No apology in advance here – that piece that you pulled out of the library last week, quickly disseminated, and checked the score was there 10 minutes before rehearsal – yes, your band already hates it, but not as much as you do.
And yes, I would have previously been guilty as charged. But I have reformed my ways and you can too: for yourself, your ensemble and your creativity.[i]
Ensemble directors need to love every piece we program. Each piece should serve our ensembles on (a) a functional level – achieving musical and technical successes; (b) an artistic level – exploring and experiencing the astonishing beauty of making music together; and (c) a contextual level – exploring and diversifying our understanding of music, performance, composers, and ways in which we fit in to that world.[ii]
There is, simply, no room for bad repertoire. We must program high quality music that we love and then share that enthusiasm with our groups. When we quickly pull out that piece with no prior thought, we do a disservice to all involved – we demonstrate to our groups that we just do not care that much about the repertoire. How then can we ever expect our ensembles to enjoy preparing and performing those pieces?
Role of the Ensemble Director
To achieve this, the ensemble director’s primary role is to continually be searching and prospecting for repertoire. We need to have pieces under our noses constantly in order to develop a big enough list from which to choose our repertoire. Researching repertoire is analogous to instrumental practice. But where do we begin this, sometimes daunting, task? Start with the big players in the field – the publishers. Many big publishers now put audio recordings and video perusal scores up on YouTube. They are often neatly organised by grade, composer, and style. Stay aware, though, of their tricks – notice when those pieces begin to sound similar, start using your expert musical judgement here. If a piece seems formulaic then acknowledge it and move on; it is most likely not the high-quality repertoire we are searching for.
Hold on to the staples of the genre and refer back to them often. These are the time-tested pieces that get played again and again with no diminution of excitement and artistry. As an early career ensemble director there was only one adequate way to learn about these pieces – with top quality mentors. Actively go out and find directors who you think do repertoire well, and who have more years under their baton. Be specific, you are wanting to expand your knowledge of the staples of the genre. In my experience, no one has ever been unwilling to share what they know, and if you ever happen to find someone who is unwilling, again, acknowledge it and move on. Join professional associations, attend their professional development, get to know more colleagues.
The New Composers
The most exciting new wave of composition, and richest vein of high-quality repertoire is the self-published online composer, and this is probably the main reason for sitting down to write this article. As always though, the richest vein is sometimes the most difficult to find but the efforts required pay for themselves ten-fold. The self-published composer is free from the demands of the big publishing companies – they can stray outside of pre-determined ranges, rhythms, and instrumentation. They are usually honest with their compositions and will not make unnecessary sacrifices to their work. They also will often deliver digital copies of their compositions making access almost instantaneous. Price points for their compositions usually reflect that a big publishing company isn’t receiving a cut which always works to our advantage. Once you find your magical self-published composer, stick with them! Follow them on any social media channels to stay up do date with their work, where they are, or gain context to their life and its influence on their compositions. Case in point, check out why John Mackey has written “Places we can no longer go”.[iii] Therein lies a rich vein to get you started – John Mackey, probably the most high-profile self-published wind ensemble composer, has opened up his trade booth at the Midwest Clinic for the last three years to early career and underrepresented composers.[iv] You may even have the capacity to commission your own work to add to the repertoire.
Keep an up to date record and chip away gradually at listening and looking at scores. I guarantee that that list will soon have enough repertoire to last many years into the future. Not only will that list be well populated but it will be made up entirely of pieces you feel somewhat of a connection to because of the work you put in sourcing them.
Get the pieces and study the scores well in advance, plan rehearsals,
and be ready to have meaningful and musical experiences with your ensemble.[v]
[i] The remainder of this article is directly inspired by the fantastic work of Jodie Blackshaw. Jodie’s blog is a rich source of inspiration for me and hopefully you too. For a more detailed account of why some repertoire is just not good for our ensembles, see Jodie Blackshaw, “Do You Have a “Sugar-Coated“ Repertoire Addiction?,” Jodie Blackshaw | Composer (blog), accessed June 18, 2019, https://www.jodieblackshaw.com/single-post/2018/06/27/Do-you-have-a-sugar-coated-repertoire-addiction.
[ii] Craig Kirchoff has written beautifully on this topic and shares detail about making positive aesthetic decisions about repertoire. See Craig Kirchoff, “Selecting Repertoire – A Matter of Conscience,” ABODA Victoria, accessed June 18, 2019, https://abodavic.org.au/craig-kirchhoff-selecting-repertoire-a-matter-of-conscience/.
[iv] For a first-hand account of the booth during the 2017 Midwest Clinic, see Katherine Bergmanon, “Stepping Forward at the Midwest Clinic,” NewMusicBox, January 10, 2018, https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/stepping-forward-at-the-midwest-clinic/.
[v] Another person who helped inspire this article is Prof. Rob McWilliams. I am indebted to him for his mentorship over many years and can thoroughly recommend his resources online. See Robert McWilliams, “Resources,” accessed November 10, 2019, http://www.robmcwilliams.com/resources.html.