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.

Saturday Sounds: ‘One Life Beautiful’ by Julie Giroux

A snowy Saturday is ripe for a cup of coffee and some good music. On the listening list today is Julie Giroux One Life Beautiful.

Saturdays in winter require only a few things: kids that sleep in a bit, a cup of coffee and good music. Of course, my kids don’t know the meaning of sleeping in, making the coffee and music necessary. It warms the soul and prepares my mind for the day ahead.

Some days, you hear a piece which takes your soul and wraps it in a warm blanket. The sounds simultaneously provide hope and calm, soothing the anxious mind.  One Life Beautiful is one composition that does such things for me.

I was formally introduced to Julie Giroux music in 2010 while preparing for All-South Honor Band at the University of Southern Mississippi. It was the following year’s event when I heard One Life Beautiful. It has stuck with me ever since.

About the composition

Ms. Giroux was commissioned by Emeritus Professor Ray Cramer (Indiana University) and his family to write a work dedicated to his late daughter, Heather Cramer Rue. As stated in the program noteOne Life Beautiful refers to the beautifully lived “one life” of Heather, but is also “a direct observation concluding that having only one life is what makes life so sacred, tragic, and so very precious.

To me, the work is filled with hope, love, sadness, and joy. It reflects on life and how precious it is while producing a sense of passionate resolution. The ebb and flow of tempo and range of expressive markings allow for freedom in artistic and emotional performance. It is certainly a piece that becomes personal to those who perform it.

The work is deceptively difficult but worth the effort. Focus on long, overlapping phases and balancing of voices is crucial to unlocking the emotional power of the composition. Individual control of tone and pitch are imperative. (Of course, when are they not?) Furthermore, solos are abundant, including for flute, clarinet, both oboe parts, alto and tenor saxophones, French horn, and trumpet.

This live recording by the Musashino Wind Ensemble with Ray Cramer conducting is available for download on Ms. Giroux’s website.

One Life Beautiful is available for purchase through J.W. Pepper and cost $95. While listed as a “Medium Easy” on their site, it is considered a Grade 6 on the Georgia Music Education Association’s Band LGPE List.

Chamber music may be the key to improving your ensemble

Ensemble directors often look for ways to improve their students’ performance. Chamber music may just be what they need. And there are plenty of options.

We all want our ensembles to perform better, right? Of course! Whether it is through the use of technology – such as Tonal Energy (highly recommend!) – or finding new ways to say the same things, directors will do most anything to improve student performance and understanding of music. However, one of the best and most overlooked ways is through chamber music.

I can hear you now. “When do I have time to do chamber music? Our schedule is already crammed with marching band, jazz band, preparing for LGPE or some other festival. Plus all the paperwork…” Of course, there is solo and ensemble time each Spring when students will throw something together and hope for a high rating.

I know. I was one of those students. My senior year of high school I earned six distinguished ratings at Solo and Ensemble Festival. Now, I don’t say that to toot my own horn, but as an example. First, there are students that WANT to do chamber music. Two, having also been on the director’s side of the desk, it takes time.

But, the reward is immense.

Chamber music improves your ensemble!

How? Well, let’s look at what chamber music requires. It is a smaller ensemble setting, usually between 2 to 16 players.

Photo Credit Sandy King
  • Musicians are encouraged to play with more courage as there are fewer people to hide behind.
  • It forces performers to open their ears, paying attention to pitch and articulation discrepancies as they are often more pronounced.
  • And, students can work together on the music before or after school (as your campus allows). They teach each others and themselves.

This means they are playing and communicating about music from a variety of repertoire. They can describe their playing in musical terms, building upon and using the knowledge provided to them in your main classes.

This sounds like NAFME Music Standards achievement if you ask me.

The great thing is you have tons of options. First of all, if you don’t have a library of chamber music, use what you do have. Maybe allow a few students to work together out of a technique book. Or, invest in some flexible instrumentation books or pieces.

If you are looking for pieces for various instruments, you can always check out the Texas UIL Prescribed music list.  This list allowed to browse by grade level and ensemble instrumentation.

This type of performing not only helps them as individuals. When they are incorporated back into the full ensemble, their improvements can spread throughout the group. Because they are performing with better pitch, it generates a better pitch center for the ensemble. Their courage to play with a fuller tone boosts may well influence others to do the same. Sure, these are slightly hypothetical, but I have seen it work.

If students want to participate in chamber music, allow them to play for an audience. Maybe in the lobby of your school before a large ensemble concert. Or as part of the main concert. I enjoyed leading students in John Zdechlik’s Centennial Fanfare to start a concert when teaching high school.

So, why not try some chamber music? It could be just what your students need.

Repertoire: Five current composers whose music you should be playing

The repertoire within the world of wind bands is ever-growing. With this new literature, comes new composers and new conducting opportunities.

We all know the standards. Holst Suite in E-flat, Vaughan Williams English Folksong Suite. Vincent Persichetti’s wonderful library of works. Or that of Frank Ticheli. The depth of works within the wind band repertoire is vast.

