Choosing Repertoire for Middle School Band

An abridged version of this article appeared in the January 2014 issue of Teaching Music (a publication of NAfME). For a list of works that I have completed for this level, please click here.

Within today’s middle school band programs around the country, there are many directors that must develop their student’s technical performance skills within the ensemble setting.  Although not an ideal situation, it is the only viable option for keeping students involved in a band program.  Add into the mix a tight music budget, and the option to purchase ensemble method books to address some of this burden may not be available either.  The pressure of the next concert, next contest, or trip forces many directors to teach executive skills through the study of ensemble literature, and for that reason choosing literature that will nurture the growth of student musicians becomes of paramount importance.

While it is our job to teach instrumental music, we as a profession must take time to consider these student musicians and ultimately where there career path might lead.  Not every student in our program may become a professional musician or a music educator, but we do want them to leave with a positive connection to music that they can tangibly see in their lives.  We must also choose music that allows us as directors to connect the academic music of the school ensemble with the outside world in which the student live, and that music must contribute to and enrich the community in which the school ensemble is situated.  While high school bands have enjoyed list upon list in book after article of best music for study and performance, I am somewhat disheartened by the lack of attention paid to Middle School and Junior High Ensembles.  It is though because this music is studied and performed by amateur musicians it is somehow not serious literature, and is of little importance or no consequence – I whole heartedly disagree with that line of thinking.  I have previously tried to get the FIRE started for discussion about Middle School Band Literature.  My goal here today is to discuss aspects for choosing literature for Middle School/High School, and then present a list for consideration.

There is a wealth of traditional literature that needs to be part of the “core” repertoire of young musicians as it allows them to develop certain techniques.  Ballads, which can be used to develop legato tonguing and musical expression, and marches, which can be used to develop marcato style, contrasting dynamics and articulation, and understanding of form, are two such types of traditional literature appropriate for study and performance.  There are also a number of writers expanding the sound canvas and providing excellent contemporary literature that present opportunities to explore musical concepts once reserved for more advanced pieces played by advanced groups.  Aleatoric episodes, vocalization, body percussion, different textures, elements of other music styles, and experimental timbres are such concepts that students may experience (Wilborn, 2001).

While contemporary literature offers one kind of experience into a different sound canvas for young musicians, another source to consider in selecting literature is multi-cultural pieces.  Many “multi-cultural” pieces performed by ensembles are arrangements or compositions by a Western-trained musician and are typically written for a standard Western instrumental ensemble.  Goetze’s view is that stylistic practices of some culture’s music cannot be adequately recreated using Western instruments or Western harmonic structure and that the experience gained by student is a Western art musical experience rather than a multi-cultural one (Goetze, 2000).  Goetze doesn’t suggest that this music should be avoided, and suggests through study of the culture, seeking out authentic performances (live ones work best), and providing insight into the music’s use within its native culture can inform our choices and our teaching.

Another aspect to consider in selecting literature with regard to developing student’s technical skills is having a long-term vision for what you hope the students can accomplish as musicians.  A number of articles and chapters in text (i.e. Miles, 1997) have been devoted to the high school ensemble curriculum devised so that students make progress over the course of several school years.  Middle school becomes a unique situation in that some directors see their students only 1 year, others 2 to 3 years, and others continue to see them as they are the only instrumental teacher in grades 7-12!  In the case of students that move on to another teacher, a open and professional line of communication should exist so the high school and middle school director(s) can frame their expectations for student development through the study of instrumental music.  In the case of being “master of your own destiny”, a director should be able to build a logical repertoire curriculum for his own students.

Because repertoire can serve as the source for a long-term plan, it is very important that teachers at all levels have a repertoire list he or she believes that all students should perform over a period of several years (Geraldi, 2008). Geraldi offers the following considerations for inclusion on “core repertoire list”:

  • Work should have formal, rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic creativity.
  • Work should convey the composer’s imagination.
  • Work should be well-orchestrated.
  • Balance between tutti sections and thinner texture sections.
  • Work should convey emotional or expressive depth.

Speaking to that last point made by Geraldi, we should give our students the opportunity to hear the emotion in the music.  Through this process of recognizing and exploring emotional moments in music,  it causes students to become aware of their own emotions (Whitwell, 2009).  As long we choose music that is authentic, the students (and the eventual audience!) cannot fail to perceive the generalized form of the emotion.  So in our selection and programming of literature, we need to be sure that our students become aware of the emotional depth of the music, begin to explore and understand what that emotion conveys, how the composer expresses it in the music, and they must find a means of expressing their own personal emotions through performance, self-reflection, or discussion within the ensemble.

Composers, conductors, and educators alike all discuss the need for variety in programming and repertoire selection.  Selecting literature of diverse style and origin provides much needed variety for the director, students, and audience.  Even such simple concepts as balancing different textures, contrasting tempos, and balancing major, minor, and modal tonalities are ways in which variety in programming can be achieved.  Other considerations when programming literature include having the required instrumentation and equipment, instructional time to teach the work effectively and efficiently, and the enjoyment that can be gained from rehearsing and the performance of the piece for the director, students, and audience.

With all of this in mind, I offer some suggestions (from the past 15 years of teaching) for pieces for middle school/junior high band I believe a) are worthwhile for students to study, b) provide variety in style, c) have aesthetic/artistic appeal to all parties involved, and d) allow students to draw out their own meaning and emotions.  The list is where I am in 2010 as an educator, and is subject to revision as my perspective, experience, and knowledge grows.  I would be interested in hearing about a list for your ensemble.

