Repertoire Selection

September 5, 2021

One of the biggest challenges we all face each year (or every 3 – 6 months really) is undoubtedly repertoire selection. There are a number of reasons why this is so important, and something that so many of us agonise over during our precious January break: this is going to be the music we live with for the next 3-6 months, and it needs to, in my opinion, be the vehicle for our students’ learning and by extension, can be a major pre-determinant in the success of our work. Compounded further by the unknown quantity of new students in our ensembles (these are students for whom we are missing the assessment stage of the teaching and learning cycle), and by concerns that some of us may have that the students won’t be engaged by the repertoire, and we have a recipe for many sleepless nights!

I’ve been asked about my repertoire choices quite a lot over the past few years; and my experience has certainly been that the right repertoire will give your group the ability to play more musically and with more creative engagement by sheer virtue of its quality and suitability to the students. Interestingly, the younger conductors I’ve spoken to seem to be more focused on the repertoire I’ve chosen, whilst more established conductors are keen to discuss the pedagogical tools used to get the group sounding the way they do. I believe these factors are inseparable and are at the very core of the difference between what we can teach students, and what they can learn when we create the right environment and couple it with high expectations and attainable goals. Quality repertoire creates this environment, and its suitability shapes the expectations we can set both in rehearsal, and in the performance.


I became very interested in a handful of well-known educational theories whilst completing a Masters in teaching a few years ago. These are all great things to read up on and have had a big impact on the repertoire I select. If I were to pick my top three, they would be: Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, Carol Ann Tomlinson’s Differentiated Instruction, and Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. In short, the suitability of repertoire for any group can be judged on:

  • Differentiation - How can I rehearse it in a way that differentiates for the player standards, learning types (see also Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences) and interests of individual learners?
  • Vygotsky – is this music attainable with my guidance in rehearsal but unattainable without guidance? This has a huge impact on how much the music is practiced at home (see also Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on Flow).
  • Bloom – how quickly can I get the students to the higher order thinking area with this music? This is, after all, what we all sign up for when wanting to play music!

Repertoire that doesn’t meet these pedagogical criteria will see us teaching notes, not music. We’ve all heard performances of groups performing music that is beyond them (I certainly have heard a demoralising succession of them whilst adjudicating), and I’m never sure whether it’s worse hearing the students struggle to play the notes, or hearing them playing all the notes but making absolutely no music out of them. In my work with year 7 and 8 students, I have to place a large emphasis on sight-reading, ensemble listening and interpretation to counteract this phenomenon in primary school ensemble playing.

My philosophy is that our high expectations should be focused on the musicianship of the performance, not on the degree of difficulty of the repertoire. One of my mentors is always ready to abandon a work if a group can’t engage with the music in the first hour. If your response to this is that it’s normal for the music to be unrecognisable until you’ve ‘taught’ it to them, then I would urge you reflect seriously on this. What will the students learn from this process? All too often it seems that we teach students that hard music is good music; the joy of our great musical art form is in the struggle to overcome, either the music, or other ensembles in a competition, and most worryingly: that rehearsals are slow, boring experiences where you listen to others sounding bad, and get into trouble for everything.

I would prefer my students to have an authentic rehearsal experience every week – the same as a professional group would on a good day. We do what those groups do – talk about phrasing the same way; learn each other’s parts so that we have perspective on how to play ours, learn about the architecture of the music and consider why we should play this section in this way now and that way later. If we all wrote a list of the skills we wish our students had in their home practice time, I believe it should be these skills we model and develop in rehearsals. This is Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development at work. This is concentrating on Bloom’s high order thinking, with creating and evaluating at the top and remembering at the bottom.

To paraphrase Pablo Casals: everything that is important in music is that which is not on the page. My goal is to rehearse, model and develop everything that’s not on the page. I want to teach music. If the repertoire is too difficult, I can’t do this. And students sign up to learn music, not to overcome unbeatable odds and to beat the other school in a competition. My contention is that these are goals that only result from the ambitions of the school or the conductor, and should be secondary to the learning of our students.


