A well-defined personal grading system enables us to consistently choose appropriate repertoire, which will in turn serve to address both the musical and technical needs and abilities of our students.
A. The key to understanding how a specific work fits into a particular grade relates directly to our understanding of the following points:
1. Individual attention spans, along physical endurance
- How long is the work?
- What are instrument ranges and embouchure endurance factors?
- What are the tempi implications? How much of the work is slow as opposed to fast?
- How much sustained playing is required, and at what range?
- How high do the 1st parts extend? How low for the bass line?
- What are the special instrument intonation demands?
- What is the dynamic range?
2. Technical demands, such as:
- Fingering, bowing, articulation, sticking and slide shift demands
- Rhythmic complexity considerations, such as syncopation and sub division issues.
- What are the expressive demands: Phrase length and articulations?
- How active and varied are the percussion parts? Are there Key mallet and Tympani parts?
3. What are the instrumentation requirements?
- What are the minimum percussion instruments needed to faithfully meet the composer’s requirements?
- Do I have access to the necessary percussion instruments?
- Do the members of the ensemble collectively have the technical skills to meet the musical demands of the work?
- What are the ‘solo’ requirements within the work, and does the ensemble possess players capable of playing them with sufficient skill and expression?
4. Musical and educational considerations
- Does the work provide adequate opportunities to introduce, develop and support the skills of our ensemble performance student learning objectives?
- Is the work worthy our and our ensemble’s time and investment?
B. Coupled with an effective and definable repertoire selection process is the need to develop both a personal, as well as a group profile for both our students and ensembles. Maintaining an 'up to date' profile is essential for achieving effective educative planning.
- Start with a three sentence descriptive statement regarding strengths, weaknesses and areas for improvement.
- Include learning styles, along with past learning and performance experiences.
- What would they like to accomplish? What is their dream?
- Why are they studying with you? Why are they in your ensemble?
- Now expand the exercise to include a three-sentence description for your ensemble.
C. Critical to repertoire selection is the necessity of selecting a 'balanced diet' of works, which include:
- Original, serious 20th/21st century compositions
- Faithful transcriptions of orchestral works, retaining the composer's original intent
- Well-crafted works from the popular/contemporary idiom.
D. Thoughts and reflections on a ‘great music’ definition: What will ultimately guide our repertoire choices?
Great music is capable of reflecting and engendering the widest of human emotion. It also represents an artistic creation of human kind within the context of an identifiable, stylistic period and culture. It too, reflects the ebb and flow of human experience, often expressing some of the most deeply felt of human emotions.
Good music holds our attention and is remembered through the interaction of the creative use of rhythm, melody, harmonic motion, timbre and texture. It can, at its best take us to places deep within our heart, and stir up long forgotten memories.
Personal choice/taste, musical understanding and musical depth are often directly related to our own personal experiences, encountering both great visual and performing art and great artists. To what degree and frequency do we experience exposure to great art in our personal lives? How good are we nourishing our musical souls? Surely being an artist is a way of life, a way of understanding the world of beauty and ugliness around us, experiencing triumph and tragedy, peace and restlessness.
Every piece of music that we choose to share with our students should be subjected to this criterion. However, an aesthetic choice must take in the context of musical depth that great performing artists bring to the art form. This is why we need the inspiration through regularly being exposed to the finest of musical performances.
There are several texts available that will assist us in determining the complex issue of ensemble grading and ensemble assessment. However, in the final analysis, repertoire choice remains a highly subjective topic and it is imperative that we have a clear knowledge and deep understanding of our ensemble’s strengths and weaknesses.
I would like to conclude this final installment on repertoire choice with a quote from Professor Craig Kirchhoff, Director of Bands, University of Minnesota
“Selecting repertoire is much more than picking pieces for the next concert. Selecting the appropriate repertoire is the most important thing that we do as music educators. We enjoy a very special freedom and a very special privilege because we are empowered as music educators to create a meaningful curriculum for our students. With that freedom and privilege comes an enormous responsibility.”
Best wishes for a fine year of music making!