I was talking to a friend this weekend about music selection for our bands. She remarked that choosing music is the hardest thing that we do. I wasn’t sure if it was the hardest thing that we do as music educators, but it is very important. For many classroom teachers their curriculum is largely given to them. I hear about as much frustration about prescribed curriculum as I do anything else in our schools. Common Core has certainly had an impact on K-5 curriculum in our district causing a high level of frustration. One of the great things about being a music educator is that we control our curriculum almost entirely through the music we choose to put in front of our students, but with great power comes great responsibility. I have been guilty of not taking this task seriously enough at times and my students have paid for it.
We have to view the selection of literature for our ensembles as seriously as a literature teacher selects the novels they ask their students to read. The music we select needs to be challenging, provide contrast to the other music we are playing, and it must have gravitas. What does it mean for music to have gravitas? Well, it has to have a reason that it is important. In some cases that might mean that it is one of the great pieces in it’s genre. In some cases it might mean that it have social or cultural importance. In the end the music we play must have depth and cause our students to think and maybe even struggle to understand. If we are not playing music that challenges our students both technically and emotionally then we aren’t really teaching them about what music is. Serious music is about expressing big ideas and raising our awareness of the world around us. The best way to teach that is by giving them a curriculum that has depth.
I have a few quick things that I look for when selecting literature for any of my bands. First, I work to find music that is challenging for the skill set of my students but not so difficult that they won’t be able to play it. If I’m honest I tend to lean towards music that I know they will be successful on, but lately I am forcing myself to stretch my groups a little more in order to provide them with some more rigorous experiences. It’s a delicate balancing act and the failure of many classrooms begins and ends with music that is either way too easy or way to difficult. You have to constantly measure the difficulty of your repertoire and adjust accordingly. Second, I try to pick literature that will resonate with my students. This doesn’t mean that I play music that will be “popular” with them when I hand it out. It means that I try to select music that will create a challenge for them in a technical sense (which they like in small doses) and that has an opportunity for them to play with emotion. This can come in many different forms, but you know it when you find it. I tell my students that I tend to like music that is schizophrenic because it forces the performers and the listeners to process multiple emotions in a short amount of time. Selecting music that makes the performers and listeners cry, laugh, think, or even be angry is important. Next, I try to find music that meets the needs of everyone in the band. Some of the ensembles I direct have a wide ranging skill set. This is when literature selection is the most difficult (just like I’m sure it is for the English teacher). I want to find music that is playable by all my students and also challenging for my best students. It’s not easy. When you’re selecting music you need to look at all of the parts (including percussion) to see if everyone is challenged a little and if it is within reach of everyone. In truth you may have to play some pieces that are playable for some in your ensemble and too easy for others and you may have to play some literature that is too difficult for some of your students. It is all a matter of balance. Lastly, you have to view your literature selection as part of a continuum. Is the literature you are choosing helping your students to improve on the specific musical standards that you have identified as important.
As music educators we are spending quite a bit of time making the case that what we teach is important. One way that our schools will know what we teach is important is if we can show our school leaders and our communities that we are teaching to standards that are understandable and relevant. Take every possible opportunity to share with your administrators, parents, community, and especially your students how your literature aligns with your classroom standards. We need to speak that language in order to share why what we teach is important. No matter how great any of us might be as an instructor, we are only as strong as our curriculum. I’m working to be more thoughtful each and every year on this.