Selecting Choral Literature

Selecting literature for your music ensemble may be one of the most important tasks you do at the beginning of the school year, and also one of the most difficult and time-consuming. Guest clinician Jason Locker presents some things to take into consideration when choosing what your choirs will sing during the school year. Please note that things that are written here (on my blog) or presented by a guest clinician are not necessarily things that are supported by my school district or state, but these are the opinions of the clinician and guidelines they themselves follow to make their program successful.


Literature Selection: Supporting Your Primary Objectives

Jason Locker, Bloomingdale High School

  • Buzzwords: backward design, scaffolding, assessment, differentiation.
  • What makes a piece of music good? (What do you value?)
    • Text –
      • Is it worth singing? Not every poem needs to be set to music. Do the words have meaning that will translate to the audience?
      • Does it tell a story, or teach a lesson of some sort? Character education.
      • ♪♫ Moses Hogan, I am His Child – speaks to students, can relate to it. Girls especially can relate.
      • Does it allow the singers and audience to experience emotions?
      • Is it memorable? Will they think back and remember it in the future?
    • Melody – primary melodic material
      • Is it memorable? The best melodies are the ones that play in your head as you leave the classroom each day.
      • Is it singable? Major 7ths and other big leaps are hard for young students to sing. Can your choir do all or most of the group you have in front of you?
      • Does it fit the text? Is there a good “marriage” between text and melody?
      • Does it bring the mood or emotion of the text to life?
    • Harmonic Structure – supports the melody
      • Is it sensible? Does it fit with the melody? Just because a piece works well in one voicing (SATB) doesn’t mean it will work well for another (SSA).
      • Is it singable?
      • Does it fit the text and bring the mood or emotion of the text to life?
    • Form
      • Are there repeated refrains that the chorus can feel confident singing multiple times? Can students feel successful early on in the process of learning the piece? (You can have students locate familiar material after learning some of it.)
      • Roadmap: are there repeats, 1st and 2nd endings, da capo, dal segno, fine, coda, etc. in the piece? Can they read the roadmap? (Teachable moments.)
      • ♪♫ Dance On My Heart, Alan Kepke; has a complicated roadmap.
      • Are there key changes? Are they simple modulations? Are there transitions between relative or parallel major and minor keys? (This determines how you use your solfege and what minor solfege system you use.) Locker is a firm believer of using solfege and the Curwen hand signs.
      • How to deal with minor: Some schools teach parallel minor, where “do re ME fa so LE TE do” where DO is fixed for each scale, but sometimes it is better to use relative minor where the minor is “la ti do re mi fa so la.” Plan in advance so you are not fumbling around. Have an answer to their questions.
      • Is the primary motif material ever embellished? Are there variations on the original theme? Discuss it, but don’t lead the discussion too much.
    • Singability
      • Do the ranges of your students (tessitura) fit the ranges of the voice parts in a piece of music? Could you do a little rewriting to make them fit?
      • Have you scaffolded enough prior knowledge for students to be successful on this piece? Do they have enough knowledge for them to make it through the piece successfully and without too much frustration?
      • Is this piece of music age/developmentally appropriate for your singers? Don’t pick something that is too “hard” or too “easy”. Example: middle school choir, average skill, singing David Child’s Weep No More. (♪♫) Sounds easy, but isn’t.
      • Turn off the recording of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir that is playing in your head and listen to the singers that are actually in front of you! Your choir may never sound remotely close to sounding as good as whatever beautiful recording you found online. Listen to your students!
    • Teachable moments (bonuses!)
      • Does this piece allow you to introduce your students to another culture?
      • …to another period of history?
      • …to another language?
      • Does this piece allow you to make connections to other subject areas, or to life outside of the classroom? (Can you feel the points being added to your evaluation score?)
      • ♪♫ Hotahda Coy (sp.? Japanese song.)
      • Use students for help with pronunciation. You may have a student who speaks Hebrew, or Japanese, or students who are taking French at school – use them! Don’t be afraid to ask the foreign language teachers for help.
    • Engaging/interesting to the students.
      • Is it something that your students will go home singing and will tell their parents about at home? Will they look into it and study it on their own?
    • What are my primary objectives? What do I want my students to know and be able to do as a result of taking my class? (The BIG ideas!)
      • FVA Music Perofrmance Assessment Sheet
        • Tone Quality
          • This is the first and most important category on the sheet!
