By Krista Hart
Choosing literature for your choir can be the most exciting or the most excruciating task for a director. Regardless of how you feel about the process, the decisions you make about the music your choir will sing are among the most important you will make as an educator. The octavos in the folders are the framework around which you will build the school year.
A well-balanced diet.
As a music educator, you have a responsibility to ensure that your choir is being fed musically. You’ve got to build them up with a steady diet of “meat and potatoes” literature—music that is full of things that are good for them, like developing musicality, expanding their musical vocabulary, and performing music with a historical context. But every great meal also includes dessert, so be sure to serve up an experience that students will feel is a “treat.” Just as filling up your plate with sugary, low-nutritional value foods won’t produce a strong body, loading your program with the same kind of music won’t produce strong and long-lasting musicians.
Consider these 6 criteria for choosing choral literature as you construct your menu:
- Variety. Whether you are programming for a concert or for the classroom, variety is crucial. What needs to vary? Almost everything—style, tempo, text, level of difficulty, length of selections, mood, language, key signature, text origin, time signature, accompaniment…you name it! Providing a variety of musical experiences will give you the best chance of engaging everyone in the choir at some point.
- Range. Examine each voice part from beginning to end. What is the tessitura? Is the range appropriate for the age group of your choir? Can your sopranos sustain that high B-flat for eight measures? If there are range issues, can you easily make an adjustment to the voice part without compromising the integrity of the piece?
- Quality of writing. Does the writing introduce new musical concepts to your choir? Are the parts written so that there is rhythmic and harmonic interest for all singers? Is the voice leading well-written? Does the accompaniment add to the overall musical experience, or distract from it? What “teachable moments” can you identify immediately?
- Quality of text. Text is of absolute importance. The text can speak to us on a level as deep as the music itself. Examine the text of the music you choose—is it age-appropriate? Is it poetic? Is it well-constructed?
- Integrity. From time to time we all need to be reminded to eat our vegetables. Don’t give in to pressure from your students. Don’t choose music just because you think the kids will like it. Avoid programming only familiar tunes because they might find anything else “too hard.” Some of the most rewarding moments in leading a choir come when students reach the point in rehearsals that they achieve a level of mastery that allows them to understand the music they are learning. The most challenging pieces are often the least favorite of the students at the beginning of rehearsals but become their favorites by the time the concert rolls around because they feel a sense of accomplishment in learning them.
- Love it. You have to love the music you put in front of your students. If you want them to be inspired in your classroom you have to be inspired by the music you choose. If your enthusiasm for the song is not authentic they will know it immediately. Plus, you will be studying and rehearsing this music for a longer amount of time than your students—do yourself a favor and choose things that will hold your interest over those weeks and months.
You owe it to yourself and your students to provide a steady diet of quality choral music, opening them up to sounds and experiences they won’t otherwise be exposed to. Attending reading sessions, browsing through octavos in a store or online, and asking respected colleagues for their favorites is time well-spent toward developing a quality choral program.
Krista Hart is a former music educator with a passion for sheet music. After teaching middle school vocal music, she assisted directors in choosing literature for their own choirs, and curating selections for choral reading sessions and clinics. She continues to help people experience the joy of making music working in Marketing for Alfred Music, and performing with the Pasadena Master Chorale.