James M. Sammons
Our music and how it sounds is how we are valued in our profession and the essential question truly is, does your band sound good? It is the Conductors duty to select music that will place their band in the best possible position for success. It is essential that conductors choose repertoire that is a good fit for their type of ensemble whether it is a small concert band, large symphonic band, or wind ensemble.
The Florida Bandmasters Association MPA serves as an important educational component of the band experience for its member bands and their conductors. If one is going to participate, it stands to reason that the conductor should strive to make the event as positive and worthwhile as possible. It has been my experience both as a conductor and as an adjudicator that the quality of the MPA experience for both conductor and the performers is greatly influenced by the selection of the music performed. Appropriate music selection will help to make for a more positive outcome for all concerned and lead to a better evaluation (rating). Conductors who do not fully understand this are indirectly and unintentionally inducing their bands needlessly to incur lower ratings at MPA.
Pragmatically speaking, before making your decision on music selection, YOU MUST…
Points to consider when selecting MPA music:
1. Select literature that plays away from the band's weaknesses but plays towards their strengths. Instrumentation is a prime factor that conductors must consider when selecting repertoire. Remember to consider the role and demand of the percussion scoring as well as that of the winds. Avoid works that feature prominent solos or exposed passages for instruments that might not be fundamentally strong. It is better to choose a work that features strong players and sections rather than weaker ones, showcase your best assets.
2. Some bands play music that is simply too hard. Too much rehearsal time must be devoted to learning the notes, rhythms, and technical aspects with little or no time available to develop the expressive elements of the music. When there is excessive rote learning, the real process of music making is compromised. I heard someone remark once that "it is not difficult to play difficult music poorly."
3. Picking something to challenge your band is an honorable endeavor, but they won't be successful if the skills required of them are two, three, or more grade levels above their abilities. Program one grade level above where they are at your winter concert or there-about, or select something in their comfort zone. The fall and late Spring is the time to develop technical fundamentals along with characteristic sound. The main MPA prep period (8 weeks out) is where you refine musical expressions and finesse the technical passages, not the time to try to correct or reteach fundamental pedagogical weaknesses in individuals or sections. Such flaws take months to remedy rather than weeks. Recognize when to "toss in the towel" if a piece is not making it and have in reserve a back-up selection that is in their comfort zone. FBA allows title changes up to 10 days prior to the start of MPA, but call it no less than 3 weeks (maybe sooner) if it is obvious that a selection is not going to present well on performance day.
4. Never pick a piece for MPA that contains ranges you have not heard your students consistently perform with a good sound. Assess the range of your students (high and low) by having them play off a couple of full-range scales at least in two octaves (3 for clarinet). This will reveal your weak and strong players and sections. If students don't proficiently pass off their scales, it's going to be difficult for them to have the technique and range necessary for demanding repertoire.
5. Avoid music where the technical demand overshadows fundamentals your students are weak on. If your students can only play their scales in quarter and eighth notes in one or maybe 2 octaves (if at all) at a moderately slow tempo, you should avoid technical work at a fast tempo such as busy woodwind or brass runs. It is unwise to program a Sousa, King, Fillmore march or other repertoire with a band whose articulation is undefined.
6. Do not pick music that you are unwilling to, or do not have the time to, teach the fundamentals required to perform the piece at a high level. This is applicable to both the musical and technical aspects. If you (or your students) don't have the drive and motivation to find the time required to study and practice in and out of rehearsal to refine the ensemble technique of a specific piece, do not program it for MPA. If you're still learning the how to create clarity in the ensemble, don't select music with those demands. If you aren't willing to dissect it, refine it, polish it, and assess it – don't program it!
7. Never underestimate the time needed to prepare a piece. Assume that you will only get 70-80 percent of real rehearsal time due to distractions and rehearsal inefficiency, plan for student attendance problems, and do not count on many students practicing (they are not going to). Not only is difficulty of music part of the time consideration as well. Length of the program is important. Do not play more than you need to unless you have an accomplished ensemble and plenty of rehearsal time. In general, for the typical band, select a short tutti standard march (2-2 ½ min. - no 6/8 as this subdivision is tricky, and the required lilt is elusive) and two other contrasting pieces keeping these on average of 4-6 minutes each. Avoid music with multiple movements unless you have an accomplished group and if you do select a multi-movement piece, make sure the movements are short. Each movement is likely a separate mini piece with different styles adding to the time needed to prepare and to the difficulty.
8. Never let your ego or personal need to "conduct" (show off) a certain piece or music by a certain composer drive your music selection decisions. While great conducting on stage is important, you should not overshadow the student's performance by over conducting. MPA is about how your band sounds and whether your performance captures the spirit and intent of the music or not. Avoid any semblance of MPA being like a contest or competition. You don't need to play a higher grade of music than your players can handle just to showboat or outdo another conductor or band. Especially, do not try to "wow" the judges with something beyond your bands ability.
