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Programming Q&R

In my choral conducting class, I assign a series of “Developing an Aural Image” assignments—videos to watch, recordings to listen to, and articles to read that hopefully promote each student’s broadening concept of what they want their choir to sound like one day. The most recent assignment was to select one of a collection of chapters and articles on selecting choral repertoire, concert literature selection, and overall music programming.

After completing the assignment, one of my students, Maggie Tatro, sent me an email asking this:

When programming music, do you find that it is better to have a theme/story/journey for the program, e.g., "Through the Storm, Lead me to the Light," or not? And how do you decide when to have a themed program and when not to? When you do decide not to have a specific theme, how do you choose music/what inspires your programs?

(In case you’re lost, Maggie’s referring to The Roberts Chorale’s most recent tour program, “Through the Storm . . . Lead Me to the Light.”)

Here was my answer. I provide this on the blog in the hopes that you find it worthwhile!

Hi Maggie,

I much prefer themed concerts where the messages in the music unite around an idea or to tell a story. There are (at least) two ways of getting there:

  1. Select a theme first and then seeking out music that fits that theme.

  2. Select a few pieces you’re eager to teach/perform and then find what the common threads between them are. Construct your theme from there and fill in the program with other pieces that fit.

I’ve done it both ways. I actually find #2 easier because I start with something. For example, with “Through the Storm . . . Lead Me to the Light,” I started knowing I wanted to perform “Precious Lord” and “Lead, Kindly Light” this year. Once I had those, I knew I wanted to add repertoire of a particular sort. Below are those genres and the particular pieces that fit:

  • Medieval/chant (“Laus Trinitati”)

  • Renaissance or Baroque polychoral (“Mirabilia testimonia tua”)

  • Classical-period (“Insanae et vanae curae”)

  • Russian tradition (“Svete tihiy”)

  • Folk (“How can I keep from singing?”)

  • Gospel (“Walk in the Light”)

  • Spiritual (“I Know I’ve Been Changed” and “Give Me Jesus”)

  • “Novelty” (“The Conversion of Saul” and “Cloudburst”)

  • Multicultural (“Kasar mie la gaji”)

The other pieces (“E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come” and “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light”) fell into place because they fit the theme so well—and because I love them!

When I don’t program around a theme is when I’m guest-conducting a festival and there are only 4–5 pieces on the program. Then I choose a favorite piece from 4–5 very contrasting genres so the students experience really diverse, varied, and high-quality repertoire.



Was this helpful? Does it raise any other questions? Drop a comment below and let me know!

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