One of my main professional aims is to have an ever-developing perspective on the growth of music students. Since 2009, I’ve had the great fortune to be involved in a conductor development program run by Symphony Australia. As part of this program, I’ve had to regularly challenge myself and place myself in some professionally confronting situations (it’s not a picnic standing in front of one of Australia or New Zealand’s great professional orchestra and trying to present them with something worthwhile to look at). It’s also been a great catalyst to study in some depth a large amount of orchestral repertoire, and to seriously reflect on what conductors are for, and what musicians can (and often should) do without us. It occurred to me (slowly) over the past 5 years that the more of this kind of challenge and reflection I undertook, the more my conducting and teaching was changing. Next to the great works of the symphonic repertoire, much of our available educational repertoire compares very poorly! And good music, for me at least, really does encourage good conducting and good teaching. Looking at a year 8 flautist or a year 5 percussionist and considering what we should be doing for them so that they can play in Orchestra Victoria in 20 years time has some unavoidable influences on the way we conduct, rehearse and teach them!

And so the process of selecting repertoire is now, for me, subservient to this perspective. We all recognise the mind-numbing clichés of key, tempo, form and texture that pervade much of the educational music literature. Why shouldn’t wind bands play music in Sonata form? Do we really want string players to be scared of flats? I’m sure you can write a page of these questions. I think we all should. And then consult that page every time we are wading through the seemingly endless amount of music published for school ensembles. I would also encourage you to write a page of skills and qualities you believe music students need to develop. And then only choose music that will enable you to develop these qualities through the preparation of the music. In the absence of an explicit and legislated curriculum for instrumental music, good conductors will all have one of our own. My personal aim is to continue to develop and refine this personal curriculum, and then program repertoire that fits its outcomes.

Worthwhile repertoire

Most of us have heard Richard Gill speaking about the two types of music – Good Music and Bad Music. There seems to be an unfortunate abundance of Bad Music written each year for educational ensembles. Whether it results from composers relying on tired clichés to meet their publisher’s quota and deadline, the encouragement of a particular type of piece that sells more, as it is quick and unchallenging to learn and teach (our fault), or festivals and eisteddfods exacerbating the problem by selecting set works from only newly published repertoire directly from the big publisher’s catalogues at the expense of the peer-reviewed standard repertoire; we are annually inundated with an avalanche of uninspiring music of questionable quality. Unfortunately, we often go ahead and program it anyway, because it’s in stock at the local music shop, or we can see immediately that the students will like it, or we just can’t bear to listen through another new repertoire CD (I freely admit to having done this). Let’s not forget that our students also like (insert name of 3 current, heavily produced pop culture phenomena here). Would an English teacher set the latest instalment of Andy Griffith’s famous trilogy (“The day my bum went psycho” is a real book!) for three months of year 9 study just because the students would like it immediately and find it easy? Then we certainly shouldn’t either!

My personal criteria for worthwhile repertoire

  • Does everyone have good parts - particularly percussion and low brass/winds? Expand your percussion section’s horizons! Have 6 players or more in the section, and use them in (almost) every piece. This encourages us to pay attention to them in rehearsal too.
  • Can the students be creative whilst playing this?  Well-written music encourages phrasing and interpretation.
  • Does this piece enable me to meet the learning potential of each student within the timeframe that we’ll rehearse and perform it? This may not mean that every student plays every note in their part – you can differentiate for your students here:
  • Is there space for solo playing?
  • – Investigate differentiation and consider giving certain players solo opportunities. This authentically represents orchestral playing and chamber music, and can also create a real way of recognising the achievements of diligent students without resorting to the old insincere positive reinforcement routine or the extrinsic motivation of gold stars!).
  • Does it contain idiomatic writing for each instrument?
  • Does it have inspiring extended techniques? Anything that gets the students really conceptualising sound on their instruments is good!
  • What can I get the students excited about in this piece? Aleatoric writing is good. Unusual soundscapes or tonalities are immediately engaging. Whatever we as the conductor/teacher feel excited about in the music is the easiest to infect our students with. Program music is good for younger students – but don’t forget that music is the greatest art form because it is the most abstract.
  • Is this piece a lazy cliché of educational music for this ensemble (ABA –fast-slow-fast for wind band, blues for big band, ostinato-based string repertoire with more difficult 1st violin parts and boring repetitive cello/bass parts)?
  • Will I be teaching notes, or teaching music?
  • Does this piece have historical significance within the canon of music in its genre? The NSW curricula across most subjects are divided into learn to and learn about strands. Will this piece allow my students to learn about Beethoven, or Korean music, or sonata form etc?
  • Is this piece culturally relevant/appropriate?
  • Does this piece help the students develop their aural and ensemble skills? Minor tonalities are easier for young players to get their ears around. Things that are beyond the range and technique of the players will leave no opportunity to concentrate on intonation, sound and ensemble.