9. Balance music your students should play with music your students want to play. Too much of one or the other will result in hidden consequences that reveal themselves down the road. It's okay to play an accessible piece your students like and pair it with another piece that will stretch their musicianship. Always open your MPA program with a solid march that they can sound great on.
10. Regarding marches, pick shorter ones that are mainly scored Tutti (2-2 ½ min.) and stay away from those that take the first clarinets into their clarion register in unison with the flutes. That scoring is near impossible to balance and tune, and generally is more work than it is worth. You can safely drop your clarinets into a reasonable register and run with it leaving the clarion range to the flutes or E Flat clarinet. Suggest that you also drop solo and first clarinet and give the 1st's the 2nd part, the 2nds the 3rd part, and 3rd part players a first trumpet part or transpose the oboe part. Never give the adjudicators a full march score unless there is no other choice (condensed score or solo cornet part). The same is also true for your other selections, a condensed score is best rather than a full score.
11. Look at the playing time for brass players in your selection process. Unless you have accomplished sections with lots of endurance, make sure there's room within each piece for your brass to rest and regroup as they can't play continuously, or at least keep the range demands in mid-range and below. If you over program or over tax your brass, they most likely will start to sound tired and drift out of tune before the performance is finished.
12. Choose orchestral transcriptions with great care (if at all). Make sure they capture the original intent of the music. Older transcriptions may have an abundance of over doubling of parts in unisons and octaves and may have been thickly scored to fit a variety of instrumentation situations. It is impossible for a band to sound like an orchestra, but you will need to sound orchestral in texture, color, and style. If you program a transcription, study the orchestra score and recordings. Edit, thin, or cut unnecessary doublings of parts that may have been created by the transcriber or editor to make sure everyone in the band has a part to play. Your performance must match everything as closely to the orchestral score as possible. Unless you have a skilled ensemble, it might be best to leave transcriptions to your winter and spring concerts rather than MPA.
13. Hear your students perform individually in class playoffs throughout the fall and schedule auditions (complete these by mid-November or early December). Evaluate all aspects of their playing to include tone, pitch center, range, technique, rhythm, articulation, pulse, time, and expressions. This will let you know what is going on in each section and you can then select your MPA music accordingly.
14. Ask yourself, "would the judges like to hear my program"? Programing your music as if the MPA is a mini-concert is a good approach. Make sure your selections flow well from one to the other logically and that the first two and last two minutes of your performance are the best your band has to offer. Make sure the music is on the FBA list and check to see if it is one of the better pieces from a musical and compositional view point. Avoid the most commonly over played, generic, cliché, functional pieces and composers. Most adjudicators like to hear pieces that are from the core bedrock of band repertoire as well as fresh new pieces. In programing the classics of the band world at MPA, exercise good judgement when programing such repertoire as Lincolnshire Posy, Irish Tune, the Holst Suites, English Folk Song Suite, and similar. Every band should perform this type literature — but maybe not at MPA unless you have a very mature ensemble. Many adjudicators have very strong opinions on the interpretation of masterpieces such as these, and only the best performance is successful in their eyes. Bands will almost always fall short when playing this type of literature unless it is performed to the highest possible level of excellence.
15. Take plenty of time well in advance of the deadline for selecting your music. Listen to recordings, study the scores, look at the individual parts, research any articles available regarding the music you might be considering, and consult with colleagues. The time and effort put in to select the right music for your band is well worth the investment.
The following resources are credited with providing some of research found in this handout and are recommended for additional follow-up regarding music selection:
Band Director Foundations for Success by Miller William Clayton (available through Amazon)
National Band Association Journal http://www.nationalbandassociation.org
The Instrumentalist Magazine
Friends and Colleagues (too numerous to list) over the years who mentored and helped me throughout my career.
Jim Sammons is a life member of the Florida Bandmasters Association, serving the FBA for eighteen years in a variety of positions at the district and state level including District Secretary, District Chairperson, Solo - Ensemble Chairperson, and President of the Florida Bandmasters Association from 1996-1998. Mr. Sammons is a member of the American Bandmasters Association, the Florida Bandmasters Association Hall of Fame, the Florida Music Educators Association, the National Association for Music Education, and the National Band Association. He is a FBA adjudicator in all areas. After 42 years of teaching with 36 years at Vero Beach High School in Vero Beach, Florida he retired Director of Band Emeritus in July 2016. He remains active as a clinician and adjudicator through his consulting business, Sammons Education Solutions.