As I ponder what profound words I can type on the page about programming, I always come back to the sound of Julie Andrews singing, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” I agree; it is a very good place to start. Programming music for a choir is a task I do not take lightly. The music my choirs sing represents me, my ideals as a choral director, new choral techniques I want my choir to learn, and usually a message I want to leave with both my singers and the audience. But what do I consider first when choosing a piece of music?
My first consideration when choosing music is the group who will be performing the music. I take into consideration their age, but mostly their years of experience and skill level. I also take into account the theme of the concert or event, the amount of time allotted to learn the music, the intended audience, and whether the music appeals to me. I would like to delve more deeply into how to choose music for your choirs based on their experience as singers. Too often I listen to choirs who are attempting to sing music that is too difficult. I am sure there are examples of choirs singing pieces that are too easy, but for the most part I have only encountered the first scenario. There is a fine line between challenging your choir and expecting your choir to perform a piece of choral music that is too difficult for them.
A choir director needs to meet their ensemble where they are. This was difficult for me when I first began teaching. I had come from a college well known for its music and the college choir I sang in was held in high regard. When I started my first job I had high standards for my choir, both in the vocal sound I wanted from them and in the literature I chose for them. I figured my students would want to sing the same literature I was accustomed to singing. Boy was I mistaken! It took a while, but I finally came to the realization that I had to meet my choirs where they were, vocally and musically. I also had to take into consideration their maturity level, and then I could build from there. I still had high standards for my choirs, but I quickly learned to choose music that would allow them to grow, yet also feel empowered by what they were able to accomplish.
As choir directors, we all want our choirs to be successful. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to program music that allows your choir to shine. It is so satisfying to watch the faces of my choir members and see their eyes light up as they hit the last chord of a piece. Many hours go into preparing a piece of music, and while choir directors have a hand in what the choir accomplishes, in the end the choir does the work. If a choir is given music that is too challenging, the choir members may struggle to reach the director’s ultimate goals for the piece and the choir may feel defeated.
There have been times during the rehearsal process when I have made the determination that a certain piece of music is not working for my choir. It is ok to say to yourself, “maybe another year.” Programming music for your choir should be aimed at challenging your ensemble, but also helping them find success. At the end of the day I would rather have a choir that has learned good singing techniques, can blend well with each other, and has a love for the music making process than one who has made an attempt at a piece too difficult for them and struggles to sing right notes and rhythms.
I would recommend every choir director ponder why he or she chooses certain pieces for their choirs and ask whether it is truly for the benefit of their ensemble. Choirs show growth from concert to concert and from year to year, and our programming needs to take all of that into consideration. Choral singing is a complex endeavor, but with careful programming and great leadership every choir can find success, and then the hills will be alive with the sound of music.