December 28, 2016

Successful Programming = Successful Choirs

by Dr. Jerry Myers
SWACDA R&R Chair for 2-Year College Choirs
Professor of Music / Director of Choral Activities,
St. Louis Community College at Meramec,
St. Louis, MO

A version of this article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of the MCDA Reporter.

At the SWACDA Conference in Kansas City, I was privileged to present a session with Claude Westfall and Dennis Sparger entitled Back to Bach: Making Baroque Accessible for You and Your Choir. In preparing for this session, I thought at length about the art of programming repertoire. As a conductor and adjudicator, I would like to share some thoughts with you on this important subject.

All too often when I judge contests and festivals, I hear unprepared choirs. Most often, the reason for these substandard performances is that the repertoire is just too difficult for the ensemble. I also often find that the number of voice parts in the music does not match the number in the choir, the vocal range of a section is exceeded, there is chromaticism that is above the skills of the singers, a foreign language is not learned correctly, etc.

But, I did not set out to write an article on what is done incorrectly. I have no way to know the daily trials of the directors whose choirs perform literature that is too difficult. Rather, I will address a few of my ideas on choosing repertoire that has led to successful performances for my groups.

As a young conductor, the literature that I knew best was what I performed with my college choirs. Very few pieces from this body of repertoire would be appropriate for a choir that is not made up of advanced collegiate music majors. Moreover, my skills allowed me to sight read difficult music making it seem easy to me. (A great deal of thanks to my wonderful teachers.) Thus, I was tempted to program repertoire for my choirs that would lead to frustrating rehearsals and unsuccessful performances.

So, how do I avoid programming literature that is too difficult? Here are some thoughts:

1) Research, research, research! To choose literature correctly, you must first take the time to learn a great deal of new literature and re-learn the tried & true repertoire with your current ensembles in mind. If you do not know a large repertoire of music – old and new – you will not have a diverse selection of music from which to choose. I set aside a short amount of time – just 10-15 minutes - at least one day each week to review new music. We have a vast amount of literature available to peruse online – with scores and recordings! This minute amount of time each week has yielded a large stack of music that I know well enough to pick from when programming for my choirs!

2) Be flexible! I often program a concert with 2-3 possible sets of repertoire per ensemble. My alternate sets include music that is slightly less difficult than what I chose initially. I do this for my non-auditioned and auditioned choirs. I also include slightly more difficult pieces as alternates for my select choirs. Yes, this takes extra time (much less if I have a stack of music that I’ve already studied!) but it allows for flexibility. If I encounter an issue that I did not anticipate – difficulty, range, technical demands, etc. – and I feel that the issue cannot be addressed fully in the remaining rehearsals before a performance, I have the option to try a different piece. My alternate sets include a variety of styles, tempi, etc. to avoid upsetting the balance of my overall concert program. Since I have already selected and studied alternate pieces and given them to my accompanist, I can even make the change during a rehearsal. This saves time, a lot of frustration in upcoming rehearsals, and insures that my ensembles will perform repertoire at the highest level of difficulty that they can perform well.

3) Know your groups! The better I know my ensembles, the less I need to use alternate pieces! It is very important to know and consider the level of singers in each of your ensembles as you choose repertoire. You need to take into account their previous training, level of sight reading skill, the number of voice parts available (all too often I hear SAB choirs trying to perform SATB music!), the ranges that each of your sections can perform well, etc. If you have non-auditioned choirs that you will not evaluate until the first rehearsal, it is even more critical to have 2-3 sets of music sorted by level of difficulty so that you can quickly choose a set once you get to know your ensemble.

As a conductor, I find the work of choosing repertoire – the first step to an ensemble’s success – to be most rewarding. In the vast library of choral music – both old and new – there are ample pieces available for every level of choir. If you do not know where to start, ask a SWACDA R&R Chair for ideas. We are here to help!

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of what we must consider when choosing repertoire for our choirs. But, I hope it gives you some ideas to consider as we soon embark on a new semester! Best wishes.

You may contact Jerry Myers HERE