Choosing repertoire for your choir is a big part of your planning process. Of course, there are numerous things to consider and you’ll want to spend plenty of time getting your choices right, but I thought it would be useful to set out a few essentials issues to ponder when you’re trying to work out whether a piece would be suitable for your choir.
The first thing to consider is whether the ranges covered by the various vocal parts corresponds to the vocal ranges of your singers. There’s no point in choosing Allegri’s Miserere with its soaring top C if none of your singers has one of those in their vocal arsenal, to take an extreme example.
Check through the entire score for each part before you decide to go ahead. It can be rather annoying that many websites only let you have a look at the first page before buying a score, so you can end up with surprises if you make a decision based on the available sample. Better to shell out for score for yourself, do your analysis, then go ahead and purchase scores for the choir if you’re happy with it. In our own music store here at Total Choir Resourses, you can view complete versions of all our scores before you buy a piece.
The term tessitura refers to the average lie of the notes in a particular part. So I might be very comfortable singing a top G, but if an entire song or piece were written in that area of my range, I’d be straining badly. High or low notes are usually easiest when sung as part of scales or arpeggios within the music.
When you’re assessing a new piece, look carefully at the tessitura for each part. As a very rough rule of thumb, the earlier the music, the more wretched a time your tenors are likely to have. Voices have changed over the centuries, as of course has the make-up of vocal ensembles (more women, fewer castrati!) so give this close attention.
Make sure that you’ve thoroughly considered what the music is about and what the words mean. There are a few different aspects about text to keep in mind, particularly if you want to sing pop songs with your choir.
Very personal lyrics can sound quite inappropriate coming from a choir. Love songs written in the first person, or lyrics that are gender specific, can grate a bit. Also in the same vein, watch out for overtly sexual lyrics or obvious double entendres, unless you’re playing for laughs.
Finally, be sensitive to the possibility of inadvertently causing offence with religious or political lyrics. You might, of course, want to sing something with a powerful message. Just be sure that it’s a conscious choice, not a mistake.
It’s likely that whatever repertoire you choose will have to suit a particular performance, so be sure to take accompaniment into account.
There are practical considerations, such as whether you have the required musicians available to you at the appropriate time, and whether you’ll be able to rehearse with them. There are also musical considerations. If you’re going to perform outside, for example, will the piece be heard well enough? Very exposed, polyphonic music might not come across, whereas something more fully scored might work very well.
All these issues point to a central requirement about choosing repertoire – you need to start early! If you’re going to order a score, do your analysis, change tack if necessary, do more analysis, make a decision, order scores (if your choir uses them) and create rehearsal plans, you’ll need to give yourself plenty of time.