Monthly Archives: December 2013

Selecting Music for Contests and Competitions

Anne PaynterBy Anne Paynter

“The results have been posted!” Fluttering teenagers dash to the back hall of the music building to get a peek at the rankings for today’s vocal competition. As nervous as they are, the students don’t realize that it is also a pit-in-the-stomach moment for the teachers following behind them. “What if my students didn’t do well? Could I have better prepared them for this day? Why do the same teachers’ students always seem to come out on top?”

As voice teachers (or as choral directors doing our best to cultivate our students’ individual voices), we are constantly challenged with helping our students to become the best musicians and performers that they can be. There are many facets to this job and obviously, good basic breath support and vocal technique come first. However, there are other layers: language, interpretation, stage presentation, etc. And one of the biggest challenges for the music teacher is simply choosing the right material for each student.

Being music educators, we typically lean towards choosing music that will stretch and challenge our students. But there are other things to be taken into consideration when selecting music for a contest or competition. Let’s further examine how to discern which type of music is best for an individual student when faced with being judged on their performance.

What is the purpose of a vocal contest or competition for high school students? It is likely either to provide financial scholarship, encouragement, or simply a learning experience for the student. In any case, it is of the utmost importance to select material at an attainable level that will showcase a student’s strengths. There is nothing more traumatic for a 15-year-old girl than to walk into an adjudication to perform a song that she knows is not ready. It is our job as educators to determine which music will be manageable for a student to perform well, in regards to range and technical ability, while demonstrating to the judges the unique exceptional qualities of that particular individual.

By way of example, let’s begin with a 14-year-old soprano with an undeveloped, breathy tone quality and limited range. If she has just begun to study, her breath capacity may be small, so songs with short phrases and few long sustained notes would be comfortable. If the student is not the dramatic sort, and you think that just getting through the contest without falling apart will be an accomplishment, try something simple, like Mozart’s “Die Zufriedenheit” (Mozart 12 Songs) in English—or in German if the student is smart and has a good ear for language. Another nice option would be “Billy Boy” arranged by Mark Hayes (10 Folk Songs for Solo Voice). Or, if the student is a little more on the dramatic side, use this to her advantage! The Spanish folksong “I Don’t Wish to Marry” (Pathways of Song, Vol. 3) in either English or Spanish is an excellent choice for a budding actress. Sometimes the ability to interpret and act will outweigh a lack of vocal technique. Finding a song that a student will connect with emotionally enhances their performance—and encourages them to practice! Other favorites for young sopranos are Carol Kelley’s “Who Has Seen the Wind?” and Marcy Pyrtle’s “Pie Jesu” (Ye Shall Have a Song).

A young baritone with an “exuberant” voice can be a challenge. Use his enthusiasm to his advantage in a sea chantey type song, such as, “Sing Me a Song of a Lad That Is Gone” by Sherri Porterfield or ‘Break, Break, Break” by Ruth Morris Gray (Sing Me a Song). Pairing this with a folk song such as “Star of the County Down” arranged by Douglas Wagner (12 Folk Songs for Solo Singers), or “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” arranged by Jay Althouse (Folk Songs for Solo Singers, Vol. 2), makes for a great contrasting program. Or, if he is capable of singing controlled lines and has an ear for language, try Beethoven’s “Ich Liebe Dich” (Pathways of Song, Vol. 2).

As students progress, the options really open up. Singers with an aptitude for language should definitely explore the options in Italian, French, and German. It is imperative that the student not only be able to pronounce the sounds; in order to interpret and communicate to the audience, students should have a good, working translation of any foreign language song they sing. Italian is the obvious starting point when introducing languages, because the vowels are simple and pure. 26 Italian Songs and Arias offers a wide variety of songs from which to choose, all with background information, translations, and IPA pronunciation guides. Again, play to your student’s strengths! A young actress will love “Nel cor più non mi sento” by Paisiello. Light, flexible voices will flourish in songs such as Caldara’s “Alma del core,” Scarlatti’s “Già il sole dal Gange,” or (for females) Parisotti’s “Se tu m’ami.” A voice with more control might attempt “O del mio dolce ardor” by von Gluck. Remember, when choosing these more frequently performed songs, it is even more important that the student be able to conquer the song and sing it well—the judges have heard them many times!

