By David Pope
Why is choosing repertoire important? Repertoire selection is one of the most significant decisions made by ensemble directors. Thoughtfully selected repertoire can properly develop students’ technique from concert to concert, cultivate musicality, energize daily rehearsals, and motivate students to practice outside of class. My main objective as a director is to foster successful experiences for my students, and the first step in creating positive experiences is choosing repertoire that meets students’ musical needs, engages them in the music making process, and excites them about playing their instrument.
To meet these objectives, directors should strive to avoid common pitfalls when choosing music. Directors should get out of their own way, understand their students’ performance abilities, know the specific techniques required in each piece, and determine what motivates their students. Considering the four strategies below will help directors create positive learning experiences for their students.
1. Set Realistic Expectations
The most common complaint from festival adjudicators is that ensemble directors over program. Many directors choose concert repertoire with their hearts instead of their heads. Common examples of this include: programming specific repertoire because directors played it when they were in middle or high school, a longing desire to teach a masterwork, or blindly choosing music based on the way it sounds. Those decisions often lead to unrealistic expectations and result in directors becoming upset when their students do not rise to the challenge. Directors transfer their stress onto students during class, and that negatively impacts the rehearsal environment.
To avoid going down that road, pay closer attention when sight-reading new repertoire of music with your students. Did you stop more than four times because chaos reigned and the ensemble fell apart? Were the students in the back of the ensemble lost the entire time? If the answers to those questions are “yes,” consider selecting different repertoire that will lead to a greater level of student success. Yes, most students want to push themselves to learn hard music, but it can be demoralizing if they are barely keeping up. “Playing hard music” should not be the goal. Make creating positive and memorable musical moments the objective in your classroom.
2. Know Your Ensemble
Part of setting realistic expectations is accurately understanding your students’ playing abilities. Before selecting repertoire for each concert, determine where your students’ are in their musical development. Determine which concepts they perform proficiently and those that need additional practice to reach a satisfactory performance level. With that knowledge, directors can choose repertoire that nurtures their students’ musical development.
Another component of successful programming is knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your ensemble. Effective programming involves emphasizing the strong sections of your ensemble, limiting the exposure of inexperienced sections, and knowing how hard you can push your students for each concert sequence. Avoid featuring your inexperienced sections and chose repertoire that highlights the strengths of your ensemble. If I have strong celli and weak violins, maybe “Canon in D” is not the best option for my ensemble. While “Canon in D” is a wonderful work, it does not give the ensemble the best opportunity to succeed. Also consider the amount of rehearsal time for each concert sequence. If you have a limited number of rehearsals due to state testing and field trips, consider that when selecting repertoire.
3. Determine the Required Technique
Once you narrow down possible repertoire choices for your next concert, dissect each piece to determine what playing techniques are required. Establish what left hand (i.e. shifting, vibrato, various finger patterns, extensions), right hand (i.e. bow strokes, tone colors, stylistic playing, articulations), and music reading skills (i.e. note range, changing clefs, symbols, terminology) are necessary to produce a high level performance. That information, paired with in-depth knowledge of your students’ performance abilities, will help directors determine how many new concepts occur in the repertoire.
I use a basic math formula to determine the amount of new skills I want to introduce in new repertoire. I also consider what playing techniques I plan to refine. For beginning 6th grade students, creating proper set-up and playing position is my main goal. As a result, I skew heavily toward refinement (70%) over new skills (30%). I do not want to overwhelm my students with too many techniques at once. However, the ratio changes as students age because they have a solid set-up and better multi-tasking abilities: 7th grade (40% new skills and 60% refinement), 8th grade (45% new skills and 55% refinement), 9th grade (50% new skills and 50% refinement), 10th grade (55% new skills and 45% refinement), 11th grade (60% new skills and 40% refinement), and 12th grade (65% new skills and 35% refinement). To create positive experiences, it is important to set students up for success through detailed analysis and proper planning.
4. Connect to Every Student
Another step to successful programming is choosing repertoire your students want to perform. If you are like me, I am sure you have selected at least one piece of music your students did not like. If your ensemble population mirrors mine, you have a diverse group of students with an even wider array of musical preferences. Yes, it is essential to teach students about specific genres and important pieces of music, but what impact will that have if they continuously do not like our repertoire choices? Will it cause students to lose their desire to play in our ensembles?
Even though directors may prefer specific genres of music and think our students need to know specific works, consider programming works outside of your comfort zone to engage all students in your classroom. Find a variety of new pieces that engage all of your students. For example, The Emerald Falcon (Meyer) resembles energetic movie music, Aspire (Phillips) is soulful and lyrical, Gaelic Trilogy (arr. Palmer) leans on traditional Irish fiddle tunes, and Trans-Siberian Orchestra arrangements are orchestra rock music. As long as the repertoire meets your students’ technical and musical needs, choose works that match their personalities. Remember to choose repertoire that inspires your students to love music, and we can use a variety of genres to reach that objective.
David Pope is Director of Orchestras for the Elyria City Schools (OH). In addition, he teaches string pedagogy courses for VanderCook College of Music, conducts the Northern Ohio Youth Orchestra, and serves as a senior conductor and co-director of Florida State University’s String Orchestra Camp. As an active adjudicator and clinician, he has conducted numerous all-state orchestras, regional honor orchestras, and served as a guest clinician for various orchestra programs throughout the United States. Dr. Pope has presented string pedagogy clinics and his research at state, regional, national, and international conferences. Dr. Pope received the Distinguished Music Educator Award (2015) from the Yale Symposium for Music in Schools and was the recipient of the Outstanding Young Music Educator Award (2009) for the state of Tennessee.