Repertoire Throughout the Year – Planning with the End in Mind

Dr. Nick Williams

Repertoire Throughout the Year – Planning with the End in Mind

Dr. Nick Williams

One of my favourite activities as a wind band conductor is selecting repertoire. For me, the joy isn’t only in the selection of the music. There is perhaps more pleasure in the process, the search for music – new and old. Like many of you, I love the feeling I get when I am reminded of a forgotten gem. Alongside this feeling is the excitement when I discover something new, especially as I continue to become more familiar with the music of Australian composers.

As a part of Yamaha Australia’s Off to a Great Start series, I’ll share a few of my favourite wind band pieces from grades 1 through 4. As a prelude to my list, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on my process of selecting pieces for the ensembles I’m conducting, as well as give points to consider when you are selecting repertoire for your ensemble. To begin, the overarching theme is to plan with the end in mind, and to put this plan into writing.

The first step is an ongoing one – listening. As I listen, I keep a running list of new pieces, masterworks, as well as rediscovered oldies. I encourage everyone to listen across all grade levels, not only the music from the grade level zone in which you teach. I’ve often heard friends say things like, “I’m only interested in the grade 2 works because that’s the level I conduct.” I constantly challenge this idea. Listen to MUSIC – of all forms, levels, and genres. If you “live in” a grade 2 band world, there is nothing wrong with continuing to listen to the grade 5 and 6 masterworks…even if it’s only for you!

As I begin to put the first puzzle pieces together, I begin with the end in mind, or at least an idea of the final destination for my student performers. The next phase of my process involves questioning. The first question, what are the musical elements and pedagogical concepts I want to introduce or reinforce throughout our academic year? In other words, what do I want them to be able to perform/know/feel/show/imagine at the end of the year? Next, I create a curricular plan or “roadmap” (we’ve heard that word a lot recently). Especially with my less experienced ensembles, I might also be looking for a “bridge piece.” This bridge piece should create a link (or bridge) to help make your students more comfortable with the given skillset, element, idea, or concept. When they see the skillset again in a subsequent piece, it’s no longer a new or challenging concept. Consequently, this bridge piece will allow the student performers to access prior knowledge and move from where they are (departure/point A) to where you want them (arrival/point Z). Like a physical bridge that has to be designed and built, for this progression to happen for your students, planning and implementation must occur from the director.

For teachers in the school band setting, an additional question might be, “what do you want your parents to hear their children perform?” Yes, your audience is an important consideration - clearly not the most important, but something to keep in the back of your mind.

Now with our written plan of the year’s goals, we continue with the process of selecting repertoire. I go back to my list. In addition, I check out online music resources. I search music publisher websites. I ask my friends and colleagues what they’ve recently found, performed or plan to perform. I want to know who is playing what, and maybe more importantly, why. Again, this is the fun part. I have the opportunity to simply listen to music. I have the opportunity to discover new pieces. I have the opportunity to engage with shop talk with my colleagues.

As we select our pieces for the year, keep in mind, we want to provide our student performers with a broad musical spectrum of music. We should carefully design our literature selections to expose students to composers who represent an array of ethnicities, nationalities, and gender identities. Equally important is our commitment to ensure the sonic soundscape is diverse, interesting, and vibrant. It is possible to create a concert program that includes composers of multiple genders, people of colour, as well as various ethnicities and have a concert of music that essentially all sounds the same. What am I saying here? Craft your program experiences. Carefully select your repertoire. Don’t simply tick boxes.

Further, we should consider our programming to be similar to a healthy diet. As you plan your meals, you’d never simply grab the first protein you see, then the first green thing in the produce area, and the first.... whatever. Right? As with a healthy diet, everything in moderation is a good concept to consider, and variety is the spice of…repertoire selection.

Ok. So, you’ve listened and listened and listened to music, familiar and unfamiliar. You’ve found your bridge piece(s) or created your own. You’ve ensured an appropriate, colourful, and diverse collection of works. Now what? Go back to your macro plan for the year and answer this question, when and how are you going to teach and inspire your students with all of these fantastic pieces you’ve selected? It’s ok to make changes or rearrange the order of programming. (It’s also ok to do this after the first few rehearsals.) We must plan ahead but also be flexible enough to know when plan B is ultimately more appropriate for your student performers than plan A.

Currently, these are a few of my favourite pieces, grades 1 through 4. Please note that the creation of this list doesn’t have pedagogical goals considered. This is simply a list of some of my favourite works at this point in time. My list could (and should!) be at least a little different a few months from now as I constantly listen, learn, and reflect.

