For the last three days, I have been back at work. After brief meetings on Monday and Tuesday mornings, I've been pretty free to work in the classroom and prepare for when students return.
Today, I spent several hours working on selecting what music my group will be studying. This is a massive and very individual task, as everyone I've talked to goes about it differently.
My typical process is more or less like this:
- Determine what constraints there are on the piece. These might be things like "must be in a foreign language" or "must be three-part harmony"
- Consult resources. At my desk, I have on hand three primary resources for pieces: The UIL Prescribed Music List, the library of music my choir program owns, and the textbooks and anthologies we sometimes refer to.
- Select a handful of pieces to examine closely. I apply the constraints from step one to the music in step two. I usually end up finding at least 3-4 out of a dozen pieces that seem like possibilities.
- Listen to the work. This is one of the steps that is somewhat controversial. Some directors refuse to listen to the work. Others find as many different recordings as possible. My typical tactic is to take it to the piano first, or sometimes to go to YouTube or the JW Pepper music company website for a performance.
- Final selection if possible. In recent months, the steps up to this point would result in maybe one piece that fits my needs. In the event that more than one fits, it's a matter of determining which one I'd prefer to work on, or would appeal more to my students.
- Repeat as needed. If I don't find any results, I pick a different resource from step 2 and go again. I may have to reach out to other teachers or other trusted musicians for further ideas.
Today, was a lucky day. My constraints were that I wanted pieces that were of moderate difficulty, but no more than three-part harmony. Ideally, the voicing would be TBB (Tenor, Baritone, Bass, meaning the middle voice is written in bass clef) because my guys will be sight-reading in that layout in the spring.
I wanted pieces that sound harder than they are, but that have tricky moments for us to work on. And above all, I want to be able to work particularly on tone. To be successful, we need a mature, masculine sound. And the sooner the better. Last year, we got the sound but it wasn't consistent enough and we lost it in performance.
My group sits in an odd spot in the choral world. Most serious, demanding men's choir music is in four parts (TTBB). My group is too small to do that consistently, so I prefer to keep them in three. But a lot of three-part music is written for junior high men. These tend to be too high for high school guys to be comfortable. They also tend to be cheesy and boyish.
Today, I found three pieces that fit my needs! On top of an arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner, that will give us almost all of our fall music taken care of. It only leaves me with about 6 pieces left to pick for the rest of the year. Those can wait, though.
When I luck out like that, I get really excited. Quality music that fits my guys is rare. I don't want to spoil the surprise in writing, but feel free to send me a message and ask me what I found and I'm happy to share!