Choosing Festival Repertoire


Last updated January 14, 2020

You have decided on the trip, made all the preparations, and your students and parent groups have been hard at work raising the funds to ensure that every student can participate. Now it is time to choose the repertoire that you will be presenting.

In order to provide some advice and guidance in choosing the repertoire that your group will perform, we have gathered some of the editors here at J.W. Pepper for choral, orchestra, band, and jazz to give some thoughts, insights, and suggestions. Between them, they have almost 100 years of classroom education and contest adjudication experience.

Q. What are the different types of festivals you have participated in, and what was the motivation or reasons for taking your groups to them?

A. There are three major types of festivals—many directors choose different types of festivals for different groups within their programs. There are national invitational competitive festivals for the top groups, state and district festivals, and festivals that center around a theme park for your other groups or full programs. It is important that you have an instructional goal for participating in a festival—not just to be able to justify it to supervisors and parents, but more importantly to know what you expect to get out of the experience.

A primary motivation for participating in any of these festivals is for evaluation—to get valuable feedback from professional musicians for you and your students. This provides incentive for improvement to the students individually and the ensemble as a whole, as well as for you as the director to get a clear idea of the progression of your ensemble.

No less, participation in a festival is a wonderful way to build unity among your group’s members and your department as they work toward a common goal. It can also help build a program by generating excitement among the entire student body while pushing the capabilities of the individual students and ensembles. Choosing a festival that includes an onstage workshop with a clinician/adjudicator can be a fantastic experience and works to improve your ensemble in a meaningful way.

Q. When selecting repertoire, what criteria do you use to choose the opening piece?

A. Depending on the festival, this could be a nonadjudicated warm-up selection or an adjudicated selection. Regardless, it’s a wonderful opportunity to tune the group to itself and the new environment. More than likely, the students have never performed together in this venue, so programming a selection that offers the ensemble a chance to hear and listen to themselves in the new space is important.

The selection should also be at a difficulty level they are completely comfortable performing at to help set everyone at ease. It’s wise to avoid thinly scored selections or pieces with exposed passages, and you should avoid a solo or feature at this time and perhaps look for something more fully scored. If the (choral) program has some accompanied selections, you should consider making this one of the accompanied songs so you are sure of the voicing of the piano in the space and with the choir.

If this is to be an adjudicated piece, pick something more energizing that will “announce” the group; if not judged, then maybe choose something slower and more reflective. If the first selection is not adjudicated, you might want to keep that to yourself so your ensemble doesn’t view it as a throwaway piece—for we all know the judges are watching and listening, and they can’t help but be influenced.

Suggested first selection titles for chorus:
Lift Your Voice and Rejoice! – Victor C. Johnson
Music in the Air – arr. Ryan Murphy
Sing for Joy! (Duet from “Judas Maccabaeus”) – G.F. Handel/arr. Linda Spevacek
Sing Out, My Soul! – Marques L.A. Garrett
Cantate Hodie! (Sing Today!) – Mary Lynn Lightfoot
Kye Kye Kule (West African Folk Song) – arr. Greg Gilpin
Tumekuja Kuimba (We Have Come to Sing!) – Lynn Zettlemoyer
Bayasibiza – arr. Michael Barrett & Mbuso Ndlovu
Beati Quorum Via – Charles Villiers Stanford
Exsultate! Jubilate! – Kyle Pederson
O Clap Your Hands – John Rutter

Suggested first selection titles for concert band:
Any march from Sousa, King, Bagley, or Grainger
John Philip Sousa Marches
Karl King Marches
National Emblem – Edwin Bagley/ed. Frederick Fennell
Percy Grainger Marches
J.S. Bach Chorales
Reverberations – Brian Balmages
Air for Band – Frank Erickson

Suggested first selection titles for jazz band:
Advanced High School: What a Wonderful World – Douglas & Weiss/arr. Alan Baylock
Average High School: Come Sunday – Duke Ellington/arr. Rick Hirsch
Average Junior High/Middle School: Here’s That Rainy Day – Jimmy Van Heusen/arr. Rick Stitzel

Suggested first selection titles for orchestra:
Theme Park Festival: March of the Meistersingers – Richard Wagner/arr. Sandra Dackow
District Adjudicated Festival: Jupiter from “The Planets” – Gustav Holst/arr. Deborah Baker Monday
National Competitive Festival: Adagio from “Spartacus” – Aram Khachaturian/arr. Robert Longfield

Q. What do you consider when selecting the middle piece for your program?

A. When choosing the second selection, think first about style. You will want to show that your ensemble is capable of performing authentically in different styles, and you will want something that is going to contrast with your first selection but also build on the opener to elevate the performance.

This is a good place to have a meatier, more difficult selection that displays how well your ensemble handles the musical, the interpretative—the ability to play with balance and expression—and the technical requirements of the music. Features or solos are very appropriate here. Consider something that has variations of mood and character that will show off the musicianship of the ensemble members. This would be a good place to pick something from the Basic Library! Jazz bands should consider a jazz-rock or funk tune as they are becoming more popular with these ensembles.