Smith, Robert W. Appalachian Folk Dance Barnhouse 1
Sweeney, Michael Celtic Air & March Hal Leonard 1
Kennedy, Ed Ozzie Mozzie Koala Music 1
Blackshaw, Jodie Whirlwind Manhattan Beach 1
Hultgren, Ralph With Flags Unfurled Brolga Music 1
Hall, JaRod Lost Woods Fantasy FJH Music 1.5
Hultgren, Ralph Simple Song Brolga Music 1.5
Brittin Chambers, Carol Softly Speaks the Night Carl Fischer 1.5
Erickson, Frank Air for Band Bourne 2
Susato, Tielman/Margolis Battle Pavane Manhattan Beach 2
Nishimura, Cait Into the Blue Murphy Music 2
Shabazz, Ayatey On Freedom's Wings Barnhouse 2
McGinty, Anne Red Balloon Queenwood 2
Duffy, Thomas Snakes Ludwig 2
Owens, William Blue Orchid TRN Music 2.5
Margolis, Bob Fanfare, Ode & Festival Manhattan Beach 2.5
Vaughan Williams, Ralph Flourish for Wind Band Oxford University Press 2.5
Barnes, James Yorkshire Ballad Southern Music 2.5
Mason, Quinn Across a Golden Sky Murphy Music 3
LaPlante, Pierre American Riversongs Daehn 3
Archer, Kim Ballad for Aisha C. Alan Publications 3
Murrow, Jeanie Heroes in the Shadows Lovebird Music 3
Hultgren, Ralph High Country Brolga Music 3
Mackey, John Hymn to a Blue Hour Osti Music 3
Shapiro, Alex Paper Cut American Composers Forum 3
Yi, Chen Spring Festival American Composers Forum 3
Blackshaw, Jodie Into the Sun Brolga Music 3.5
Day, Kevin A Hymn for Peace Murphy Music 4
Greenaway, Sally Aurora Musis Amica Australian Music Centre 4
Grainger, Percy/Rogers Colonial Song Southern Music 4
Hogg, Brian Llwyn Onn Brolga Music 4
Fairlie, Ed Nurture (Composer) 4
McBeth, Francis Of Sailors and Whales Southern Music 4
Giroux, Julie One Life Beautiful Musica Propria 4
Thomas, Omar (arr.) Shenandoah (Composer) 4

After you’ve finalized your repertoire selection for the year, what’s next? Well, if you’ll allow me to hop on my soapbox for just a brief moment, I have a question. Do you want your students to play better? Obviously, the answer is an immediate yes! My next question is, what are you doing to sharpen your musical saw? To improve your musicianship? To reinvigorate your passion? Consider participation in a conducting workshop, invite a guest clinician, create a Saturday clinic with the local school band down the street or next suburb over…team teach and learn from each other, feed off each other, go to the Victorian School Music Festival (or the off-campus performance opportunity in your state), or contact Yamaha’s Education Outreach Clinician. Find ways to sharpen your skill, expand your knowledge, and diversify your musical palette so what you are sharing with your students is constantly broadening.

I often think of my own efforts toward musical growth. I don’t want to become so myopic in my musical development that I create a niche so small I can’t be helpful to others. One of my main goals as a music educator is to be a partner with my colleagues as we help to expand and improve our students’ musicianship.

Here’s a piece of advice on personal musical balance I’ve given my music education students, and I offer this suggestion to you. Consider our grading system of 1 through 6. For the sake of balance, for every “challenging” piece you give your students, give yourself (yes, you – the teacher) a new “easy” work that is just for you to listen to, study, and enjoy, and vice versa. If you live in the grade 1 or 2 world of teaching, give yourself a grade 5 or 6 piece to learn or at least listen to on your commute to school or back home. For every school band/orchestra concert you attend, go hear the most professional ensemble you have access to in your community (or find recordings). Create balance for yourself. Constantly enhance your own aural and musical growth. Challenge yourself to stay repertoire balanced. Musical stagnation can (and will!) occur if you allow yourself to be confined to a certain range of “appropriate music” for your students.

As we move further into 2021 and into a post-COVID (or at least COVID-normal) world, let’s continue the momentum gained in 2020 and create a new normal where we continue reaching out to people from different areas, states, countries, or hemispheres. With the current technology if you’re in an isolated silo of music learning and teaching, it might be because you put yourself there, and I don’t mean geographically. So, reach out and let’s support each other. Music education in Australia will be stronger. Ok…stepping off the soapbox now.

As a final point, I’ve always heard that our repertoire is our curriculum, or at least a large portion of our curriculum, as ensemble conductors. We must continue to cultivate our artform as we teach our young musicians. The experiences we provide our students through the selection of repertoire can be meaningful, long lasting, and forever impactful. Through careful research, planning, revision, and implementation, we can continue being the musical mentors our student performers deserve. Therefore, plan with the end in mind.