          • Includes: resonance, focus/placement, breath support, vowels, consonants, beauty/freedon, reister adjustment, control, and blend.
          • Healthy, well-supported, age-appropriate tone.
          • Placement! This is huge! So much of the sound of the choir is controlled by the placement. This can change based on the piece! Dark vs. bright, etc. Can assign colors, “give me a more yellow sound.”
            • Not too dark, not too bright!
            • Vowels, vowels, vowels!
            • “Shapenote” piece?
          • Breath support: the air is like our gasoline in our car!
          • Choral blend: no individuals sticking out. It’s not a solo!
          • This one is more equal than the others!
        • Technical Preparation:
          • Includes: intonation, pitch accuracy rhythmic precision, choral balance, stability of pulse, entrances, releases, balance of accompaniments.
          • Don’t just teach pitches and rhythms! Teach everything from Tone Quality WHILE you teach pitches and rhythms. Use the tech. prep category to teach the other stuff too.
          • Breath support, unified vowels and placement = intonation.
            • “Sooner or later I’m going to win, so you might as well do it now.”
          • Consonants = rhythmic precision, entrances, releases, stability of pulse.
        • Musical Effect
          • Includes: proper tempo, phrasing/musical line, dynamics, style, articulations, dramatic effect, expression, interpretation, response to conductor.
          • MAKE MUSIC!
          • Pay attention to the horizontal line (the phrase), not just the vertical one!
            • Dynamic contrast.
            • Never sing louder than LOVELY.
          • Know how to perform the style correctly! (Teacher.)
            • Know what Bach should sound like if you’re singing him, know performance practices from the time, etc.
          • Tell your audience the story! (The text and melody/harmony should make them feel something!)
        • How do I find good literature?!
          • The most difficult, most time-consuming, and most important task of the choral director is to find the best literature for his or her choirs to study and perform.
            • We often spend far too little time choosing music.
          • Ask yourself:
            • WHO will be singing this music?
            • WHAT skills will they develop during the learning process?
            • WHEN will we perform it (if we perform it)?
            • WHERE in my sequence of instruction does this piece fit? (Scaffolding and backward design, think long-term. MPA may be a goal, if you have some pieces in mind.)
            • WHY should we sing this piece instead of something else? (Quality.)
            • HOW will I teach this piece in order to maximize the educational value my students and I get from it?
          • Reading Sessions:
            • An excellent way of finding new music, or new arrangement. Some reading sessions go through over a hundred pieces in a session.
            • Definitely participate in these sessions! You may have to travel a bit to get to one.
            • They allow you to actually sing through potential selections with a group of people covering all vocal and accompaniment parts, so you can hear for yourself what the piece really sounds like.
            • The quality of music available in these sessions is usually a VERY mixed bag. The publishers are pushing what is new in thor catalog right now, not necessarily what is of high quality. You might only find a dozen in a session of a hundred pieces.
            • MARK why you like a piece, or how you might like to use it on the cover. Discard music you don’t want (don’t let it stack up). Be picky! You can write “maybe”, “yes!”, or “yes, freshmen women”, or “yes, S/E duet piece.” Whatever!
          • Convention Performances
            • Invited Choirs at Florida ACDA, Divisional/National ACDA, and FMEA conventions. Make marks next to pieces you like and KEEP THE PROGRAMS for future reference!
            • All-County, All-State, and ACDA Honor Choirs. Again, mark up the programs. Just remember that you can’t perform a Florida All-State piece at MPA in the same year it was performed by the All-State Choir. (I really like “Sing to Me” from our All-County!)
            • Florida ACDA luncheon at the FMEA Convention in January.
            • FMEA convention mini concerts.
          • Professional Choir Recordings and Tours
            • Have listening exercises (maybe a listening log) and have the students write about it.
            • Do YOU go to concerts and tours when they come to town?
            • A Selection of groups to listen to (in no particular order):
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir
  • The King’s Singers
  • Chanticleer
  • Robert Shaw Chorale
  • Seraphic Fire
  • Santa Fe Desert Chorale
  • Atlanta Master (Sacred) Chorale
  • Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
  • USAF Singing Sergeants
  • Los Angeles Master Chorale
  • The American Boychoir
  • …and MANY more!
  • Collegiate Choir Recordings and Tours.
  • Olaf College
  • Luther College
  • Concordia College
  • Milikin university
  • University of Southern California
  • Florida State University
  • Yale University
  • University of Gerogia
  • University of Texas
  • University of Kentucky
  • MS/HS Choral MPA Programs
