Over the course of my career, I have had several stints as a community choir and church choir director. During those times (and even now), when faced with the overwhelming task of programming a season, I always feel like I am going back to basics and have somehow lost some tools of the trade I once possessed. After years of hard work with minimal returns, I can finally identify and share several jigsaw pieces that can be fit together to create an impactful and exciting season. If you are faced with the task of programming for your community choir and find it hard to begin, here are some thoughts that I hope will help you navigate the task of piecing it all together!
Before you put any specific plans for the season on paper, consider and jot down what would be on your “dream-list.” What pieces of music do you want to program if you could? It does not necessarily have to be realistic for your ensemble, but it is a nice exercise in creative thinking and goals for your ensemble. Plus,the list could prove to be useful in the future! I began such a list in a small leather notebook about 15 years ago and add to it any time I hear something I love. If nothing else, it is fun to flip through the list and see what you were interested in at one time.
Now that you have your dream rep list, consider thinking about these underlying principles as a guide to narrowing down your options:
Quality – Is the music actually good? This seems like an obvious question, but many of us are tempted to plug in pieces that are easy to achieve, fit a need, or have a historical place in our choir’s repertoire. It is time to rethink the use of simple pieces of lesser quality as a safe bet. This tactic really does have diminishing returns for the ensemble and the audience. With so much quality repertoire in the choral canon, why settle for less than stellar pieces? Another aspect of this rubric of “quality” includes what I call “medicinal music.” These are the pieces that are good for your choir and/or good for your audience - i.e. the meat and potatoes stuff. This can include a piece with a challenging fugue that will grow your choir’s knowledge of form, like the “Cum Sancto Spiritu” from Mozart’s “C Minor Mass,” or a piece by a Baroque composer that your audience is not used to hearing because you perform predominantly new music, or perhaps a piece with a relevant or difficult message such as Joel Thompson’s “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.” The important thing to consider about “medicinal music” is that one of the primary goals is to make your ensemble better after programming a piece. What piece will help the choir count better? What can you program that will make the choir more familiar with singing in German? Vary the amounts and types of difficulties so that you can work on different goals with your choir over the course of a concert cycle or season.
Diversity – This is an important topic which requires another article or two to explore adequately. For our purposes let’s distill this into two categories of diversification: style/tradition and creators. One should aim for a rich blend of style when programming - from Renaissance to Baroque, Classical to Romantic, 20th century to Tin-Pan Alley, and 21st century minimalism to African-American spirituals. Naturally this must be tailored to the mission of your ensemble! If you direct a barbershop quartet, you probably will never program Arvo Pärt, but diversity of style and tradition is key to a vibrant season. The second category in planning with an eye to diversity is including a multiplicity of creators. The legacy of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Mendelssohn are unequalled, but our continual effort to bring composers of color, women composers, and composers with different life experiences must be constantly in the forefront of our minds. If you are not sure where to start, here are the names of some brilliant choral composers who represent diversity in our field: Reena Esmail, Joel Thompson, Susan LaBarr, and Moses Hogan.
Feasibility – This seems obvious, but what is possible? Are you trying to see if your organization can pull off Verdi’s Requiem? Let’s go through the various considerations one by one as an exercise:
Cost: Let’s assume that you are pulling musicians from your local professional orchestra, so I am not including mileage or hotel costs. If I use my local union rate (Baltimore, MD) to calculate the total orchestra fee, soloist fee, venue rental, music purchases, and stagehand costs for 2 rehearsals and 1 concert, the total labor (plus total production) is $32,752. Obviously, I have not included marketing expenses, support staff, etc – this is simply a budget for one performance of the Requiem!
Ability of the chorus: If the numbers have not scared you away, then let’s continue the process of considering feasibility. The Verdi is long for a community choir (about an hour and thirty minutes, depending on your tempi) so you have to ask: is your choir up for that? Do you have enough rehearsal time? There are several moments in the piece that have difficult intervallic leaps to negotiate, many relentlessly quick passages, a distinctly late 19th century Italian style (that is sometimes difficult to master), and a lot of Latin. Is this the right time in the life of your organization to bite off this large chunk of the core choral rep?
Marketability – Certain concerts will have insane popularity. Beethoven and Eric Whitacre will sell all day long. Poulenc might be more of a tough sell, as incredible as the music may be. To be clear, I am not advocating that we should not sing Poulenc! I am simply recommending that you have a marketability conversation with your board, particularly those who are not singers. Pitch concert ideas and gauge their reaction because they are a microcosm of your ticket buyers.
BONUS: Potential for Collaboration – This is a bonus because this is not a requirement for determining if a concert program is appropriate for your season. Consider the potential for outside collaboration with each concert program. This is a way to increase community buy-in, ticket sales, community outreach, and diversification. An example from my own personal experience is a concert we produced in which we performed a “community opera” by Jonathan Dove called “The Monster in the Maze.” If you don’t know it, think Britten chamber operas, but maybe even better! The piece was written with community at its heart. It is scored for side-by-side pro and youth orchestra, children’s chorus, adult chorus, professional soloists, actors, and dancers. Programming this work enabled us to utilize orchestra students from the Peabody Preparatory Orchestra, dancers from a local youth dance troupe called Muse 360, singers from both the Maryland State Boychoir and a local high school, and our adult chorus. Additionally, we were bolstered by a number of local and guest professional instrumentalists and singers. To top it all off, a local puppet/costume maker and movement actor was enlisted to construct a massive “minotaur” monster costume. The production was minimal, but gave all participants exposure to costuming, lighting, storytelling, and was directed by a local opera director. Another example from my time here in Baltimore was folding our education partners Overlea High School and Baltimore City College in with the Morgan State University Choir in a Christmas performance with full orchestra. These collaborations create a cross section of our community and foster good-will across all ages, races, economic statuses, and walks of life. Not only does our push for cross-pollination bring the arts closer together, but it increases ticket sales due to the multiple organizations involved in mounting the project. Outside collaboration clearly has many opportunities for paying significant dividends.
My final thought on constructing a season of interesting concerts for a community choir is to be willing to keep moving the jigsaw pieces around until they fit together. Additionally, don’t hesitate to push great concert ideas to another season to make the upcoming season work well. Flexibility is key when building your programming as you seek to hit the sweet spot of financial feasibility, wide ranging pieces, and marketing success!