German can be a great next step when exploring languages. The prominence of consonants in the language helps to bring the placement of the voice forward. Haydn’s “Die Landlust” (Pathways of Song, Vol. 1) or Mozart’s “Sehnsucht nach dem Frühlinge” (Mozart 12 Songs) is a great choice for a younger, lighter voice. Mendelssohn’s “Auf flügeln des Gesanges” (Classics for Solo Singers) is a standing favorite of judges everywhere. For the more developed voice, choices abound in Mendelssohn 24 Songs (a personal favorite being “Hexenlied” for the student with a dramatic bent) and Mozart 12 Songs.

French is usually the most difficult. There are very few high school students who can sing French convincingly; therefore, it tends to impress the judges when done right! Recruit a French-speaking parent or colleague to help if you are not confident in your ability to get all of the sounds right. Songs like Mozart’s “Oiseaux, si tous les ans” and “Dans un bois solitaire” (Mozart 12 Songs) are excellent French choices for older high school students whose breath support has developed to the point where the tone is beautiful and flexible. For the student with excellent musical skills and interpretive ability, try something like “Il pleure dans mon couer” by Debussy (Pathways of Song, Vol. 3).

In general, it is important to know your student’s voice well before selecting contest music. Never choose a song for competition that includes notes outside of your student’s current comfortable range or phrases longer than he can comfortably sing. Remember, in an adjudication situation, we want the student to walk in feeling confident and competent, not worried about whether or not his voice will crack or if he will pass out from lack of oxygen! Also, pay special attention to the unique gifts of your student—whether that is dramatic prowess, the ability to “float” a tone, sheer size and magnitude, language skills, or exceptional musicality. Each student has something special to show off, and that is what we want the judges to see! Taking the time to research and discover the best song for your student will pay off in the long run, giving him or her a positive performance experience and the encouragement to keep on singing!

Finale Music Notation Software for the Working Pianist – Part One: Teaching Piano Lessons with Finale.

Baseball BethI am excited that the holiday season is upon us as there is so much great holiday music for my piano students. I love incorporating it into lesson plans during these early winter months, because students are able to use their ears when they are familiar with the songs they are learning. They usually set their own goals of showing off their piano skills to their families at holiday parties. This means they practice more. In this post, I will share a few of my tricks for teaching piano lessons during the holiday season, using Finale music notation software to save time and generate ideas.

Teaching piano lessons with Finale:
I never have trouble finding a holiday piece at just the right level to address the right skills for my students, because I use Finale to jury-rig arrangements of many popular songs. Clicking notes into a new Finale document is intuitive and easy, but connecting a MIDI keyboard for note input is even easier for me because I am a pianist. I would like to share a feature that I use a lot with my pre-reading students.

The AlphaNote font in finale places the note name in the center of the note head, which can make reading music less intimidating for beginners.

  1. Open Finale.
  2. Select “default document” from the launch window.
  3. Select a quarter note and click in a few notes onto the staff.
  4. Select the Staff Tool (looks like a treble clef).
  5. Right-click on the measure (control+click if you don’t have a mouse that can right-click) and select “Apply Finale AlphaNote Notenames.”


The note will now display in the AlphaNotes font like this:


Free Arrangements from Finale:
I also use the piano arrangements that are included with Finale.  If you have already own Finale 2014, these arrangements, in many genres, including Holiday, are already on your computer (that’s right, they are totally public domain and free). To find them, navigate to File > Open Worksheets and Repertoire > Repertoire. The Finale Blog also publishes even more holiday music annually. Of course, with Finale, these arrangements are editable. I typically transpose them, adjust the finger markings, and occasionally type in more notes for the left hand. The possibilities are endless.

My students seem to like the Jolly Old St. Nicholas arrangement. However, by default, the hand position has the students’ thumbs sharing middle C. I prefer the left hand thumb to be on B, so I make that adjustment in Finale and save the file before printing for my students.


Other piano instructors told me that they sometimes take arrangements in major keys, and work with their students to adjust accidentals and create a minor piece. I heard about this trick during the Halloween season, and will incorporate it into my own teaching soon. I personally think there is nothing better than a pencil and straight edge when beginning to make these score adjustments with students. However, when finished, I use Finale to create a professional level sheet music copy for students to take home.

Stay tuned for more Finale articles:
In my next post, I will share tips for the pianist who plays gigs (especially church pianists).

Baseball Beth
MakeMusic, Inc.

Have a question for me? Leave a comment below.

Already familiar with Finale? See a comprehensive list of new features, and how it affects your workflow from Jari Williamssons Finale 2014 review.

