Choosing Concert Band Music
The months of November and December are two of my absolute favorites as a band director. Aside from the obvious excitement of finishing out marching band and football, there’s the added benefit of selecting concert music for the Spring semester thrown in. In Texas, our Spring semester selections come from a list, and are graduated according to grade level. We do have the ability to add pieces that we find and believe are of quality, which is nice, but most of the time we stay with the list as it has lots of goodies ferreted away within its folds.
One of the most enjoyable things about music selection is the enormous sense of possibility that exists within the sphere of the repertoire. We all know that some pieces are completely out of our reach, but the realm of ‘what-might-be’ is so deep and wide… it’s an exciting time.
There are several things, though, to keep in mind as we traverse this expanse of literature. It is filled with amazing new works and chestnuts that will outlast our careers and those of our students, but one must select pieces of this importance carefully. There are some simple, time-honored rules that can help narrow the field down to ‘what-very-likley-could-be’ or even ‘what-could-actually-work-and-not-create-heart-conditions-in-april’. Those are the pieces we want to find, and fast.
The key things to remember are to know the abilities of your performers, know where your ensemble and fundamental weaknesses lie, and select your music accordingly.
- Never pick a piece that has ranges you have not heard your students perform with a good sound. The most efficient way I have found to measure what these ranges (high and low) are is through full-range scales. It is a humbling experience, and will definitely show you your weak and strong sections. It’s a great litmus test for work-ethic as well – if students don’t pass off their scales in an timely manner, it’s going to be difficult for them to work up technique with any urgency.
- Don’t pick pieces where the technique outstrips rhythms or fundamentals your students are weak on. For instance, it would a bad idea to attempt a transcription of Tschaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, Mvt. IV, if your students can only play their scales in quarter and eighth notes at 92 bpm. Equally unwise would be to program a Sousa march with a band whose ensemble articulation is mediocre and muddy at best. Picking something to challenge the students is completely in line with quality music selection, but they won’t be successful if the skills required of them are 3-4 levels above their abilities. Shoot for one level or completely in their wheelhouse – add practice, performance, and repeat yearly.
- Don’t pick a piece you’re not willing to (or fear you won’t have the time to) teach the fundamentals of to your students. This is applicable to both the musical and technical aspects of the piece in question. If you (or your students) don’t have it in you to refine ensemble technique, don’t select Morningstar by David Maslanka. If you’re still learning the upper levels of how to create clarity in complex harmonies, don’t select pieces like Lincolnshire Posy or As the Scent of Spring Rain. Completely divergent pieces, but both require ensemble clarity in moments of high harmonic demand. If you aren’t willing to dissect it, refine it, polish it, and test it – don’t play it.
- Balance music your students should play with music your students want to play. Too much of one or the other is like too much dessert or too much broccoli – both have hidden consequences that reveal themselves down the road. It’s okay to play a flashy opening piece your students like (Ride by Samuel Hazo, for instance) and couple it with a piece that will stretch their musicianship (Sanctuary by Frank Ticheli), and close it out with a march that they can sound great on (Belle of Chicago by J.P. Sousa). If your students get excited about playing Hindemith or Husa, however, count your lucky stars and put it on their stands – you are somewhere special!
- In marches, stay away from editions with full score that take the first clarinets into their clarion register in unison with the flutes. That scoring is devilish to balance and tune, and is almost more work than it is worth in the long run. If your score is condensed and you can safely drop your clarinets into a reasonable register, run with it. Otherwise stop, look, think, and re-file.
- Look at your time-on-instrument for brass players. Unless you have extremely deep sections, make sure there’s room within each piece for your brass to rest and regroup – they are the heavy artillery in any literature, but they can’t play continuously. If you over-program, they most likely will run out of gas before the performance is finished.
- Play to your strengths. If you have a phenomenal soloist then you need to feature them. It not only makes the ensemble sound better, but lets the younger and less experienced performers know that you will reward their efforts with performance opportunities if they continue to improve. There is no harm in centering an entire movement around one student, so long as they have the musical tenacity to focus for that length of time. A good indicator is earned success in an honor-ensemble audition process.
There are many, many more rules to consider, all of which should come from your experiences teaching your students and visiting with other directors. The key things to remember are to know the abilities of your performers, know where your ensemble and fundamental weaknesses lie, and select your music accordingly.