Minute Clinic – How Do You Select Quality Music?

The beauty of music is that there is something for everyone. What one person thinks is the greatest piece ever written could be the most annoying piece for someone else. As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that axiom is never more apparent than in the selection of literature for your ensembles. Listen, we musicians are a judgmental lot. Sometimes we look down on other teachers because of the music they select to perform with their students. Remember, there is no one more qualified to decide what music to play with your students than you. So naysayers begone, let people do the jobs they were trained to do.

Rather than tell you what is good or bad music, I will help you determine what are some characteristics of quality music that will help you to better choose music for your ensembles. These certainly are not the only characteristics, but some important ones that can signal the worth of the pieces you select for your students.

1. Intrigue – Does the piece pique your interest? Does it hold your attention? Does it take you on a musical journey, or does it seem too predictable? Is there something about the piece that is memorable? Will you walk away with something after it is over? Will it have an effect on you and your students?

2. Drama – Does the piece have a sense of shape or arc, like a good book? One aspect could be the shape or arc of phrases and the overall arc or form of the entire piece. Does it have well-placed climactic features, or is it just sort of monotone and rambling?

3. Artistry – Does the piece have something to say? It is sophisticated? Is it well-crafted? Is it creative? Does it show genius? Even a well-written grade 1 piece can show these things.

4. Craft – Does the work show the composer’s skill? This is different than artistry, especially for a piece written for students. A piece could have all of the above elements, but be poorly scored due to the composer’s lack of understanding of orchestration and technical limitations of the instruments. This can hurt the overall effectiveness of the piece. I suggest that you look more carefully at this area when selecting literature for your students, because bad results can happen with what is a semingly good piece, if the composer does not have an understanding of what is possible on the instruments and what “works” in scoring. I have reviewed literally thousands of pieces that might have characteristics 1, 2 and 3, but have scoring that will preclude them from being successful with your ensembles. Here are three simple things to look for:

  • Look for what I call uncomfortable counterpoint. That is, look for places where there are non-chords on weak beats (or strong beats too sometimes) that don’t really make a lot of sense from a “theory” standpoint. If you listen to a piece and it feels at times like something might be weird, then check for uncomfortable counterpoint.
  • Check the scoring in the lower voices to see if it will be muddy. The way to do this is to remember two things: 1. the overtone series and 2. your college part-writing rules. Remember how you were not supposed to have close intervals between the bass and tenor voices in your part-writing theory assignments? Why? Because it sounds bad, and it gets in the way of nature (the overtone series). The overtone series shows us that open voicing on the bottom will be better acoustically. Close intervals of seconds, thirds and fourths between Tuba and other lower instruments or bass and cello in orchestra is going to sound muddy and be problematic for younger student ensembles ultimately.
  • Everybody plays all of the time. This is not creative orchestration and gets tiring to listen to. I find this a lot when I review string orchestra pieces. Even having some simple changes in orchestration can go a long way in making a piece hold interest and be more effective.

5. Space – My friends and I have been discussing this one a lot lately, as it appears that many of today’s composers feel the need to fill up every possible space in music with something going on. One of my friends said, “music is how you get out of silence, and back into silence.” I also believe that there needs to be breath in music. It has to ebb and flow and have moments of repose. Certainly a piece that just comes at you for 3 to 5 minutes straight can be effective, but after that point our ears need some breaks in order for the next phrase or part of the composition to be more effective. Space can obviously lead to better drama in composition. Rest in music is a good thing and can provide the space necessary for color, texture and timbre, making a piece more intriguing and interesting to listen to.

6. Usefulness – You might think, what does this have to do with quality? In my opinion a lot. I believe that if you determine it is a quality piece of music, then ultimately it has usefulness with your students. But, I also understand that in the educational realm finding pieces that help you teach specific things to your students is very important as well. Although we should consider characteristics 1 through 5 first, it is critical that we find music that can be used to teach concepts that our students need, or pieces that push them in the ways they need to be pushed.

Try not to select music only on the fact you like the tune when you hear the demo recording. Since the music you play with your ensembles is your curriculum, it is essential that you take the time when picking music to look carefully at the piece for the items mentioned above. Are there other factors that can be considered? Certainly, but this is a good place to start. Even pieces that are to be used for functional purposes like a holiday concert or a spring concert can and should have all of these elements. I am a big believe that there is great music in every genre. The problem today is sifting through the thousands of choices you have as a music educator to get just the right piece for your students’ needs. I hope that these suggestions will help to clarify your selection process into something more concrete. Most importantly, trust your musical tastes and talent when selecting music, and always keep in mind that no ones knows the needs of your students better than you! Good luck!