how I pick music for band

One of the comments I hear most frequently after one of my bands performs is "Great program!" Perhaps people say it because we still have so far to go in technical execution, but I've heard it enough from judges and other audience members alike that I think I do a reasonably good job of programming music. So how do I pick good music?

There was no music library when I started teaching at SCPA. I knew that the two bands I started with would play every piece of music I purchased that first year, so I had to make sure everything I got would be good. I was able to purchase only nine pieces. With small, inexperienced, imbalanced groups I had to make sure I picked repertoire that was easy enough and could get them to experience success early on. Two pieces from that time that were very helpful were Rob Grice's Defender of Time (for getting students to buy in and enjoy something that sounded good almost right away) and John O'Reilly's A Shaker Hymn (for working on phrasing and expression). 

3516778 look inside A Shaker Hymn Arranged by John O'Reilly. Concert Band. Concert Band; SmartMusic. Yamaha Band Series. Grade 1. Conductor Score & Parts. 112 pages. Published by Alfred Music (AP.12987).
7925243 look inside Defender of Time Composed by Rob Grice. Concert Band. Concert Band; SmartMusic. Alfred Debut Series. Grade 1. Conductor Score & Parts. 62 pages. Published by Alfred Music (AP.26808).

Once I got through the first year and had a little more time to think about building a music library, I relied heavily on the list of repertoire in Lynn Cooper's Teaching Band and Orchestra as well as the JW Pepper Basic Library list. I wanted the majority of what I bought to be time-tested works that I could count on playing multiple times over the coming years. Still, I didn't buy items blindly, and I did listen to new works from publisher CDs that gradually started showing up. Here is my process for listening (made much easier by the greater number of scores and recordings available online).

  1. Look at the title and composer. Does the title display creativity or inventiveness?
  2. Listen to the first part of the piece. Based on the title, how do the sounds line up with my expectations?
  3. After 30-60 seconds, do I have a strong reaction to the piece? Perhaps I notice that the trumpet parts are too difficult or that it requires a balance of instruments I don't have, in which case it is easy to rule out (though if I like it enough, I'll add it to a list to consider the following year). 

I typically set up a spreadsheet to type pieces that appeal to me. I attach a rating as I go (high/medium/low or 1-10) so that I can identify which ones I really want to listen to again later. I include the prices and grade levels as well so that I get the balance of pieces I'm looking for and stay within my budget.

Since I listen to anything I plan on buying at least twice, I hope that the pieces I pick are more substantial than just an ostinato hook or one catchy melody. If I find myself still wanting to listen to the piece, I figure there is a good chance I can help my students appreciate it.

After I've compiled my list, there are always too many pieces to fit within my budget. As I listen to them again, I try to make sure I have a balance of expressive ballads and exciting openers, arrangements of familiar pieces and new works, and many other factors (time signatures and difficulty level come to mind next). At this point, I am no longer quite so worried about having enough music for every group to play during the year. Still, the library only contains 150 pieces split across beginners through high school, and I always want to have extra music on hand for building the sight-reading skills of every group.

Last tip: it's not for everyone, but I've been able to stretch my budget quite a bit during the past few years by purchasing during's annual concert and jazz band sales. Many pieces are 20% off, and my school also gets an 8% rebate on our orders (or others, as from the affiliate links above).

Here are a few of the many selections I'm most looking forward to from my listening this year:

Rites of Tamburo – Robert W. Smith
Foiled Again – Jack Wilds
Prelude and Fugue in B-flat Major – Bach, arr. Moehlmann
Mother Earth – David Maslanka