Suggested second selection titles for chorus:
Alleluia – Randall Thompson
Omnia Sol – Z. Randall Stroope
Ubi Caritas – Ola Gjeilo
The Seal Lullaby – Eric Whitacre
Sleep – Eric Whitacre
Earth Song – Frank Ticheli
Homeward Bound – Marta Keen/arr. Jay Althouse
Lunar Lullaby – Jacob Narverud
The Road Home – Stephen Paulus
No Time – arr. Susan Brumfield
Cantique de Jean Racine – Gabriel Faure/ed. Herbert Zipper

Suggested second selection titles for concert band:
First Suite in E-flat for Military Band – Gustav Holst/ed. Colin Matthews
Second Suite in F for Military Band – Gustav Holst/ed. Colin Matthews
English Folk Song Suite – Ralph Vaughan Williams
Anthem for Winds and Percussion – Claude T. Smith
Symphony No. 1: In Memoriam – Dresden 1945 – Daniel Bukvich

Suggested second selection titles for jazz band:
Advanced High School: Running with Scissors – Gordon Goodwin
Average High School: Apocalypse – Larry Barton
Average Junior High/Middle School: Blue Groove – Ethan Freier

Suggested second selection titles for orchestra:
Theme Park Festival: Contrasts in E minor – Francis Feese
District Adjudicated Festival: Mozartiana – P.I. Tchaikovsky/arr. Todd Parrish
National Competitive Festival: Waltz No. 2 – Dmitri Shostakovich/arr. Paul Lavender

Q. What should be kept in mind when choosing the closing piece?

A. This may sound like a broken record, but it is still important to think about style as you will want to contrast with, at the very least, the second selection—but you will probably want to contrast with everything that has come before. Think about something with show-stopping appeal or that adds a bit of the WOW factor. It is important to emphasize the strengths of your ensemble.

Avoid a selection that might be too heavy. Try something with a powerful ending and something that certainly shows off the ensemble’s musical, interpretative, and technical skills, leaving a lasting impression of the group’s strength. In a choral setting, consider something in a less frequently used language like Japanese or Swahili. In any case, end with a big statement—something with lots of energy!

Suggested third selection titles for choral:
Cantar! – Jay Althouse
Sisi Ni Moja – Jacob Narverud
In Meeting We Are Blessed – Troy Robertson
All That Hath Life and Breath Praise Ye the Lord! – Rene Clausen
Will the Circle Be Unbroken – arr. J. David Moore
Give Us Hope – Jim Papoulis/arr. Francisco Nunez
The Storm Is Passing Over – Charles Albert Tindley/arr. Barbara W. Baker
Praise His Holy Name – Keith Hampton
Witness – Jack Halloran
I Will Sing – Michael Engelhardt
Dies Irae – Ryan Main
J’entends le Moulin (I Hear the Windmill) – arr. Emily Crocker
Ad Astra (To the Stars…) – Jacob Narverud

Suggested third selection titles for concert band:
Irish Rhapsody – Clare Grundman
Trail of Tears – James Barnes
Bayou Breakdown – Brant Karrick
Scramble – Todd Stalter
American Hymnsong Suite III – Dwayne Milburn

Suggested third selection titles for jazz band:
Advanced High School: Stablemates – Benny Golson/arr. Mike Kamuf
Average High School: Bad Dog! – Mike Dana
Average Junior High/Middle School: Swing Thing – Carl Strommen

Suggested third selection titles for orchestra:
Theme Park Festival: 1812 Overture – P.I. Tchaikovsky/arr. Sandra Dackow
District Adjudicated Festival: Hoedown – Aaron Copland/arr. Stephen Bulla
National Competitive Festival: Final Movement from Serenade for Strings – P.I. Tchaikovsky

Q. Any additional advice?

A. Don’t over-program. Make sure that the repertoire selected, while challenging, is still within your group’s abilities as an ensemble and your skills as a director. Select literature that displays the strongest aspects of your ensemble and avoid selections that may expose weaknesses or fail to hold up to close scrutiny. It is better to show mastery of easier selections than to barely get through and have everyone (including the adjudicators) suffer through more difficult pieces.

Details matter: give special attention to dynamics, articulations, diction, precise intonation, and tone quality. Remember, the indicated metronome markings are suggestions—help your group find their correct tempo for the piece. Make sure that you have enough performance run-throughs so that you and your ensemble are confident that you can go from the beginning of the program to the end.

Be careful about programming works with solos—what if the soloist gets sick or suddenly cannot be at the festival?

Pay attention to the nonmusical details as well, for they can distract or take away from the performance. No perfume or cologne. Make sure everyone is dressed uniformly, guys have the right color socks, girls have the same color headbands, no dangling earrings. You would be surprised how many times these nonmusical aspects are mentioned and seem to distract judges from the performance.

Having pre-festival concerts, performing the program for others prior to the festival, or even having a mock festival and asking other educators to adjudicate your group can be very helpful in preparing you and your students for the performance.

Some additional things to consider:

  • Talk about relaxing with your group and establish some routines—prior to going to the festival.
  • Make sure that you do some performance run-throughs where you do not stop!
  • Don’t count off 1,2, ready, go for every rehearsal and then try a silent entrance on stage.
  • Rehearse your rhythm section (jazz) away from the rest of the ensemble. Make sure that they are cohesive and playing in the style of each tune.
  • Listen a lot to good groups. What does a really good group sound like in performance? It fits right into the new national standards in music!
  • If you are going to have a soloist, feature the strongest soloist in your ensemble.
  • Don’t forget the show-biz aspect!

We’d love to hear from you about works that you’ve used successfully at contests which you’d like to recommend to other directors.










Tom Dean
Tom Dean
Tom Dean is a Choral Editor, and the Elementary and Secondary General Music Editor for J.W. Pepper & Son, Inc. Prior to working for Pepper, Tom taught instrumental and choral music as well as audio engineering at the high school level in the Delaware public schools for 32 years. He is a member of the ACDA and is active in the Delaware Music Educators where he served in numerous positions including President, All-State Coordinator, Technology chair, and Composition chair, and NAfME where he served as Eastern Division President and NEB member. He also was a member of the music writing team that developed the new music standards for the NCCAS project.


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