Baseball Beth is a MakeMusic, Inc. employee, as well as a private instructor, teaching piano, drum set, and composition. She composes original works for high school ensemble, commercials, and independent films. Her hobbies include bicycling and taking cello lessons.

A Festival Suggestion

By Bob PhillipsBPhillips

With contest and festival season in mind, here is a helpful teaching tip: prepare one piece ahead of time in the fall, put it away, and then bring it back before the festival.

There are many benefits to this approach:

  1. It can reduce the pressure on you and your students. Since festivals often happen about the time students are signing up for orchestra for the following year, this will allow time to work on retention.
  2. Having one piece that is “under their fingers” allows time to refine tone, interpretation, and a higher level of musicianship.
  3. This allows you to give students the opportunity to experience a piece with a more mature insight and heightened awareness.

However you decide to approach the 2014 contest and festival season, Alfred Music wishes you and your students the best!

High School A Cappella… What’s All the Buzz About?

Brody McDonaldBy Brody McDonald
High school a cappella is all the rage right now. It has enormous buzz. Why is that? Why is there such an explosion of a cappella in the high school ranks?

A cappella is exploding in the high school ranks because kids love…

  • Music that is familiar. Students have always asked, “Can we sing (insert song from radio here)?” That song might not be appropriate for a freshman mixed choir, but it certainly will work for an a cappella group.
  • The social aspect of singing together. A cappella is the new chamber music. It follows in the footsteps of doo-wop and barbershop, all the way back to madrigal singing. It is the epitome of recreational singing.
  • Singing anywhere, any time, at the drop of a hat. High school kids like to show off, entertain each other, etc. They’ll sing spontaneously in public no matter what, but there’s a better chance of getting your a cappella group together than having a balanced set of parts from your 40-voice chamber choir. Plus, it seems natural to sing popular music that gets radio airplay for the public.
  • Making funny mouth sounds. Yeah, young people like that. But in a cappella, those funny mouth sounds can translate into great performances.
  • The challenge of singing without a net. Of course, the challenge and joy of singing without a backing track or piano accompaniment isn’t exclusive to contemporary a cappella groups.  But with a cappella, it’s always present.
  • Singing on microphones and possibly with “toys” (pedals, throat mics, etc.). Young people like technology, ergo young singers like all of the gear that goes with a cappella singing.

And on the other end, directors love…

  • Groups that can be any size or configuration (male, female, or mixed). Choir programs come in a wide variety of sizes and ability levels. A cappella groups can be tailored to fit the program more easily than many other options.
  • Feeding the tigers. By this, I mean giving the best singers of the program a little extra red meat to chew on. A cappella music is challengingPop music often has simple solo lines, but duplicating the instrumental backs and the drum kit? That requires musical ability.
  • The growth that comes from student empowerment. A cappella groups typically have internal leadership opportunities: section leaders, a student music director, a merchandise manager, sound technicians, etc. In addition, a cappella groups are typically add-ons to an existing choir program and require the singers to do extra practice outside of rehearsal to make things go smoothly.
  • The chop building that comes from small ensemble work. In addition to the challenge of recreating a band with only the human voice, there’s the added benefit that most a cappella groups are 16-20 members or less. Whenever singers have to function with four or less singers on a part, they’ll get stronger.
  • Having a portable group for community relations. This is the very reason I started an a cappella group—I couldn’t take my 40-student show choir to every community performance request. Issues of size and transportation are much less with a cappella groups than show choirs or standard concert choirs.
  • Recruitment when younger singers hear “music they know.” Meeting new singers where they are is helpful. Thanks to a cappella, singing can indeed look cool. Consider the average middle school students that directors are trying to persuade to join choir. Sing them a spiritual and they might like it. Bust out a vocal percussion solo that transitions into an a cappella rendition of “Gangnam Style” and it’s game over.

A cappella still has some obstacles to overcome in the high school world because:

