The challenges of selecting literature for your ensemble

Few things are as maddening as selecting literature appropriate for your ensemble. Everyone has opinions on what to play. Who is right?

As many of you return to school from the holiday break – likely with a snow day or two thrown in there for good measure – the task of selecting literature for your ensemble stares you in the face. Concert festivals are a minefield, filled with opinions from adjudicators whose score will be all that matters to your administration. It’s an all-too-common situation.

“You can’t play Holst’s First Suite! Everyone knows it and has an etched-in-stone opinion!”

“Not more John Mackey! He is played too much!”

“No! You should play (insert person’s favorite all-time piece. Your kids will love it!”

Sure. These statements are not (completely) true. But similar things to these have been, and will continue to be, said. Selecting literature is not an easy task. Partly because of the range of material available, and partly because we care about our students’ opinions.

Sharing some thoughts

I recently purchased a copy of Rehearsing the Band, Vol. 2 by Donald Miller. This series of text provides concepts on working with wind bands from some of the best conductors and educators from the collegiate realm. Topics such as balance, rehearsal planning, and literature are discussed. While reading through the sections on literature, one thing became apparent: everyone had their own valid opinions.

No two sections were the same. Most suggested playing music from a wide range of time periods and styles. There were thoughts on new music, chamber works, and transcriptions. A few conductors mentioned works standing the test of time which is really not in our hands to decide.

All in all, their thoughts and opinions do bring helpful information. But still, there is a level of personal taste involved. With that in mind, here are some things I consider when selecting literature.

  • Is there artistic and/or emotional value to the composition? Does it cause me to think? Does it move or excite me? (If I am not going to enjoy the piece, it will show and reflect by my ensemble’s performance)
  • Is the piece going to challenge my students musically?
  • Does the piece have historical significance?
  • Does the piece fit into our educational goals?

The most important aspect for me is the emotional and/or artistic value. Some compositions are like a new diet. You may not like the way it tastes or feels at first, but when all is finished you realize how much better off you are. I was lucky to conduct Steven Bryant’s Ecstatic Waters while attending Southern Miss. To this day, it was one of the most frustrating but rewarding experiences. The concepts presented we so new at the time the ensemble struggled at time to make the pieces fit. When they did, it was amazing.

The point of all this? Simple. Select repertoire that fits you and your ensemble. Your group may not be ready for Lincolnsire Posy or Hindemith’s Symphony in B-flat. There are other works that are artistically sound and emotionally moving. It doesn’t have to be about teaching your clarinets to cross the break, though there is nothing wrong with that. Finding balance in artistry and significance is just as important.

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