Several weeks ago, one of our percussionists asked a very insightful question in rehearsal. While I babbled on for a spell in response, it’s a question that I think deserves a more detailed treatment, so I thought I’d do my best to pull back the curtain on the matter here, since we don’t have rehearsal this week.
The question was: Why this repertoire? How do you decide what pieces we should play?
The answer is complex. There are a number of factors that go into the choice, and they’re not weighted equally. In fact, the weight given to each factor changes from year to year, and there is absolutely a generous pinch of crystal-ball-gazing incorporated!
As far as choosing from our existing repertoire, I try to take a mixture of levels – we need to have several pieces that the band can pull together quickly as we don’t have a lot of rehearsal time. On the other hand, we do need to have some mid-level pieces that are a bit of a challenge, owing to the fact that we have musicians of all levels. I also make sure to include the two new pieces from the preceding year – this allows us to really absorb them, and they should be familiar to most of our members. I try to not repeat the same pieces too many times in a row if I can. And I look at the new pieces I plan to bring in and see what will balance them in a programme. (For example, if we don’t have new music that’s accessible to a younger audience, I’d bring in Disney Spectacular or Moana. If we have more art music, I’ll reach for some of the pop medleys. If we have more emotive, slower music, I’ll look for rousing numbers, etc). And my best laid plans need back up plans, and those also need back up plans! Flexibility is our game!
When I’m considering new pieces to bring in, I’m looking at (in no particular order):
1- The Level. Historically, I’ve tried to bring in one piece that we can master pretty easily, and a second “challenge” piece that I think will likely take some work to pull together. It’s not a good idea to bring too many pieces that are too hard – that can be demoralising – but I do think we should be pushing ourselves. It’s a delicate balance, and where my crystal ball comes in (since I never really know how our membership will shake out until we really get going in June, but the music list is finalised in March so the binders are ready in time).
2 – Canadian Content. I’m always looking for a way to tie the music we play to the local level. Canadian composers, inspiration from Canada, or any tenuous link will do! I’ll claim it!
(At the moment, I cannot seem to escape Robert Buckley. I’m actively trying to avoid any more of his pieces for a bit just so we don’t have to rename ourselves “The Robert Buckley Tribute Band.” But it’s hard because his stuff is SO GOOD! And he’s prolific! And he’s done what I think is an amazing collaboration with an Indigenous musician on a couple of pieces that tie into the next item, which would make them PERFECT options, but… “The Robert Buckley Tribute Band” is something I’ll have to start up in my spare time, alas).
3 – Diverse composers/influences. A LOT of our repertoire falls under the category of “Western Art Music.” Historically, this has excluded a lot of talented people: women, people of colour, indigenous people. Furthermore, there is absolutely a history of co-opting “exotic” sounds and bringing them into the Western Art tradition (i.e. stealing and mimicking). I think it’s really important to try to showcase different perspectives. I admit that I’m not always very successful in this element, but it’s always something I have in mind. (I’m also always on the lookout for folk music that is not Western European-centric).
4 – Crowd pleasers. This is a broad one. Our audiences have their own likes and biases when it comes to what they like to hear. The music we listen to in our teens tends to be music that resonates with us most strongly all our lives. (It has to do with the psychological and emotional processes that take place during this age range. There are scientific studies on it. I’m not even kidding). So, it’s important to consider who our audience is and what type of music is most likely to resonate strongly. But it’s also important to recognise that we sometimes have children in our audience – so we have to have music that appeals to at least three generations.
5 – Quality of the music. Quality is an objective measurement. Taste is not. No matter what other criteria I consider, the quality of the arrangement is really important. I’m looking for pieces that will stand the test of time. Our band doesn’t have an unlimited bank account, and I’m very conscientious of getting good value for your dollar. While I think it’s important that we have current music, I also want to steer away from “novelty” pieces that are not going to be playable in a few years *cough*Macarana*cough.* (Moana encapsulates this well – the source material is objectively good. The music is well-written. The arrangement is well-written. I believe it’s going to be a classic – akin to The Little Mermaid. And even if we lose track of the source, the arrangement stands on its own merit. We’ll be able to get a lot of mileage out of it for a long time to come).
6 – Something Different. We have a number of members who have been part of the community band scene for a long time. These folks have seen a lot. I try to find something that they have never seen before. (This could be a very recently published score, an international composer/publisher, or just something a bit obscure). I feel that learning something together makes us a stronger team. It’s also something to get a little excited about. I mean, our band managed a Canadian premiere in 2019. How cool is that!!
7 – Skill Improvement. I’m not gonna lie. Sometimes, I choose a piece because it highlights an area we can improve on, and this allows us to really focus our attention on that element. For example, a number of years ago, we played Bolero. That piece is one long, inexorable, steady crescendo at an even pace. (And there are mini-crescendos and decrescendos inside the overarching crescendo – it’s very meta). We had been having trouble with our dynamic control. Well, we worked on that. We’re much better at it now. Blame Ravel (and Jay Bocook).
8 – Cultural Relevance. If there’s a Big Thing happening, I might choose a piece to tie into that item. For instance, playing The Olympic Spirit during an Olympic year, Beethoven’s 250th birthday, etc. I tend to miss these things, but when I do stick my head out enough to be aware of them and I’m able to meet some of the other criteria as well, I’ll definitely link to those events – and I’m not above making it tenuous! (See: the Olympics in Brazil – we had a piece that had Brazilian in the title. I made it work. Sort of).
So, as you can see, this is a complicated topic, with a lot of nuances to take into consideration.
And I don’t really ever stop looking at music. I’m already considering what I think we should look to invest in for next season. My latest idea: we need to bring in some fresh, less complex pieces. As much as The Blue Orchid Tango, Wade in the Water, The Rowan Tree, and The Stripper are fantastic arrangements, I’d like to bring in some variety, so I’ll likely be putting a pause on a new challenge piece for next season.
As of this writing, I have settled on one piece that fits the following criteria: Level isn’t too challenging, it’s a crowd pleaser (released in 1969), it’s recognisable to all Red Sox fans, it’s not “art music,” and the original composer is Jewish. It’s also a solid arrangement. (I don’t think the ending is great, but it’s not the as-written ending of Dragonheart, so there’s that). I’m not sure whether it’s still in print (I’ve been burnt before that way), so I’m not going to get everyone’s hopes up with a reveal today, but this gives you an idea of what I consider when looking at new music.
Ideally, the second new piece will be something relevant to Canada, still at an easier level, possibly something more on the art music or folk music side, hopefully new to all of us, and ideally by a diverse composer/arranger, but still not too difficult. That may change. What usually happens is that I have my idea of what I’m looking for, but when I hear something, I’ll just know it’s the right fit with our existing repertoire, even if it doesn’t tick the intended boxes.
So, that’s the curtain pulled back on the way I approach repertoire selection for Millennium.
I’m always happy to answer any questions you may have.
Please remember, there’s no rehearsal tonight, but we are back next week! If you missed it, here’s the link to the post which includes our repertoire list for next rehearsal!
Have a fantastic week!