    • Go to
      • Click on “Ratings and Programs” > Component “Vocal” > select year > select “District” or “State” for all districts. (FVA goes through district 16.)
      • Starting in 2010-2011, you can view every state District and State MPA.
        • Complete Ratings
        • All literature performed by every participating choir!
      • What do you think are the strongest districts in Florida?
        • District 8, Orange County! (Note: every HS in Orange has 2 choral directors!)
      • What are some of the schools, or who are some of the directors that you look up to and respect in Florida? (Either you know personally or by reputation.)
        • James Paul, district 13, Jensen Beach HS.
        • Scott Layman, district 3, Lincoln HS.
        • District 12, Harrison School of the Arts.
      • Look others up! I promise you they are performing good literature!
    • Publisher/Distributor Websites
      • Know the reputable publishing companies: Santa Barbara, Colla Voce, Alliance, BriLeww, Earthsongs… (to name a few.) BriLee is specifically meant for developing young choirs.
      • Know the names of respected choral conductors who have a music series published under their name Jo-Michael Scheibe, Lynne Gackle, Jerry McCoy, Henry Leck (to name a few). They may not have written the music, but they’ve given it their endorsement as quality literature.
      • Several websites (J.W. Pepper, Santa Barbara Music Publishing, Hal Leonard, etc.) allow you to view a sample of most sheet music and hear a reference recording of many songs online so you can order confidently! Take advantage of those resources, and then order from Head’s House of Music! (In Tampa).
    • Music Packets:
      • Some companies send out yearly packets of new music that is being published, for a small fee.
    • Some counties have a district choral library for use by the teachers within the county.
    • Listening websites:, Stanton Listening Library, Hal Leonard, J.W. Pepper.
    • Membership to the American Choral Directors’ Association is recommended!
  • Locker Says:
    • Choose music for the choir you HAVE, not the choir you WISH you had.
    • If you don’t program music because the text is in a language that makes you uncomfortable, you are cheating your students out of entire cultures worth of music
    • The choral director who truly cares about their students will sit at the piano as long as it takes in order to play accurately what the singers need to hear in the next rehearsal.
    • Come to rehearsal prepared! It is ten times harder ro re-teach something and correct the mistake once it has been learned correctly.
    • If today’s rehearsal is frustrating you and making you mad, it’s probably doing the same to them.
    • You would be very hard-pressed to find a middle or high school student who joins chorus because they love “Classical” music. Meet them where they are.
    • If pop, rock, show-tunes, etc. is “beneath” you and your choral program, you may find that students decide your choral program is “beneath” them.
    • “There is never a good reason to do _______________’s music at choral MPA!!” (Maybe not Greg Gilpin or Ruth Artman for MPA, and avoid things everyone knows, like Mozart.)
    • Love what you do. Love who you do it for. Do it t o the best of your ability at all times, and in all places, not matter what the adversity, and you will live a happy and fulfilled life.
  • Musical examples used in this session:
    • If through the Sea of Night, Dunbar and Smith – great solfege piece.
    • Pié Jesu, Lightfoot – memorable melody, empasis on syllables and phrasing.
    • Al Shlosha D’Varim, Naplan – doesn’t have to be strictly SA, can switch girls on different parts.
    • The Poet Sings, Stroope – character lessons.
    • Weep No More, Childs – good for learnin, even if not performing. M. 37 is a good exercise.
    • The Storm is Passing Over, Rao – good message, kids love it
    • Praise His Holy Name, Hampton – kids love it, needs a good accompanist.

About Lady Fair

Lady is a musician with a bachelor's degree in music education. She plays multiple instruments and has participated in numerous musical ensembles, giving her a wide variety of experiences and knowledge to use in her teaching career. Of her ensemble participation, she has fifteen years of band experience, nine years choral, and four years in orchestra. Éowyn's primary instrument is clarinet, with voice and piano being close secondary instruments. Throughout her musical education career she studied voice and clarinet simultaneously. In addition to clarinet, piano, and voice, she has also studied violin and oboe at the college level, and also plays recorder, tin whistle, and other instruments in the woodwind family. If you ask her, she will say, "I chose to major in music education because I have a desire to use my knowledge and experience in music to share its beauty and foster a love of music in the hearts of my students. I hope to encourage my students to try their hardest, feel like they have accomplished something, and give them a life long passion for music." Lady currently teaches private lessons on clarinet, sax, flute, oboe, piano, and voice, and recently gained a position teaching orchestra and chorus at a local middle school. She is also a member of the Once Upon a Dream woodwind ensembles.
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