Professional Development

On a personal level, the repertoire we choose needs to enable us to develop as conductors and teachers. I try to achieve a healthy mix with each ensemble by programming something:

  1. New (either newly composed, or that I haven’t conducted before),
  2. From the standard repertoire,
  3. Legato/slow (this really challenges interpretative conducting and develops pacing and control of the music’s architecture),
  4. I would find hard to conduct (identify your own weaknesses here), and perhaps controversially,
  5. I’ve done before. Repeating good repertoire enables us to refine how we conduct, interpret, teach (explicitly and implicitly), and rehearse a work. I often find I conduct less (in terms of pulse and dynamics minutiae), am able to convey a way of playing bar 31 that is a result of what happens in bar 186 (it’s much harder to do this than to interpret bar 186 with the perspective of bar 31), can use the music more expertly to get students to my goals for their learning more quickly, and can get the music sounding much better much quicker. This last refinement then feeds further growth in other areas of my work, as I have so much more time then to explore ways of improving the music more!

A Vehicle for Teaching - How do I want my rehearsals to work?

This is my final piece of collegial advice. Our rehearsals are our teaching time, our preparation time, our opportunity to engage the musicians with the music, and our time to inspire them to keep playing music. Different aged students have particular needs in this time. My year 3 group needs to be taught explicitly how to rehearse. So do my Junior High School ensembles (they come from a range of primary school music backgrounds with very different rehearsal practices and expectations). The state level group I see each week needs to understand the music, be challenged technically and solve the internal ensemble issues of the repertoire. My high school big bands must have time to improvise each week, and the rhythm section needs to learn to play a range of genres. String players need to develop an array of techniques and learn when and how to sort out bowings etc. Working backwards from these needs and imagining our rehearsals will predict whether the range of pieces we choose each term or semester is an appropriate mix.

The last important consideration for me is to ensure that my ensembles have an authentic range of musical experiences each week, and are building skills that enable them to be life-long musicians. Commercial musicians need to be versatile and to be able to sight-read on the gig or in the studio. Orchestral musicians need to be able to play without a conductor’s explicit beat by relying on their aural ensemble skills and a hierarchy within the orchestra (I learnt this the first time I stood in front of a professional orchestra and experienced the time-delay). Jazz musicians need to be able to create music in much more detail than what’s written on their page (think phrasing, time-feel, improvisation, chord substitutions). Does my range of repertoire necessitate this in a weekly rehearsal? It’s great if the oboist ends up in the Sydney Symphony, but what about that percussionist who wants to work in a studio or play in the theatre?

Within a given rehearsal, I try to include a skills period (warming up is a happy by-product), sight reading (vital), some time playing without me conducting, serious, real-world-expectations-rehearsing on one or two pieces, and an authentic performance of a third piece - where I get up off the stool and practice how I would conduct the piece in a concert which, of course, should elicit a tangible response from the students. I was struck last year by the transformation made by Simone Young in a rehearsal between when she was rehearsing the music and when she clearly wanted the orchestra to perform. The response from the Orchestra was instantaneous and I resolved to ensure my students became better at responding like this in performance by doing it every week!

There’s some great literature on repertoire selection available to us all, including the Teaching Music Through Performance In…. series. Anything that points us towards standard repertoire or new music that has had its quality and appropriateness peer-reviewed is invaluable. State and Festival lists from the US can be helpful for this reason, and searching through the Midwest Clinic website every December is an annual event for me. If only I could go every year instead! Events that enable us to read through new music in a collegial environment are fantastic, and there are some great music stores with staff who know the repertoire, and also care about the difference between latest and greatest.

Jason Isaac

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