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Choosing Repertoire for a Beginning/Intermediate College or Community Choir

  • May 14, 2014

When choosing repertoire for a program, I always aim to have a fairly even mix of the following types of pieces:

  • A number of “bulletproof” pieces, meaning selections I know will work for almost any choir; these are especially helpful for first rehearsals and building sound.
  • Works that will take more rehearsal time but are similarly near-guarantees, including works from the standard choral canon.
  • Works that are more adventurous (including contemporary pieces) that will take more planned rehearsal time.

For the sort of choir I have the most experience with, beginning/intermediate level college ensemble or community choir with a decent balance of parts, here is my proposed program:

Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal – arr. Alice Parker (3 min.)

Verleih uns Frieden – Felix Mendelssohn (4 min.)

Total Praise – Richard Smallwood (4 min.)

Locus iste – Anton Bruckner (3 min.)

Past Life Melodies – Sarah Hopkins (6 min.)

Psalm 126: A Song of Ascents – Abbie Betinis (4 min.)

Sure on this Shining Night – Samuel Barber (3 min.)

The Road Home – Stephen Paulus (4 min.)

Hymn – Toby Twining (5 min.)

Hamba Lulu – arr. Mike Brewer (4 min.)

Every Time I Feel the Spirit – arr. William Dawson (3 min.)

Praise His Holy Name – Keith Hampton (4 min.)

On the list above, pieces like Verleih uns Frieden, Total Praise, The Road Home, and Praise His Holy Name are “bulletproof” pieces. They each take some woodshedding, but offer relief for conductors through simple unison or duet textures (Verleih uns Frieden), close homophonic harmonies (Total Praise and Praise His Holy Name), and repeated strophic writing (The Road Home). They are also almost instantly gratifying for choirs to sing, and may end up bookending the program.

Some works that will take more rehearsal time but are similarly near-guarantees are Hark, I Hear, Locus iste, Sure on this Shining Night, and Every Time I Feel the Spirit. These pieces are beautifully written, fun to sing, and staples of the choral canon.

In the third category, I include pieces by Abbie Betinis and Toby Twining, both talented contemporary composers who have innovative yet accessible styles; their pieces each take careful rehearsal planning but should definitely prove to be audience favorites. Past Life Melodies is scored for 12 mixed voice parts, and is intended for large chorus (though I’ve succeeded in performing it with only 22 voices through some careful adjustments to the voicing); additionally, it introduces both a multi-cultural (Australian Aborigine and East Asian) component and overtone singing (also found in Twining’s Hymn). Finally, Hamba Lulu is a flexible and unbelievably joyous arrangement of an African wedding song in 5/4. Mike Brewer’s arrangement captures the improvisatory feel of sub-Saharan African music, and while the increasing divisis (up to independent 10 parts) can be daunting and will certainly take ample rehearsal time, they are all layered and repeated in a way that allows the choir to build confidence.

The last point I will make is the importance of varying the program order in both style and difficulty. Without a doubt, the first and last pieces must be among the strongest and most energetic; that old saying about audiences remembering what happens first and last definitely has some truth to it. Between those bookends, try to find a balance that allows the concert to progress comfortably (nobody likes 6 slow numbers in a row), while also giving your choir alternating levels of difficulty and familiarity. Don’t put your three hardest numbers back to back, but rather try to intersperse some easier music between those challenging pieces so they are continually encouraged to sing their best.

colin brittColin Britt, originally from Maine, holds a bachelor’s degree in music composition from the Hartt School and a master’s degree in choral conducting from the Yale School of Music and Yale Institute of Sacred Music. He currently serves as music director for Grace Church Van Vorst in Jersey City, New Jersey, and he sings and is a co-conductor with C4: The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective in New York City. Mr. Britt is pursuing a DMA in Choral Conducting with Patrick Gardner at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, where he also teaches undergraduate conducting and directs the Rutgers University Choir. He and his wife, Victoria, live in Jersey City.

for more information about Colin and his work visit