No matter what type of ensemble you lead, choosing repertoire can be a major challenge. You don’t want to bore your students with music that’s too easy or frustrate them with music that’s too difficult. Plus, you need titles that are both fun to play and compelling for audiences.
When you’re searching for music, J.W. Pepper’s Basic Library designation can be a helpful guide. While Editors’ Choice represents our top picks, your peers determine which titles make it into our Basic Library. Basic Library selections are enduring favorites: they must maintain a consistently outstanding level of sales for at least five years. When you select a Basic Library title, you do so with the endorsement of thousands of your fellow directors.
Without further ado, here are our top 10 Basic Library titles for band, choir, and orchestra!
Top 10 Concert Band Pieces
Night Fury by Carol Brittin Chambers
The first piece on our concert band list portrays a mythical world complete with castles, heroes, and dragons. Listed as a VE chart by our editors, Night Fury is epic-sounding and fast-paced while remaining playable by younger musicians. Dotted quarter-eighth rhythm patterns and some independence of parts articulation are a few of the musical concepts explored in this fun and challenging title.
The Tempest by Robert W. Smith
Robert W. Smith’s compositions are longtime staples of the J.W. Pepper Basic Library. He has numerous pieces in the collection, and some of our staff even remember performing his music during their high school days! The Tempest, graded VE, is a classic example of Smith’s ability to make young performers sound and feel like pros. Featuring a strong brass presence along with rhythmic woodwinds, this piece will instill confidence in performers and impress audiences. It’s an excellent opener for any young band concert.
Rippling Watercolors by Brian Balmages
Rippling Watercolors is a classic example of Brian Balmages’ philosophy of writing for younger musicians: it’s playable by beginners while sounding impressive and allowing players to feel appropriately challenged. In this piece, Brian explores harmonies, colors, and emotional ranges that some tend to think are reserved for more experienced players. Rippling Watercolors is listed as Easy, but it’s equally at home with more mature ensembles. We’ve had numerous opportunities to speak with Brian over the last several years—click the links below to get to know him and his music!
Theme from Jurassic Park arr. Michael Sweeney
The Jurassic Park theme music is iconic, and Michael Sweeney’s arrangement of John Williams’ original score brings it to younger performers in a way that’s both educational and fun. This piece is from Hal Leonard’s First Concepts for Concert Band series, which includes titles with simplified instrumentation, unison bass lines, and optional piano accompaniment.
Queen in Concert arr. Jay Bocook
Queen is one of the greatest rock bands of all time, and this foundational medley of their hits introduces students to their famous musicality and flair. Jay Bocook’s arrangement is a grade 3, so you’ll find some excellent challenges for your players in the score along with several of the band’s classic popular melodies: “We Will Rock You,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “We Are the Champions.”
A Christmas Festival arr. Leroy Anderson
Holiday concerts can be difficult to program, especially for new teachers. This classic medley is timeless—it will be a staple in your music library, as it has been for countless other teachers and directors. Keep it around each year for Christmas! An SATB octavo is also available which gives you the option of a combined band and choir. performance!
The Nightmare Before Christmas arr. Michael Brown
The Halloween and Christmas themes in this medium-easy arrangement of selections from the Tim Burton movie will fit right into both fall and winter performances. Michael Brown does very well at adapting Danny Elfman’s unique musical themes to concert band, offering your performers a welcome change of pace.
Arabian Dances by Roland Barrett
Arabian Dances, a grade 2 original work from Alfred Music’s Young Band series, does a wonderful job of introducing some new concepts to beginners. This exciting piece features a clarinet solo opportunity that encourages some ad libbing, and its fast pace will have the band eager to perform.
On a Hymnsong of Philip Bliss by David Holsinger
This David Holsinger piece, based on the hymn It Is Well with My Soul, is a classic. It has appeared on a number of state and festival lists, and when you hear it, you’ll understand why! Every band performer should play Holsinger’s work at some point, and On a Hymnsong of Philip Bliss is a timeless title that is suitable for any occasion.
Top 10 Selections for Your Choir
Greg Gilpin’s Why We Sing is a great choice for any choir. This composition is arranged for all voicings, including an a cappella version, and you can even use it for combined choirs. The title says it all, and its text will be meaningful to your students. Many choirs use this piece as a closer since it leaves audiences with a powerful message to reflect upon after the performance.
