Repertoire Selection for a Brighter Future
By Rachel Howley
Repertoire Selection for a Brighter Future
By Rachel Howley
It's the start of a new year and I'm sure that you, like me, are looking for ways to make 2021 the best it can be. The most important task that we all face for the start of any new school year is repertoire selection. We spend hours searching repertoire recommendations and trawling through online retailer and publisher sites to narrow in on that perfect list. For years I’ve diligently employed the criteria I was taught during my teacher training; check for educational concepts and teachable moments, include a balance of levels and styles, make sure there’s a slow piece and a challenge piece, include Australian composers...you know the drill! I had a hotlist of reliable composers whose works I knew I could include (often ones I had played as a student) and I had more experienced colleagues ready to offer advice. I felt pretty confident that I had this gig worked out. But I was missing something…I realised that every time I opened the front page of a score and saw the composer's photo, I was seeing a picture of white man. When I looked at my ensembles, there was a lot more diversity; young women, students of colour and those from a range of cultural backgrounds. It hit me! I don’t remember ever playing a piece written by someone like me - a woman - when I was a student. What would happen if I started to program so that ALL of my students could see themselves in the composers that we played?
Fast forward a few years and I'm now deep into a doctoral thesis that investigates the role that conductors can play in championing the wind band works of Australian women composers. Without going too "research" on you, I’d like to share some of the key insights that I’ve gained. (If you are keen for more nitty-gritty, you can read my recent article in the International Journal of Music Education).
- The majority of conductors in Australia choose repertoire using major retailer or publisher websites, however, the number of works by women and other diverse composers represented on these sites is incredibly low. In fact, 89% of the conductors that I surveyed, who had previously tried to program wind band works by women, found it to be challenging.
- Conductors tend to program within their comfort zone and often select music or composers that they played as students. There are a number of factors involved but one big one is that music teachers are typically time-poor, and programming tried-and-tested works is time-effective.
- Women composers are less likely to write for large ensembles unless they are specifically commissioned to do so, BUT women are also less likely to be commissioned because they are not as well-known and considered high risk. There are a number of historic and domestic factors that have impacted this, resulting in a much lower number of works for wind band being written by women than by men.
- The music we purchase and program, influences the music that is published in the future. It is important to remember that publishers are businesses, and we have the power to create a demand for more diverse music if we choose.
- Selecting repertoire that represents the broad range of students who participate in our ensembles lifts their sense of belonging, increases engagement with the music and has the potential to boost long-term retention for our programs.
Great! But what can we realistically do in our incredibly busy teaching lives that offers our students a broader repertoire experience AND creates lasting impact in our band world? Here's 5 ideas you could try in 2021:
- Use the first and last name of composers when talking to students and audiences. This one small action will help to "normalise" composers of different genders and nationalities.
- Engage students with the composer of the music. It can be as easy as using the composer’s (full) name when announcing which piece you are rehearsing next or reading out their biography when introducing a new piece. If you can, I’d highly recommend having a composer come to rehearsal in-person or via Zoom for a workshop or Q&A.
- Program at least one piece by a diverse composer in 2021. If you aren't sure where to start, check out Jodie Blackshaw's "Female Composers" list or search the databases on the '...And We Were Heard' or 'Institute for Composer Diversity' websites. Some of the works I programmed in 2020 were Yukiko Nishmura's Sailing, Jodie Blackshaw's Whirlwind and Light the Earth, Claire Petherick's The Butterfly (Roars), Julie Giroux's Let Your Spirit Sing, Carol Britten Chambers' Night Fury and Cait Nishimura's Chasing Sunlight.
- Spend some time exploring and listening to the works of lesser-known composers even if you aren’t going to program them. It will open your ears to a variety of different sound worlds. This was a HUGE perk that I discovered! There are so many new sound worlds to discover and band music DOES NOT need to conform to traditional sounds to be high quality and accessible to players and audiences.
- Try to get involved in a consortium that is commissioning an underrepresented composer. This is a cost-effective way to commission a new work and there are an increasing number of these opportunities popping up. Whenever possible, create connections with the composer throughout the process. The benefits of these collaborations can be incredibly positive for conductors, composers AND players.
I guess the big question here is of LEGACY. Will our current choices positively impact the future diversity and equity of the wind band world? When band directors of the future look back at our work, will they see educators who made small intentional steps to create a broader and more inclusive medium or will we be a generation that perpetuated the status quo? In 2021, I commit to programming for a brighter future; one that is bold and colourful and diverse!
Rachel Howley is a music educator, conductor and researcher. In 2015, Rachel was the founding Director of Grace Academy at Grace Lutheran College, a leading Queensland educational institution in Performing Arts which provides high quality Arts education to students across several locations, at schools and in the local community. In addition to regularly conducting secondary school ensembles, Rachel is a conductor at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University in the Young Conservatorium programs. She is member of the conducting team for the Queensland Wind Orchestra, and regularly guest conducts throughout Queensland. Rachel has also assisted with teaching the undergraduate Orchestral Conducting subjects at the Queensland Conservatorium.
Rachel is a current Doctor of Musical Arts candidate, studying conducting with Dr Peter Morris. Her research explores the role of the conductor in championing the wind band works of Australian female composers, and she is an active advocate for encouraging diversity and fair gender representation through the selection of repertoire. Rachel regularly presents sessions for music educators from across Australia on repertoire diversity. Through her research, she has commissioned several new works and facilitated partnerships between emerging composers, conductors and Australian publishing companies.