Thankfully, there are resources and text that help guide band directors to  find and select works that may be of interest to them or their ensemble. The series Teaching Music Through Performance is one of the best resources out there. With the amount of works and composers the series presents, conductors have access to a wealth of knowledge on current repertoire.

Still, there are several composers out there you may have never heard of. Likely, you have some idea of their work. Their music has been performed at the Midwest Clinic and honor band festivals across the nation. But, in case you have not, here some composer whose work I enjoy.

Five Composers you should know:

  1. Michael Markowski: I met Michael at Midwest many years ago, through a friend who introduced me. His works were foreign to me at the time, but after buying a score and listening for a bit, I found a unique voice full of emotional sophistication and energy.
  2. Alex Shapiro: The works of Alex Shapiro are relatively new to me. Her compositions incorporate audio tracks and other items like paper or rocks to generate sounds.
  3. Steve Danyew: Some of my favorite music is that of Steve Danyew. His work Goodnight, Goodnight is rich with beauty and captivating colors. Additionally, This World Alive is an amazing collaboration of music and film.
  4. Joni Greene: Another composer introduced to me through a friend while attending Midwest in 2011, Joni Greene’s works stood out to me for their depth of voice.  It is part of the reason why I participated in a consortium for one of her works.
  5. James M. David: If you are looking for something a bit different, than James M. David is worth a look. Currently an Associate Professor of Composition at Colorado State University, James has several works for winds. Big Four on the River is one I enjoy, as it is filled with jazz influence, including Dixieland.


Of course, there are so many more, but these five are great composers to start with.

Concert Band Repertoire Programming

While many directors have a handle on the current trends for marching band, many still program their concert band selections in an “old school” way. A simple concept can improve programming for your ensemble.

Summertime and the living is easy. Well, maybe for some but not for most band directors. They are busy preparing for marching band camp, recruiting new members, hosting summer sectionals, washing cars to help raise funds for the program, meeting with staff to go over ideas for the season, arranging music, writing drill, and then drinking a few more cups of coffee to stay awake for the next Game of Thrones episode. And, after that episode is over, they will go back to work starting to consider music to program for their concert bands. Yes, folks, music education is a 24-7-365 job.

While many directors have a handle on the current trends for marching band, many still program their concert band selections in an “old school” way. They get the promotional CDs from Hal Leonard or other publishers, select a few pieces, add a Sousa march, and BAM! that’s the program. Or, they view a list of “approved” works by some organization in their state that says “these are the works that are acceptable for your ensembles to play at a festival.” Then, they select a few in the grade level they think is best for their program (or that they know and are comfortable with) and program those.

Now, I am not here to cast doubt on the quality of the music on those promotional CDs or within the state-approved lists. What I would like to say is this: changing the way you program music for concert ensembles will improve your program. Here are my thoughts on a simple way to program music for your next concert band:

Photo Credit Sandy King
Photo Credit Sandy King

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue: Ah, yes. The old saying that people use when planning a wedding. In order to have good luck, the bride is to wear something from each of these categories. This idea works for concert band programming as well.

Something old

Select a piece of merit from the original works for concert band before 1990. A piece by Grainger, Holst, Persichetti, Hindemith, Dello Joio, or Ives (just to name a very small handful). Pieces by substantial composers from the early days of concert band literature are important to the foundation of our art, much like Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler, and Stravinsky are to orchestral writing. Our students and audiences should be familiar with these composers.

Something New

There are so many great new works by fantastic LIVING composers. And, with technology, directors have a chance to speak to composers on a regular basis about their works. Composers such as Jonathan NewmanRoseanne EtezadySteven Danyew, Michael Markowski, John Mackey, Joni GreeneJess Turner, or Steven Bryant. All of these composers – and many more – have compositions for ensembles of all abilities and in various styles. Plus, they have internet sites with their music and ways to connect with them. While they may be busy at times, they are willing to answer questions or provide feedback to recordings. This interaction will help students grow in music and feel as part of the art.

Something Borrowed

It is okay to play arrangements of works from other genres. I repeat, it is okay to play arrangements. Part of the brief history of wind ensemble music is performing arrangements of works from opera, orchestral, choral,  or chamber music settings. As a matter of fact, that use to be all there was for concert bands to perform. So, do not be afraid to go back to our roots and perform an arrangement of Brahms Blessed Are They, or Four Scottish Dances by Malcolm Arnold. There are works by Mozart as well. Embrace our history.

Something Blue

In the world of white weddings, brides are encouraged to wear something blue. Something of a different color. For winds bands, this means finding something different for us. It could be playing a piece influenced by jazz. Or maybe incorporating chamber music, a percussion ensemble, or a student composition. You can even perform something that requires lighting effects, or singing, or features a soloist. Better yet, get in contact with a composer and see if they have any active commission projects you can join, or if they have space for a new one. It is up to you, but be different!