Like most high school choir teachers, only a couple of the ensembles I teach are auditioned. While I love it this way, as it allows me to keep recruiting and bringing in students to sing who may not be interested in a heavier commitment, it can make planning literature a nightmare. How many students will I get? What will their voices be like? What background (if any) will they have? This is particularly true for my Men’s and Women’s Choruses, who meet for half of their lunch period in two separate sections. I typically find the best way to set them up for success is to program very manageable pieces with which we can all get to know each other better. In this week’s post, I will discuss a great piece for each type of choir that you can use right away this year.
For a women’s choir, I will recommend “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers” by Susan LaBarr. Singers will immediately take to this setting of Emily Dickinson’s famous poem because of its lovely melody line, the harmonies that are at times both triadic and dissonant, and the beautiful duet between choir and piano. It begins in unison, splits into two parts, and eventually features some three- and (for one measure) four-part writing. I handle part splits in these early days by giving two parts to one class and two parts to another, putting them together in extra rehearsals. (For three-part writing, I will have altos in both classes and split the soprano parts between the classes.) Perfect for the start of the year, LaBarr’s piece features many teaching concepts, including long phrases, dynamic contrasts, and the ability to use solfege to learn notes (it’s almost completely diatonic). Finally, the text could not be more timely and might provoke some excellent conversations among your students. Published by Santa Barbara, “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers” is available here.
A great beginning piece for your men’s choir is “Tell My Father”, a song from the musical The Civil War by Frank Wildhorn and stunningly arranged by Andrea Ramsey. Featuring an optional violin part that I highly recommend including if possible, this piece is mostly in two parts (very distinct tenor and bass lines), with a couple of measures in three parts. The ranges are very appropriate for at least high school-age singers, and the piece is very solfeggable. Having begun life as a theatre song, some of the rhythmic figures are slightly more complex than most beginning choir songs, but they repeat often and are great teaching opportunities. I programmed this piece last fall for an inter-generational choir of students and parents, and all of the singers were particularly touched by the text, which is a message from a fallen soldier to his father. “Tell My Father” is published by Cherry Lane Music Company and available here.
There are numerous other great beginning pieces for women’s and men’s choir. What are some that you have chosen for this year or have programmed in the past? Please share in the comments, and, as always, feel free to e-mail me ideas for pieces you would like to see featured in “Music Within Reach” at .
Brandon Moss is a choir director, teacher, and composer/arranger living and working in Central Ohio. He teaches at Central Crossing High School, directs the Chalice Choir at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, and serves in leadership roles with the Ohio Choral Directors Association and the Ohio Music Education Association. He is currently working on the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Conducting at The Ohio State University.