South African choir on stage © Nolte Photography

How to choose a good repertoire for your choir

Important steps to put together the perfect concert program

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The role of a choir conductor extends far beyond simply directing a group of singers. Conductors are music lovers, passionate educators, and influential leaders… The question of how to choose a good repertoire for choir is obviously a crucial moment for a conductor, but the choice can also become quite daunting for passionate musicians and it is easy to get carried away.

Conductors should choose repertoires prone to develop their singers’ musical vocabulary, but to what extent can they make ambitious choices while still selecting music that suits their choirs? and can they choose pieces that would introduce new musical concepts for the singers and be great teaching opportunities, and pieces that would create a memorable performative experience?

We believe your selection should take place in two steps: firstly, considering the general choral practice and musical journey of your choristers as singers; secondly, in sight of a specific event such as a performance or a competition.

In this article we gathered a few parameters to consider when in these two instances that might help you navigate your choice.

Step 1: Choosing a repertoire considering the general musical journey and practice of your singers

In order to consider the general musical journey and practice of your singers it's important to ask yourself a couple of questions:

A) Consider your choir’s range

The first, basic factor that you should contemplate when choosing your choir’s repertoire is your singers’ vocal range.

Look at the piece you would like to select and examine every single voice part. What is the tessitura? Is the range appropriate for the age group of your choir? Can your sopranos reach (and sustain!) that high B-flat for eight measures?

Should you notice some range issues, ponder whether they could be tackled with some adjustments to the voice parts without compromising the integrity of the piece?

The first thing you should consider is then, in simple words, can your singers actually sing the piece? Does it provide a good challenge without being unrealistic?

B) Consider your choir’s level

Some choirs, although amatorial, are incredibly competitive, renowned, and critically established. This would be the case, for instance, of the top choirs enlisted in the INTERKULTUR World Rankings. In such cases, you could expect all singers to be more or less at the same level, and selecting easy pieces or creating a repetitive repertoire could end up boring or frustrating them.

Meanwhile, if you ran a community college open to all abilities, choosing extremely technically challenging pieces could discourage a big portion of its singers. This doesn't mean that if your choir is only familiar with - let’s say - the pentatonic scale at this point of their practice, that you should entirely avoid solfa and rhythms they haven’t learnt yet. A bit of challenge is always a good idea, and learning should always be part of the process, even when the choir only gathers for fun.

It is thus important to always be mindful of your singers' capacities and select pieces that are going to introduce them to new rhythmic and melodic concepts, without overwhelming them.

Time, practice, and various attempts will eventually reveal what works best for your group.

At the same time, also knowing the “motivations” of your choristers would be another good starting point when selecting your choral repertoire.

C) Consider your choir’s type (and its “motivations”)

Every choir, as we all know, is unique, but it is essential to remember that unique are also the motivations that have led singers to join it.

Some choirs dream to grow their reputation and win international competitions and awards.

Other groups of singers simply want to gather and enjoy themselves.

In the second case, choosing a very challenging array of pieces would not be quite as “motivational” as rather overwhelming and frustrating.

D) Consider your choir’s demographic (and the meaning of the piece)

Taking into consideration your choir’s demographic can guide you in two ways.

Firstly, in realizing what they might have fun with, what they could really love singing.

Of course pleasing everyone is almost impossible, but if your age demographic was older you’d probably realize that songs about teenage anger might not be the most intuitive choice. Or maybe yes…?

Secondly, it can also guide you in contemplating whether the piece is suitable for your group.

In the last instance you also have to take a moment to examine the lyrics of the piece, its meaning, its historical contexts, and its implications.

Is the piece “inclusive”? Is it appropriate?

E) Create the right balance

When selecting repertoire it’s essential to assess all the singing parts.

The ideal goal would be selecting pieces in which each part of the choir would have both some challenges and some more comfortable parts.

If one choir section were to be faced with exclusively highly demanding parts, or on the contrary they were to sing only accompanying parts, they would hardly enjoy the piece.

Striking a balance and considering the piece’s flow from the point of view of each section is therefore key when choosing the repertoire.

F) Create variety

Some choirs adhere strictly to a single choral category, others like to experiment with more genres and styles.

Nevertheless, in order to keep on stimulating your choristers, teaching them and improving their abilities, make sure they can experiment with different tempi, challenge themselves in different languages, range across different styles.

And then try to think even further. Are you varying between, for instance, folk songs and composed songs?

Even for choirs who adhere to a defined category it can be revealing to sing pieces of other genres and times in order to work on a particular issue they’ve been struggling with.

These are a few basic guidelines on how to choose your choral repertoire.

It is important to add that, although you should always give prime consideration to your singers’ motivations and desires, you remain their musical leader.

As kids have often to be pressured to eat their vegetables for their own good, sometimes challenging and “uncomfortable” pieces are the only way to grow as singers!

Step 2: Choosing a repertoire in sight of a performance of competition

When choosing repertoire in sight on a particular occasion, it’s worth reflecting on the kind of event itself.

A) Consider the type of event

Is it a concert? Does it have a theme? Does it support a charity? Will your pieces be suitable?

Is it a competition? Is the aim then to emphasize particular skills and talents to impress the judges?

B) Consider the location

Imagine selecting pieces with delicate solo moments for a concert outdoors with unpredictable fresh air… But yet imagine having selected precisely those pieces for an intimate concert in the suggestive settings of a local church!

Location should be a key parameter to consider when choosing repertoire for a specific event.

If you have the opportunity, it would be ideal to visit the venue beforehand and hear the acoustic for yourself.

C) Consider how much time you have

When preparing for a specific performance, it is key to consider the realistic amount of time learning a certain piece will demand.

Ponder how much time you have and how much time the piece will require not only to be learnt, but to be sung confidently by your choristers. And is this achievable without leading your singers to crack under stress and pressure?

Carefully and realistically planning your next rehearsals, always considering possible unforeseen delays, is the best way to prepare for a performance.

If you realize  time is limited, just choose one or two new pieces and review some existing repertoire: you will preserve a challenge without overwhelming your group.

D) Consider your audience’s demographics

Considering the audience (or the jurors of a competition) is key when preparing for an event.

It is important to make sure the lyrics are appropriate, not potentially offensive or embarrassing.

And of course, while thinking about your audience, you should also examine what your audience might enjoy, and the first, main characteristic of a pleasurable performance is variety.

E) Create variety

As during normal practice, variety is key.

Think about varying everything: style, tempo, text, level of difficulty, length of selections, mood, language, key signature, text origin, time signature, accompaniment.

During a performance, variety in repertoire will keep the audience much more engaged. Similarly, in a competition, variety is an optimal way to show the judges your singers’ skills under multiple perspectives.

Nonetheless, it is also crucial to remember that variety doesn’t equal trying to please every potential listener.

Moreover, when choosing repertoire, you should not see each piece as individual, but as part of an overall experience: the pieces should communicate with each other, connect and work together to form a flowing musical journey.

These are some first few points to keep in mind when selecting repertoire for your choir. Above all, the most important thing as a choir conductor is nevertheless to love the music you choose for your singers.

Only by loving a piece you can truly transmit its meaning and sound to your choir. Only your enthusiasm can truly inspire them and even motivate them through challenging rehearsals.

And remember: you're going to hear these pieces for several weeks, over and over, during good days and bad days… loving them might come at handy after a while!

Looking for some concrete repertoire ideas? Check out our 10 perfect spring songs to sing along!

10 perfect spring songs to sing along

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