The Art of Choral Programming

More than 20 years ago I began my choral conducting and composing education in university. My first assignment was putting together a mock choral program for an imaginary youth choir’s spring concert. I found the process challenging and fascinating and have had an interest in it ever since. Shortly thereafter I directed a church choir for two years and for the last three years have run a “glee club” program at our local school for about 15 kids a term. These experiences along with singing in great choirs like Higher Ground have given me some insight into how to put music together for a concert.

musicAs an avid record listener I also started to draw parallels between the creation of an album playlist and a choral program. Think for a moment about your favourite album of music. Picture the cover art, the mood of the music and the feeling it gives you when you listen to it. Now imagine the same album but with one of the songs substituted for another. Or what if all the songs are there but in a completely different order? It’s hard to imagine that because it just wouldn’t feel right.

We take for granted that the album is how it is because it’s so great that way and we can’t imagine it any other way. We don’t even need to think about how it’s put together because it works so well. If it didn’t, we’d be picking it apart trying to figure out where it went wrong. Great choral programming is similar to a great album in that way. The songs work together to form a whole that is complete only as the sum of it’s parts. Any omission of music or change in order may affect the program in a way that weakens it’s integrity.

With the popularity of YouTube and iTunes, many of us have become used to downloading or listening to singles or making up random playlists of favourite songs, and the concept album seems to be disappearing. Great choral concerts are keeping the beauty of the concept album alive in a way. They are taking us away from our attention deficit, text pinging lives and giving us a chance to sit back and enjoy an uninterrupted musical experience.

There are two main ways in which I think a program is usually put together; one with a clear theme in mind from the start and every piece is chosen to fit that theme, and one that is more organic and intuitive, with the theme revealing itself during the rehearsal process.

For both styles, every song is chosen carefully so that it meets a number of criteria including the following:

  1. It should be clearly notated with good voice leading.the lyrics should suit the style of the piece well and don’t sound awkward when sung.
  2. The form of the song should be as compact as possible so that the piece doesn’t lose it’s way and the audience’s attention part-way through.
  3. It’s nice to have at least one favourite in the bunch that audience members will recognize, but it’s also ideal if there are lesser known and new songs that the audience can be introduced to for the first time.
  4. Having a song or songs in another language, from another culture or time period makes the program interesting to sing for the choir, but also adds depth and variety for the audience.
  5. Another consideration is the evolution of the choir. If the music is too easy, the choir can get bored and won’t have any growth. If the music is too difficult, the choir will be frustrated and start to resent the music and the process of learning it. Finding that balance can be challenging for any director but worthwhile to achieve.(Higher Ground is fortunate in that there are so many long-term members that the choir is evolving as a unit and we are able to take on more and more challenging pieces and learn them more quickly than we could have previously.)
  6. Most importantly, the song should make the audience feel something. Whether it’s poignant, upbeat, thoughtful, soulful or humorous, the audience members should be moved in some way.

Once the pieces have been chosen and they meet the requirements, the order of the pieces needs to be decided. Sometimes they are grouped in sub-themes within a larger theme, sometimes they tell a story from beginning to end. Other times they are broken into classical and popular or jazz groupings. There are many other ways to group songs depending on the type of program the director wants to create.

But the one thing that makes all the difference, however the songs are grouped, is that they take the listener on a journey. At the end of the concert the audience should feel that they have been through an artistic adventure of sorts and that the music was unified in some way. It’s a wonderful feeling to leave a choral concert and feel like you’ve had a full musical experience.

This is where the art of programming truly earns it’s title as an art. All of these programming elements can be known, but being able to put them all eloquently into a single program takes years of experience. I feel like I’m just scratching the surface of it in my own musical career, but I’m fortunate to have a mentor like Janet Warren to learn from since she really makes each and every program into an artfully crafted journey that the listener will remember.

As we move into the New Year and a new choir season I’m excited to see what Janet will pick for us next!

– Jenny Morgan

Jenny is a busy mother of three who loves composing, singing, teaching music and gardening in equal measure. She has been fortunate enough to share her passions with her artistic children and recently formed ‘Jenny and the Morgans’ with them to share music with others as a family. She hopes one day to sing and compose full-time so that her husband can stay home and invent things at his leisure.