Pick good repertoire

Great music brings out the artistry in you and the children. Children deserve the best! I have found that music teachers often pick music that is trite and not well-written. This is why I usually choose folk songs. I wrote about folk songs in another post.

When looking for great repertoire for my chorus, it takes some serious thought. Both the students and I will be spending a lot of time with the pieces of music, analyzing, rehearsing, and memorizing. I have a responsibility to feed healthy music, not fast food to my students. That doesn’t mean they have to ingest brussel sprouts and hate it because it’s good for them. OK, enough with the food analogy. Let’s look at some practical advice.

What to look for in a piece of music. Questions to ask yourself:

  • Has it withstood the test of time? Folk songs! Classics! Be careful with contemporary composers: if it was written yesterday, will it be around tomorrow?  (Benjamin Britten & Aaron Copland are good examples of modern composers standing the test of time. Find modern composers with classic texts or poems.)
  • What does it teach (students & audience)? Side note: don’t forget to educate parents at the concert with a written program or verbal introduction of the songs.
  • Does it reflect another culture? Language considerations: Make sure students & audience know what the English translation is.
  • Fresh test – Will you and/or students be tired of the piece in 3 months?
  • Arrangement
    • For elementary or younger middle school students, choose 2-pt, unison, rounds, partner songs
    • With a folk song – Look at different arrangements; you may like one version of the text, melody or accompaniment better than another. Also, remember folk songs can be changed or arranged by you! If you aren’t using someone’s folk song arrangement, there is no copyright on the song!
    • Is the piano accompaniment written well?
    • Range / tessitura – common error – might be appropriate for adult singer, but inappropriate for young singers cultivating healthy singing habits. Try to pick songs where the majority of the notes are above middle C to develop their head voices. Students’ head voices have more resonance and vocal health than their chest voices.
  • Lasting quality – By this I mean, is the song thought-provoking or meaningful – or maybe just fun. Fun is fine; just make sure you choose a balanced diet.

*Problem of Pop. I think of pop music like fast food. It might give you a rush, but it doesn’t stick to the ribs and provide lasting health. I have heard music teachers tell me, “My students won’t sing anything but pop!” I don’t believe it. That’s like saying your children will only eat McDonald’s. It’s how you introduce the quality repertoire – with passion for the message, the musicality, the story – whatever the “hook” is. It’s not like I don’t like pop. I just don’t like pop for my children’s choruses. For one, pop tends to be pitched too low, and students are tempted to sing it in the unhealthy belting tone of some of the pop singers they listen to. It’s not a good choral sound, and it doesn’t teach your students healthy singing habits. Pop music can be overly repetitious. It can also be very syncopated, which can be difficult for a group to sing well.

When putting together a concert, consider the following:

  • Choose a variety: of periods, styles, tempi, meters, modes, etc.
  • Think long and short range.  Over a year, over several years, what have students been exposed to?
  • Consider commissioning a local composer to write a piece for you.
  • Score preparation – Make sure you know the piece as well as composer.
  • Piece introduction – Be creative with how you teach the song to the group. As I mentioned, each song has something that makes it special. Start with that to catch the attention of the kids.

For instance:

  • With Waltzing Matilda I started by telling my (American) students the story in a completely serious voice, using the Australian words like “jumbuck” and “tuckerbag.” At the end of the story, I asked them, “Can you believe that happened?” They laughed, because had no idea what had happened, but they were thoroughly amused and curious.
  • With Little Birch Tree, I think the beauty lies in the “loo li loo” swelling and receding, as if the wind were blowing through the leaves. I turned off the lights and turned on the fan and sang the song. I taught them the “loo li loo” part first and sang it again, inviting them to sing that part – with crescendo and decrescendos – every time I did.
  • With Sakura, the “hook” for me is the haunting melody. A good way to start that one might be playing the melody on an instrument or listening to an instrumental recording of it with traditional Japanese instruments. The students could begin learning the melody on “loo,” which would help them sense the long phrases. The students could also use scarves or ribbons – or even elegantly walk or “float” around the room while singing in order to emulate the long phrases.
  • Give Us Hope by Jim Papoulis has inspirational lyrics that can spark some great conversations about the students’ hopes and dreams.
  • When we sang Getting to Know You – from The King and I, I would make my rounds to all of the students and greet them and hug them while we sang.
  • Erie Canal and Drill Ye Tarriers are up-beat folk songs that tell stories of work in the United States a century ago. Students can add drilling or rowing motions to the strong beats as they learn the songs.
  • I even taught the kids a couple of Mozart songs in German, and during rehearsals we pretended we were wearing the stuffy clothes of the period with wigs on our heads while we sang.

I give credit to Emily Ellsworth, former Musical Director of Anima Singers (formerly Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus), who taught me most of these concepts.

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6 thoughts on “Pick good repertoire”

  1. Do they have “Give Us Hope” in 2 part, or did you just use the SSA arrangement? I have to take my choir to a competition, so if I choose SSA, all three parts need to be heard and I think two is enough for 4th/5th Gr =)

    1. I used the SSA arrangement, but just taught the 2 parts. I agree; that’s enough for 4th / 5th. That’s a bummer that you must do all 3 parts in competition…

  2. At some competitions, you can give a note that tells the judges you are only doing 2 parts because that’s what’s best for you kids and they will judge based on what your students perform. One of our judges told me this in the comments from the competition. You might try it or at least ask. That might broaden your repertoire choices.

  3. Suzanne McCormick

    I think SSA is completely acceptable for middle school IF your kids can do it. I’ve even done SSA music with my advanced 5th graders. Do I start my 6th graders on unison / 2 part and partner songs? YEP but by the end of the year they can sing SSA.

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