Sisi Ni Moja by Jacob Narverud
Sisi Ni Moja, which translates to “We are one,” is a celebratory and rhythmic composition with text that alternates between Swahili and English. The piece comes in all voicings, and it also includes hand percussion parts that can be expanded for a larger setting—perhaps for a combined choir to drive home the “We are one” message. In 2021, we had a chance to speak with Jacob and several of his colleagues at Santa Barbara Publishing about Sisi Ni Moja and other choral works. Click here to watch the interviews!
From Pinkzebra, an extremely popular composer and publisher, Fly Away Home is about exploring the world and gaining life experiences while staying connected with where you came from and knowing you can always return home. This is a message that parents will love—and what better way to teach it than through a beautiful choral piece? Fly Away Home comes in two-part, SSA, SAB, TTB, and SATB voicings. String orchestra accompaniment and part-dominant MP3 multi-user tracks are available, so you can scale it up by including your orchestra or scale it down to a small, intimate group of singers.
I Sing Because I’m Happy arr. Kenneth Padden/adapt. Rollo Dilworth
I Sing Because I’m Happy is adapted from the gospel-style interpretation of the hymn His Eye Is on the Sparrow, originally performed and recorded by the Georgia Mass Choir. Featuring SATB, two-part or SA, and three-part treble or SSA voicings, Rollo Dilworth’s inspirational adaptation built on solid choral foundations is a great choice for any program. Learn more about Rollo, a renowned educator, composer, and arranger, by watching this interview from our Inside Voice series.
Homeward Bound by Marta Keen/arr. Jay Althouse
Written by Marta Keen and arranged by Jay Althouse for Alfred Music Publishing, the heartfelt Homeward Bound has a touching message about the joy that comes from reuniting with family. Simple yet capable of great impact, this piece has become an anthem for soldiers returning home from service.
The opening solo is quite moving and gives you a chance to feature an outstanding vocalist. You also have the option of expanding the piece to perform with a choir and concert band, which could make for an exceptionally stirring performance.
Bonse Aba arr. Victor C. Johnson
This Zambian folk song loosely translates as “Those who sing have the right to be called the children of God.” Its repetitive call-and-response vocal parts make it easy and fun to learn, even for young students. The only accompanying instruments in Victor C. Johnson’s stripped-down arrangement are hand drum (listed as treble drum), djembe (listed as bass drum), and shaker, creating a sense of authenticity. Bonse Aba is available in all voicings.
The Seal Lullaby by Eric Whitacre
Eric Whitacre’s magnificent choral setting of The Seal Lullaby, dedicated to his friend Stephen Schwartz, is inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s charming poem. This beautiful work, available in all voicings, is accessible to every choir. The Seal Lullaby is a true Basic Library staple—an Editors’ Choice selection when it was first published in 2008, and part of our Basic Library since it became eligible in 2013.
A fun fact about The Seal Lullaby: when Eric Whitacre wrote this, he sent it to a film studio as a potential score—but they passed on it to make Kung Fu Panda. Their loss, as far as we’re concerned!
Shule Aroon by Ruth Elaine Schram
Ruth Elaine Schram has several pieces in the Pepper Basic Library; her work includes many of the elements that educators and performers seek out when choosing music. Shule Aroon, an arrangement of an 18th-century Irish folk song, offers an authentic Celtic experience to your choir. With an Irish-language chorus written phonetically throughout and an optional violin part for extra flavor, it’s an excellent option for adding variety and cultural diversity.
Oceans and Stars by Amy Bernon
Oceans and Stars compares the voyages we take through life with those of a river flowing to the sea. Well suited to any concert, this piece’s wonderful message is an especially good fit for graduation ceremonies and other coming-of-age events. An optional small string ensemble accompaniment arranged by Lauren Bernofsky is available, with a full score and individual parts.
No Time, Susan Brumfield’s arrangement of a traditional camp meeting song, is quickly becoming a favorite with festival choirs. This piece, a wonderful choice for any choir, comes in SATB, SSA, and TTBB voicings.
Top 10 Orchestra Pieces
Dragonhunter is a great option for young string players. While this piece is listed as VE, a minor key, modal harmonies, and driving rhythms give it a mature sound. There’s an exciting story line in the music: the cellos and basses portray the titular dragon, while the violins and violas are the hunters in pursuit!