1) Air for Band – Frank Erickson

2) Wagon Trail – Julie Giroux

3) Suspended Animation – Patrick J. Burns

4) Kentucky 1800 – Clare Grundman

5) A Childhood Hymn – David Holsinger

6) Grant County Celebration – Mark Williams

7) Unraveling – Andrew Boysen, Jr.

8) The Forge of Vulcan – Michael Sweeney

9) Bashana Haba’ Ah – Lloyd Conley

10) Basin Street Blues – Mark Higgins

11) Carpathian Sketches – Robert Jager

12) Marching Song – Holst/John Moss

13) Cloud Gate – Timothy Loest

14) Our Kingsland Spring – Sam Hazo

15) Canto – W. Francis McBeth

16) Kilaeua – Brian Balmages

17) Crusin’ – Willie Owens

18) Ghosts in the Graveyard – Scott Watson

19) Highlights from the Music Man – Johnnie Vinson

20) Appomattox – James Hosay

Enjoy the list, good luck with your spring concerts, and don’t forget to add to the conversation!

Geraldi, K. M. (2008). Planned programming pays dividends. Music Educators Journal 95 (2), 75-79.

Goetze, M. (2000). Challenges of performing diverse cultural music. Music Educators Journal, 87 (1), 23 -25, 48.

Miles, R. (1997). Teaching music through performance in band. Chicago: GIA Publications.

Whitwell, D. (2009). Music education of the future: Two paramount new purposes. NBA Journal, 50 (2), 43-60.

Wilborn, D. F. (2001). Spicing up band with contemporary literature. Teaching Music,8 (5), 36-40.

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  1. Hey, Travis! Thanks so much for including Suspended Animation on your list. I’m looking forward to seeing you and your students in a few weeks!

  2. I recommend that you check out “Katsista” by Michael Grady. It’s amazing how much my student’s love it even though it’s pretty somber but they’ve really gotten into it and make real music out of it.

    I like your list. We’re playing Our Kingsland Spring with my high school band. It’s definitely on the easy side of our program but because I have a full instrumentation and perfect balance the students have run with it and truly have developed the phrasing without me doing much. If students can develop the musical idea without the conductor, I call that good writing.

  3. Nice post. I think the movement towards quality middle-level band literature has been rolling for some time now, but I agree with you that more discussion is needed to galvanize ‘the revolutionaries’. I especially appreciate your comments on cross-cultural repertoire; Third-Stream is all about authentic performance of cross-cultural works. I encourage you as a composer and all of us as conductors of young people to consider just how far we can push the envelope of accepted Western musical practice when we program works of non-Western or non-art-music origin.

  4. Thanks for the insightful article. Since being thrust into a 7-12 position, I’ve been trying to figure out programing that is both relevant to the student and tunes that will help them to grow and develop- since I’m my own feeder. In general, I seem to be programing music one-half to one level below those on this list due to the combination of the students’ individual playing level and instrumentation. I hope to be able to move both my JH and SH groups up the ladder, so to speak, over the next couple years.

    PS- Your Irish Jig has been a great tool for the kids to learn 6/8 time. They love it, too!

  5. Travis,
    Great to see this site. I wasn’t aware you had it until now. Very interesting article, however I cannot help as I take in your list pondering “old school” versus “new school” thoughts of literature of middle school band. Having taught middle school band (and high school band) for going on 10 years, I would have to disagree with some tunes on your list, mainly because of the setup of middle school band in your area versus mine (less than 20 miles down the road). The middle school band situation in PA is remarkably different than that in OH. Perhaps a whole other discussion for a whole other time! 🙂 This is not to say we shouldn’t expect high levels and push our middle school band students. I do it every day, but believe some of the tunes you list to be more appropriate for a second or third concert band at the high school level as opposed to a middle school group.

    Tad and I have had this conversation many times and its a very intriguing conversation with many perspectives indeed! Ohio middle school bands function quite differently from PA middle school bands. Ohio groups are not generally 7/8 combined groups (I know of only one that is combined and it is a symphonic/concert situation where students audition and are placed based on ability) but rather separate groups of anywhere from 40-100 students in each grade level (5, 6, 7, 8). Perhaps in the coming weeks, if you don’t object, I will post some “new school” considerations for the list from the perspective of “20 miles and a world away” 🙂

    Great site — glad to have found it! Hope all is well with the degree pursuit!

    Shawn Reynolds — Howland MS/HS

  6. On top of having a good list of music, you also have a good system for finding middle school band music. I find the most important object to consider is does the literature fit in the sequence od teaching good musical reading. There is nothing more unsatisfying than teaching kids music by rote, because they do not know how to read the rhythms yet. So often, we pick a piece based on the quality of certain sections and not the entire ensembles capability to read the music. While on section may face a difficult passage, we should insist that every section be able to play that passage. Otherwise, we lose a teachable moment to rote learning. Here is my list:

    1. Anything by Pierre LaPlante (Nordic sketches, in the forest of the king)
    2. Headless Horseman, Timothy Broege
    3. Anything by Robert W. Smith (great locomotive chase, encanto)
    4. For the Beauty of the Earth, Claude t. Smith
    5. Pevensey Castle, Robert Sheldon
    6. Overture For Winds
    7. Alligator Alley, Michael Daugherty


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