In music teaching, there is a simple rule to know; the music will define what your students will learn and experience. This rule makes choosing music one of the most important parts of a music teacher’s many duties.
As a young teacher, I was fortunate to have mentors help me choose music. These individuals knew the literature way better than I did and also knew what was appropriate for my groups. When I would say, “I want to play this!” they were quick to say “Uh, that’s not a good choice because it goes out of the playable range of your kids, you don’t have those soloists, your kids will have a lot of trouble with this technique, you’re going to work for three months on a 2 minute piece, it’s not really appropriate for this performance, and by the way, you will be chasing wrong notes all the way to contest because of the key.” Then I would look at it again and go, “Oh yeah. Well, I didn’t really want to play that piece. I want to play THIS instead!” And again they would start, “Uh….” Fortunately for me and my students, I knew enough to listen to my mentors and do what they told me.
As I have grown in experience (aka “old”), I am now one of the ones with knowledge of the literature and appropriateness. Still, I have made mistakes in my music choices and, every once in a while, still do. One thing is for sure, when I choose a wrong piece, my students and I all suffer the consequences. The converse is true also though, when I choose the right pieces, we are all rewarded.
In an effort to help you better choose music for your students, I want to share a few guidelines that I have learned and follow to help me make better choices.
Choose Music That Fits the Curriculum
It makes sense that if you choose a lyrical piece, then your students learn to play lyrically. If you choose a fast, technical piece then your students learn to play fast and technical. In the music classroom, music IS the curriculum. You must therefore know what you are trying to teach your students with each piece of music. The music you choose should focus on those skills, competencies and knowledge found in the curriculum. Of course, not every piece is going to cover each skill in an entire curriculum. That’s why it is important to choose a variety of music with different styles and musical requirements so that you touch on everything you want your students to learn throughout the year.
For example, your curriculum might include students must “read and notate music that incorporates rhythmic patterns in simple, compound, and[i] asymmetric meters.”[ii] In this case, you can search for one piece that includes all these rhythmic patterns or, more likely, you can choose two or three pieces which meet the requirements of the curriculum. You may not include each of these requirements in one concert, but they should all be learned at some point during the year.
Choose Music that is Appropriate
As you probably noticed in my young-self example, I often wanted to play music that was not appropriate for my students. It’s not that it was bad music, it just wasn’t right for my particular students or for me at the time. So what makes a piece appropriate?
The music you choose should stretch and building on the existing technique of your students. This means that music should not be too easy nor too hard for your ensemble. Make sure you consider each section in isolation as well as the overall difficulty. A piece may be completely appropriate for one section while requiring too much (or too little) from another section. Mozart comes to mind where you will often find the 1st violin part is often challenging and the 2nd violin part is every bit as challenging if not more so. If you have strong violins, top to bottom, then get after it. If your 2nd violins are not as strong, then perhaps Haydn is more your speed.
We all want to play the Samuel Barber Adagio with our groups, but if your students can’t all play in 1000th position, then there are other options that better teach the skills you want your students to learn. Typically, students start with a limited range on their instrument and then move towards the extremes. Consider where your students are on this spectrum and choose music that stretches and builds on their existing range. As with technique, consider each section’s requirements in isolation as range for one section may be appropriate and in appropriate for another. The Barber is of course a wonderful piece, it just may not be the best piece for a particular situation.
Students typically begin learning their instrument with keys that are fairly easy and then move to more difficult keys. What makes a key signature more challenging is the corresponding hand positions and fingerings required to play in that key. A simple key requires few hand position changes to navigate the piece. A more challenging key center will require the students to change hand positions, use different fingerings and perhaps shift to new positions.
As with the other aspects of music, choose pieces that build on and expand students’ knowledge and skills. Keep in mind that the key signature only shows the overall key. In many pieces, composers move to different key centers with or without the use of a key signature. You must therefore study the entire piece and look for those areas in which accidentals are popping up. Determine what the key centers are for those areas and ask yourself if these areas are acceptable for your students.
Solos serve as a wonderful opportunity to showcase your finer students. When appropriate, they can also serve as a motivation for all students as they audition for the solo part. Not all solo parts however are appropriate for each orchestra. When looking at different pieces keep an eye towards all solos and choose pieces which complement your group. Remember that solos are sometimes buried in the parts and not indicated as a separate staff on the score.
Historical, Cultural and Musical Significance
Each piece of music carries with it some degree of historical, cultural and musical significance. Consider this significance and determine if it is appropriate for your students and for the event. Everyone loves Richard Meyer’s Rosin Eating Zombies from Outer Space, but it may not be appropriate as a piece to play, for instance, at the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor. You have to know your time, your place and your audience and choose appropriately.
Choose Music that is Worth the Effort
Even if we don’t agree on what is the best or worst music, we can all agree that music is not created equally; there are pieces that are better than others. What usually makes a piece “good” in a musical sense is that it is created using good compositional devices and musical intent. A good friend of mine calls this the craft of music. This does not mean that it must be difficult, it simply means that the composer uses appropriate compositional means (form, melody, harmony, variation, instrumentation, etc.) to express an idea of some kind. And since there are an infinite number of ideas, there are also an infinite number of great pieces to choose from, provided you are willing to search for them.
Of course, even a wonderfully crafted piece of music may still be inappropriate for your ensemble. You should also consider the time it will take for your students to learn the piece and weigh that against the benefit of playing it. Borrowing a term from economics, I call this the cost/benefit ratio of a piece of music.
As an example, a friend was considering playing Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide. The piece fit into his curriculum and he planned to pair with pieces of varying styles; his ensemble had the technique and players to perform it; the pieces is obviously historically significant and appropriate; and most everyone can agree that it is a wonderfully composed work. Still, he was going to spend 3-4 months working on a 4 ½ minute piece. Combined with his other two works, this would have given him a concert with approximately 18 minutes of music. In the end, he rightfully decided that the time and effort spent on the piece simply was not worth what the students would have gotten out of playing it; the cost/benefit ratio was too high[iii].
Choose Music You Can Teach
We, like our students, are on a continuous spectrum of growth (hopefully). As we grow as teachers, we learn techniques, strategies, and shortcuts which we use to teach our students different aspects of music. We also grow in our ability to hear and evaluate our ensembles. When we choose music that is challenging to teach but within our ability, we grow as teachers. However, when we choose something that is beyond our ability to teach, we and can become frustrated. Conversely, if we don’t constantly challenge ourselves, we become stagnate. Early in my career, one of my mentors explained that my success as a teacher was more important than playing really hard music because early success builds on itself.
As you can imagine, it is very difficult for young teachers to know what is or is not beyond their ability. To solve this problem every music teacher, regardless of experience, should have friends and mentors they trust to review their music choices before passing it out to the students. These mentors will be able to confirm or question music selections and explain why they think the way they do. It is in these discussions that everyone learns a bit more and grows as teachers.
I hope that you found a couple of useful ideas in this post. Please leave a comment or question in the discussion section below. Happy Teaching!!
[i] Note the word “and” in the statement. When the curriculum statement includes “and,” you must teach each skill listed. When the statement includes the word “or,” you can then choose which skill to teach.
[ii] This statement was taken from the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills requirements, high school music, level 1, adopted in 2013.
[iii] When using a cost/benefit ratio mathematically, the closer you get to 1 the better the value.