel confident in their presentation. They can also know the thrill (some call it fear) of doing something more difficult than they have done before,” said Myers.

Director Bingiee Shiu, at Memorial High School in Houston, Texas, programs concerts to address different aspects of the students’ musical exploration and maturation.

“I look for a piece for the fingers (technique), a piece for the intellect and a piece for the heart. Many times, I find myself picking the technical piece first and choosing the rest of the music around that because that is likely to be the piece that will call for most of our rehearsal time. The piece for the heart is chosen to explore the emotional side of music. I try to find music where I can make life connections for the students. This often ends up being the kids’ favorite piece because we find so many ways to make it come alive. The piece for the intellect will often be a contemporary piece that stretches the students as well as the audience. The challenge makes the students feel a great sense of accomplishment because of the hurdles they had to cross to master the piece.”

As is often the case, rehearsal schedules limit the amount of time bands and orchestras have to practice and prepare for concerts. Some directors cited time constraints as one of the reasons they program music of varying levels.

“Each concert will have at least one piece that really challenges the group. Easier pieces need to be programmed because of rehearsal limitations. Easier pieces also tend to sound better because the group can be more musically involved in the performance,” said David E. Norman, Dansville High School, Dansville, Mich.

Many directors agreed that students need a mixture of challenging and enjoyable literature to keep them engaged in music-making.

“I won’t do anything that doesn’t make them sound good. We will work on challenging pieces in class but select from the ones that they are proud to play and play well,” explained Christian K. Peters, Fern Ridge Middle and Elmira High schools, Elmira, Ore.

Tom Meyer, director at Nevada High School in Nevada, Mo., programs a combination of levels to ensure that students have the opportunity to play more than one style of music.

” I select music that challenges the students, but not all hard music is good and not all easy music is bad. We play a good mix of challenging and easier pieces. The point is to have a well-rounded concert with many different styles of music,” he said.

Commissioning Works

Directors who are looking for something new often turn to another programming option – commissioning a composer to write an original work that is written specifically for their ensembles.

According to the survey, 33 percent of directors who responded have commissioned a piece for their ensemble at least once. In every case, directors described the experience of premiering a piece written especially for their students as enriching, rewarding and worth repeating.

Concert Programming ConsiderationsTwo years ago, B.J. Marks at Northside Middle School in Columbus, Ind., contacted Grand Mesa Music Publishers in search of a composer, with one in particular in mind: David Weirich. Marks’ band had performed Weirich’s “Ars Nova Suite” the previous year and he was interested in commissioning him to write a piece for his own band. Once an agreement was reached, Marks provided details about the band – including a recording of one of their performances and a list of the band’s instrumentation – and the students selected a title for the work, ” Medieval Enchantment.”

Three months later, the rough draft arrived. The band listened to a MIDI version of the piece and examined the score.

“I was able to work with the composer to make small changes and add my suggestions,” Marks stated.

Two months afterward, the band received the completed score and parts. Two days before the spring concert, the composer visited the school for an evening rehearsal.

“Mr. Weirich’s rehearsal with the band was a priceless experience. You could see the kids were hanging on his every word as he would explain why he chose certain compositional elements as the band was playing through the piece,” Marks recalled. “The best part was that he took the kids through the piece and asked them to describe what they thought the contrasting themes represented. The rehearsal was filled with talk of queens, ladies-in-waiting, knights, castles and the like. The kids identified themes with each of the characters they created. The composer had woven the themes back into the piece, but in retrograde – that was something we had not noticed yet in our rehearsals and it added a lot to the nature of the piece when we realized what he had done. The concert night was an excellent experience and a great culmination to our hard work.”

The Memorial High School Orchestra in Houston, Texas, performed a piece commissioned by Houston composer Jefferson Todd Frazier at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic. Orchestra director Bingiee Shiu had the opportunity to work closely with Frazier on the project.

Number of Directors Who Have Commissioned Music“I was able to tell him what our strengths and weaknesses were and what types of things I was looking for in a piece, such as slow movement that had expansive climaxes and a closing movement that contains a fugue – my favorite form,” Shiu noted. “Mr. Frazier made himself available to attend rehearsals to comment on our interpretations, to let us in on the history behind the piece and to point out things we didn’t realize yet. That was such a great experience that we commissioned another piece by him for our performance at Carnegie Hall.”

The students at White Station Middle School in Memphis, Tenn., premiered a work by Anne McGinty, called “Hieroglyphs.”

“It was a wonderfully inspiring and motivational experience for my students and I would highly recommend a similar project to any school musical ensemble,” said director Skip Quinn.

At Deer Path Middle School in Lake Forest, Ill., the music department has a commissioning project in progress every year.

“Each year, one component of the music department receives a commission – band, chorus or orchestra,” director Heather Pettit related. “To date, the band has four concert band commissions, two percussion ensemble commissions and one jazz band commission. The orchestra has two string orchestra commissions and the chorus has one.”

At Farmington High School in Farmington, Mich., a long-term commissioning project is in the works. To mark the unveiling of a newly constructed music suite in the late 1990s, the Farmington Music Patrons commissioned a piece by Michigan composer Mack Pittard, to be performed at the open house.

“This spring, the Farmington Music Patrons have put a line in their budget to set aside monies for a new commissioned piece. We hope to have this piece started in the next year and that this will be an ongoing project for more new pieces for many years to come,” said director Norman Logan.

In Charlottesville, Va., a quinquennial band reunion performance calls for a new piece to be commissioned especially for each occasion.

“We have had four pieces commissioned,” according to director Vincent Tornello. “We have a reunion of past band members every five years, and they return to perform with the current band. We had pieces commissioned for the 45th, 50th, 55th and 60th anniversary celebration concerts. Three pieces were by Robert Leist and a fourth was by Gary Fagan.”

The Home-Grown Approach

While some schools are able to obtain funding for music commissioning, the majority of directors responding to the survey cited a lack of funds as the biggest obstacle standing in the way of a commissioning project. Forty-four percent of survey participants said they had never commissioned a piece of music for their ensembles, but 15 percent said they were interested or already pursuing the opportunity.

Not surprisingly, many directors are composers themselves and have written pieces specifically for their student groups. In other cases, students or former students have tried their hands at composing and have had their works performed in concert. Eight percent of survey respondents said they or one of their students had written music for their ensemble.

In Chardon, Ohio, the Chardon Middle School has performed an estimated 20 commissioned works during the past few years because the director, Len Orcino, is a published composer with C.L. Barnhouse. But he isn’t the only one writing original music for the program.

“One of my former students just got his first piece published with Barnhouse and another local director/composer also writes for us,” Orcino said. “Between the three of us, there is at least one or two new works on each program, with a guest conductor or two.”

At John L. Miller-Great Neck North High School in Great Neck, N.Y., the choral director and composition teacher – who also happens to be a composer – lends his talents and expertise to the instrumental music program.

“We have a very talented – and world known – composer as our choral director and teacher of composition, Roger Ames. Every year, we perform a large-scale work for chorus and orchestra, or chorus and band, by Roger Ames – or one of his students, who are usually band or orchestra players. At our spring concert last year, we premiered ‘White Flag,’ for alto solo, chorus and orchestra, by senior Betsy Rosenblum. Betsy was also the conductor,” band and orchestra director Joseph Rutkowski reported.

Even younger students are getting into the act of composing.

“This spring we debuted a work for wind ensemble by Darien Merrick, one of my very talented eighth-graders,” remarks Phillip Marcus at William H. Standley Middle School, San Diego, Calif.


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