Does curriculum drive literature selection? Or does literature selection drive curriculum?
If choosing one option leaves you feeling a bit uncomfortable or dissatisfied, perhaps you’d agree that there is a two-way flow. Either way, it’s safe to say that our selection of literature plays a huge role in the delivery of content in the large ensemble setting.
Teaching a large ensemble is unlike almost any other discipline. In a typical subject area, curriculum is designed and disseminated, and classroom teachers are responsible for delivering that content in exciting and meaningful ways. As we know, though there are standards and expectations for skill acquisition and content knowledge in ensemble music, the makeup of a typical large ensemble is fraught with challenges:
- Students are often at highly variable skill levels
- In one class, we frequently have students learning fifteen or more different instruments simultaneously
- Perhaps most significantly, students “repeat” the course numerous times throughout their education. This means that by its very nature, the content and curriculum of large ensembles must change and evolve over time.
Thus, the delivery of ensemble content and the acquisition of ensemble skills is highly dependent on the literature we select.
The Student Experience
In addition to the reciprocal impact on curriculum, our selection of literature also has a profound impact on our students’ experience. The literature that we “feed” our students in their ensemble diet has a deep and lasting impact on their musical values.
I often find myself comparing this musical diet scenario to the way many parents approach feeding their young children. If a child grows up eating mostly processed foods that are high in added sugars and vegetables from cans, how can we possibly expect them to develop a taste and appreciation for natural and fresh food? The same is certainly true of young musicians. The diet their mentors provide for them will play an enormous role in their musical taste and appreciation.
As a result, it is imperative that we take great care when selecting literature for our ensembles. Each piece we select should be scrutinized for its value and place in the curriculum as well as its role in shaping our students’ musical understanding as a whole. It is my contention that under no circumstances should we select a piece of literature for our students that we ourselves do not believe in.
On the Topic of Taste
It is extremely important to honor the role that taste plays in any musical (or culinary) decision. Not every person has the same taste, nor should we! As you come across pieces of literature and make determinations about their suitability for your players, keep in mind that your taste will often differ from your colleagues’ and mentors’ taste, and this is both to be expected and appreciated.
Variety is the spice…well, you get the idea. But remember – you should never choose music that you feel lacks value.
Aside from taste, there are quite a few factors that come into play when evaluating a piece of music for its suitability. Let’s begin by exploring practical considerations (and there are many).
We must first look at the strengths and weaknesses of the players in the ensemble for which we are programming. Obviously, we want to avoid programming a work that has difficult clarinet parts for a section of mostly beginners, but beyond that, it’s worthwhile to look at how a piece of music might strengthen aspects of our students’ playing.
Proceed with caution, as there is often a fine line between music that challenges and music that is beyond the capabilities of our students (the latter only leads to frustration and reduced confidence). You know your students better than anyone, but remember that we should not limit our perception of our students to what they are currently able to do. Look forward at what possibilities exist for them.
Next, it is critical to consider any unique venue or occasion factors. Will this piece be performed as part of a special event or occasion? Is this piece going to be performed early or late in the academic year? Are there additional outside factors that are important to consider when selecting this piece?
Of course, we need to consider time. How long do we have to prepare this piece? Is the piece one that I am familiar with? How much time do I have to prepare this piece?
We must also look at how the literature we select fits together as a program. Always strive for variety and diversity in programming – variety and diversity of key/mode, duration, aesthetic, meter, texture, composer (year of composition, ethnicity, gender, etc.) and so on. Again, our goal is to feed our students a well-rounded and varied musical diet.
Although quality is somewhat in the eye of the beholder, there are certainly compositional features that enhance a work’s effectiveness and that can serve as a starting point when making selections. Acton Ostling Jr.’s famous 1978 dissertation An Evaluation of Compositions for Wind Band According to Specific Criteria of Serious Artistic Merit laid out ten guidelines for determining artistic merit. From this work we can distill down a few key ideas that can be useful in our literature selection process.
Look for equity and interest in the parts. Of course, a tuba part will rarely look similar to a flute part – nor should it. However, it is critical that there is interest in each part. Put yourself in the shoes of each player. Would you be musically fulfilled with this folder of literature? Would you progress as a musician?
Similarly, examine each part for idiomatic writing. If you have good secondary instrument skills, playing each part on the instrument for which it is written is the most efficient and effective way of validating the idiomatic nature of the writing.
Study the architecture of the piece. Not each piece will follow a standard Western classical music form, but it is critical that the piece has shape and architecture. Without this, you might find the rehearsal process tedious or meandering.
Look for diversity and variety in the texture of the piece. Even in works for very young players you should be able to find chamber moments. Study the orchestration. Is it always the same? Or is there variety? Are the instrument pairings and groupings the same every time a theme is presented? A good rule of thumb is that if you flip through the score, the density and placement of ink should not be consistent throughout the entire piece.
Lastly, be sure that your conviction about the piece and the quality that you determined the piece to have is consistent throughout its entirety. If you really gravitate toward a piece, but find yourself dissatisfied with a section of the piece (e.g. “the piece is great, but I sure wish the ending didn’t go on and on like that…”) put it aside and choose something else. There are so many wonderful pieces of music that you need not make sacrifices. Trust me, you will regret selecting a piece about which you are 85% enthused.
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Resources for Finding Literature
You believe in the value of carefully selecting high-quality literature, you have a strategy for discerning between pieces, and you know what you’re looking for. Now where do you go to find it? Of course, there is no one-stop shop, and you’ll find yourself continually adding to your list of works to investigate. If this is not something you do as a habit, I encourage you to start a database of literature where you track details about each piece you encounter. The more information you add to your database, the more your future self will thank you. Consider including items beyond the cursory (title, composer, publisher, date of composition, duration, style) such as key areas, incipits, featured/prominent parts, unique instrumentation, comments about texture and orchestration, etc.
As we all have likely experienced, publishing companies mail out catalogs and sample recordings quite frequently. These lists, however, should not be the only source we use to find literature.
Here are a few great options:
Networking and Sharing with Colleagues
This is perhaps the greatest resource, as a colleague who has lived with a piece of music for weeks or months knows more than we could glean from combing through a score. Be sure to ask questions and gather as much information as you can.
Programs by Respected Ensembles and Conductors
I like to keep my finger on the pulse of what other ensembles are playing, especially ensembles that I respect, and that are led by people whose expertise I value.
Try not to limit your search to ensembles whose students are the same proficiency level as yours. Check out programs by the very best bands and let that lead you down a rabbit hole. Never heard of that composer? Check them out and see what else they’ve written. Maybe they have also composed music for developing bands. You never know, and it is worth the effort to go digging and see where your search leads you.
Reliable Publishing Series
There are a number of publishing series and composer groups that have missions specific to advancing creative and quality literature for band (e.g. Band Quest). While your taste may not align with every work in the bunch, these can be a great starting point for discovery.
There are quite a few authors who have created literature lists and included them in the appendices of their books (e.g. Frank Battisti). Again, these are often opinion-based, but if you respect the author, these sorts of lists can be veritable gold mines for literature exposure.
In recent years there has been a rapid increase in online resources dedicated to gathering and organizing literature. A few of my favorites are windrep.org (a wiki-style site that allows you to sort by categories such as difficulty level, type of piece, etc.) and the composer diversity database.
Remember – our students are what they eat, and it is up to us as educators to feed them a well-balanced and high-quality musical diet. Happy hunting!