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.