Composer Soon Hee Newbold is fast becoming a staple in our Basic Library! Commissioned for a school mascot whose mascot is a hawk, Voyager takes flight with a legato and lyrical main theme, while a B section with short, staccato phrasing provides contrast. The violin 3 and viola parts are optional, which makes this a great pick for smaller groups and groups without violas. An optional piano part adds texture and enhances the overall feel.
Jupiter from The Planets arr. Deborah Baker Monday
Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” suite is one of the most well-known orchestral standards, and Jupiter is a popular favorite within the suite. Deborah Baker Monday’s arrangement for string orchestra features the beautiful central hymn melody and—as an added touch—includes a “Learning Bank” in each player’s part and in the score. Featured information about both Holst and the planet Jupiter gives students valuable background knowledge and establishes a solid science-music connection.
Many of Brian Balmages’ compositions have earned places in the Pepper Basic Library. Both his string orchestra and concert band music strive for excellence and challenge players—even beginners—while connecting with them emotionally. Click here for links to our interviews with Brian!
Burst! is an energetic fanfare that will make the most of your first-year students’ skills. The piece features a great deal of interplay with contrasting legato and détaché bowing as well as simple string crossing and brief violin divisi. Optional multimedia video software gives you the option to synchronize a fireworks display to the music for a unique and exciting concert presentation.
Legends of Glory by Kathryn Griesinger
Moving up the difficulty scale, Kathryn Griesinger’s Legends of Glory from the Wingert-Jones Achievement Series is graded medium easy. Kathryn is known for writing educational and fun pieces that both players and directors love, and this one is no exception! Legends of Glory has just a little third position for the first violins. This title is a stepping stone to some more advanced techniques while remaining very accessible and exciting for young players.
Waltz No. 2 arr. Paul Lavender
Paul Lavender’s adaptation of this waltz from Suite for Variety Orchestra by Dmitri Shostakovich is ideal for both serious and light programming. With a difficulty level of Medium, it offers a challenge to both intermediate and advanced players and includes percussion parts. Audiences may recognize the piece: it’s become an international icon thanks to the Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut and popular violinist André Rieu.
This Is Halloween arr. James Kazik
The Nightmare Before Christmas has become a classic movie for people of all ages, and you’ll find arrangements of Danny Elfman’s iconic score in almost every category of the J.W. Pepper Basic Library. James Kazik’s arrangement, graded Medium, is a perfect crowd- and student-pleaser for any holiday concert.
Music from La La Land arr. Robert Longefield
The movie La La Land captivated audiences with its amazing score by Justin Hurwitz. This collection of memorable music from the movie includes Oscar winner “City of Stars”; “Another Day of Sun”; “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme”; and “Auditions (The Fools Who Dream).” Another newer classic, we predict that Music from La La Land will be part of our Basic Library for years to come.
Boreas (The Cold North Wind) by Todd Parrish
In Greek mythology, Boreas is the north wind, and Todd Parish’s piece is a great non-holiday-themed addition to any winter concert. Featuring spiccato and legato bowing styles, multiple down bows, and key changes, this work will challenge your students while adding excitement to your concert program.
Carol of the Bells arr. Larry Clark
This arrangement of the beloved holiday classic Carol of the Bells has been in our Basic Library for years. Its timeless melodies are perfect for holiday concerts, and Larry Clark strikes a great balance between preserving the integrity of the original composition and creating an appropriate challenge for young players. The main theme from God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen even makes an appearance for added variety and flavor!
We hope that this list helps you to find a few titles for your music library! Did we leave out one of your favorites? Do you have any questions or thoughts about our selections? Get in touch with us by leaving a comment below.
Love this. Can you do one for Full
Orchestra? I lead a community youth orchestra.
Thanks, ted hadley, Twin Falls, Idaho
Thank you, Ted! We will definitely look at putting out a top ten list for full orchestra.
Where is the top 10 basic library for church?
That’s a great suggestion, Bret! We have a different type of content coming soon for church musicians, but a Basic Library church blog is a great idea. Thanks!
Would love to see a 2-part choirs version of this list for kids voices…pieces with two, equal parts rather than SA adaptions of SATB pieces.
Hi Bill, thank you so much for the suggestion. We’ll see if we can make it happen!