  • Directors fear “bad pop singing.” Some directors don’t yet understand that good technique is required in any vocal genre. Yes, there are a cappella groups that sing badly. There are also gospel choirs, concert choirs, and musical theater productions that are riddled with bad singing. But in every genre, there are also performers who use great technique. The genre and the level of technique are not linked, thankfully.
  • The tail wags the dog. Yes, this happens. It happens with show choirs, a cappella groups, vocal jazz ensembles, and more. The only way the tail will wag the dog in a program is if the director allows it. Directors must remember that they set the vision of their program and must keep their singers “eating a balanced diet.” All of my Eleventh Hour a cappella singers are members of my AA-level Symphonic Chorale.
  • Directors have little experience with it as a genre. Before forming Eleventh Hour, I didn’t have any experience with a cappella. That was scary. We all fear the unknown a little bit, and fear our own potential incompetence even more. But there are many resources available now that didn’t exist ten years ago. Directors, you should start by dipping a toe in the water and learn as you go. You can do this. Many, many people are willing to support you on your journey.
  • Directors might not know how to deal with sound gear. You don’t have to know everything all at once. You can start without sound gear and add it in as you learn (or don’t add it in at all). There are many resources for learning about live sound reinforcement, as well as contractors in every market who will appraise your situation, advise you on purchases, and train you on equipment.
  • Directors are lost as to how to find music. To be fair, there isn’t a lot of music available off the rack. However, there’s more coming every year. [Editor’s Note: Click here for Alfred’s contemporary a cappella publications.]

In short, it seems like a risk. And … that’s true. It can be a risk. But isn’t everything new inherently a risk? Some people will avoid change, but I think it’s intoxicating. Learning is my drug.

Brody McDonald is the choral director at Kettering-Fairmont High School in Ohio. He is at the forefront of the contemporary a cappella movement, and the author of A Cappella Pop: A Complete Guide to Contemporary A Cappella Singing. Choirs under his direction have performed regularly for state and national conventions, and appeared with artists such as Kenny Rogers, LeAnn Rimes, and the Beach Boys. His award-winning high school a cappella group, Eleventh Hour, was featured on NBC’s The Sing-Off. He recently joined the faculty at Wright State University to develop an a cappella program, featuring the new group Ethos. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, he was a member of the Barbershop Harmony Society’s International Collegiate Quartet Champion, Stop the Presses.

How Finale 2014 Can Benefit Your Concert Band

For over 25 years, Finale has remained the world standard, in part because of its exclusive flexibility to create anything you can imagine. Now with the latest version, Finale 2014, music educators have even more ways to save time while enhancing their teaching program with additional, personalized tools.

Finale integrates seamlessly with SmartMusic®, the interactive music education software. Create SmartMusic accompaniments and assessment files for your students to learn their music before rehearsal. Scan an instrument part and transpose it for another instrument. Instantly generate exercises for your entire ensemble—without entering a note—with Finale’s exclusive Exercise Wizard. Finale saves you time with a wide variety of powerful tools from instant range-checking, to Linked Parts that ensure your score and parts are always in sync. Exclusive idea-generating features, including Band-in-a-Box Auto-Harmonizing, offer quick inspiration. And when it’s time to play back your creations, Garritan instruments and Human Playback produce living, breathing music.

Whether you’re teaching, testing, or sharing music puzzles and games, Finale provides easily customized resources. From flashcards and worksheets that cover the basic elements of music, to tools to aid improvisation and discover form and analysis, the content you need is at your fingertips.

Below is a helpful article straight from Justin Phillips at Finale.

Paste Multiple in Finale 2014justinphillips

By Justin Phillips

Finale has many timesaving editing features to help you quickly create the music on your mind. Finale can also help speed up repetitive tasks, like creating warm-ups and exercises for your ensemble. For this example, we’ll take a look at creating some warm-ups quickly with Finale’s vertical copy and paste feature.

I created a quick score in B-flat Major with five staves that cover the various instrument transpositions that would be present in a typical concert band. I have a staff for non-transposed instruments, E-flat instruments, B-flat instruments, F instruments, and non-transposed bass clef instruments.


Now I need to copy and paste the music in the top staff to the bottom. While I could select the measures with the Selection Tool and copy them to each staff one by one, a quicker way would be through Paste Multiple.

Simply select the measures you wish to copy with the Selection Tool and press Ctrl + C (Win) or Command + C (Mac) to copy. Then select the first measure in the top staff or measure you wish to paste to then hold Ctrl + Alt + V (Win) or Ctrl + Command + V (Mac). In the Paste Multiple dialog box that appears, select “To the Bottom of the Score” and press OK.


Finale will now paste the music on all staves. Finale 2014 will also automatically place the music in the proper range, however this can be easily changed to a different range by selecting the music with the Selection Tool and pressing 8 or 9 to transpose down or up an octave.


As a music educator, you add to your legacy every day—making a lasting, positive impact in the lives of your students. While today’s Finale is easier than ever to use, if you ever have a questions, help is close at hand. Only Finale offers interactive tutorials, videos, searchable solution to commonly asked question, and FREE on-line support.

Thank you to Justin Phillips at Finale for these valuable tips!