It is very difficult to select appropriate repertoire. I have been selecting repertoire for orchestras to perform for about 20 years. My experience ranges from 5 year olds all the way up to a professional chamber orchestra, and just about everything in between. Many groups have been my own, but I have also been asked to select repertoire for festival orchestra and summer camp groups, which is always tricky. I conducted the University of Vermont Orchestra for 11 years – a very challenging orchestra to select repertoire for because 1/3 music majors, 1/3 non-majors and 1/3 adult amateur community members. My experience led me to spend a lot of time reflecting about what makes some pieces so difficult and others more accessible for inexperienced musicians. My observations of many orchestra programs has led me to believe that “overprogramming” is a common problem in our profession, and it can have serious consequences for the overall health of our programs. We can develop a conceptual framework that will allow us to select appropriate repertoire for our orchestras. I hope that some of my ideas may help you with this important and challenging aspect of being an orchestra director.

Let’s begin from the premise that the single most important thing you can do to ensure the success of your program is to make sure that when your students perform in public they sound good. If we assume that you are a competent teacher who can run a rehearsal,  treat students with respect, manage your classes and make the process of preparing for concerts enjoyable, then nothing else will create more positive feelings towards you and your program from students, parents, teachers, administrators and community members, then presenting high quality, good sounding music when you perform.

The single most important thing musicians at any age want is to sound good—especially in public performance! We want other things from our musical experiences too, but sounding good on what we play is the most important thing. Parents and administrators care about that too. Perhaps they can’t articulate why it doesn’t sound good – but don’t fool yourself, everyone knows when it sounds bad – especially if it is out of tune. In our society orchestral music has become such a novelty that our students and parents may not know exactly what it is supposed to sound like when played really well, but they still know if it doesn’t sound good.

There are several obstacles, issues and problems that arise as we try to select repertoire for our ensembles. First, as teachers we need to be visionaries. We need to see the potential of our students, and we need to believe in our students’ capability to realize that potential. We also need to see the big picture and understand our long term goals, as well as having short term objectives. We are trying to select repertoire that will challenge our students without stretching them to the point where they become frustrated and demoralized. We want to program a diverse selection of repertoire that represents a balance of the different historical style periods, while also having a balance of fast and slow pieces, modern repertoire, and eclectic styles,  Sometimes our vision, however, can get clouded. Here are some common problems I have experienced and/or observed:

Struck by the Muse - We fall in love with a piece of music, so much so that we talk ourselves into believing our students can play it, even though it really is beyond their technical capabilities

Solution: ask a colleague who knows your group but is not emotionally invested at the same level as you if they think it is too difficult.

Too many pieces of music for single performance.

Solution – program less. Your students’ parents really don’t want to sit there for two hours. Less is always more – 20 to 30 minutes of great sounding music always will be a better concert than 60 – 90 minutes of under prepared music.

We program several short pieces which are all a little too difficult, and the cumulative effect is that none of them end up sounding good.

Solution: If you have 4 pieces – program one that is a reasonable challenge, 2 that are one notch below the Zone of Proximal Development (more on that later) , and 1 that is “easy.”

The masterwork illusion – some conductors believe that having an original masterwork on the program adds prestige to the performance. The reality, as Jim Kjelland writes, is that “no suit of clothes is better than it looks, no wine better than it tastes, and no performance better than it sounds. The point of music education is missed entirely when the quality of a performance takes a back seat to the prestige of the works being played, or the desire of the conductor to add such repertoire to his or her resume.”

It is important to remember that most of the great standard orchestral repertoire was written for adult professionally trained musicians to perform. While there is considerable repertoire that is accessible for a well-trained high school orchestra, there is also a lot of repertoire we should never consider programming.

Suggestions for developing a framework for selecting appropriate repertoire

1) Establish what your students know and are able to do. Use auditions. Set up a skills check or playing test early on in the school year.

2) Familiarize yourself with the grading systems used by different publishers, books, states. There is some variety among grading systems and teachers should not use a grade number as an excuse to not properly vet a piece of music. Most publishers grade based primarily on left hand demands such as shifting, and musical considerations of key, meter, and rhythms. Study the score carefully and think about the right hand demands of a piece of repertoire.

Also, carefully examine a piece to determine if the parts are edited well with bowings and fingerings. Figure 1 displays the grade for four very well-known pieces of graded repertoire. There is not a single piece where the five organizations are in agreement as to the difficulty of the piece.

3) Create a folder with a selection of graded literature ranging from very, very easy to difficult, and have a sight reading day. They should be able to read through the music with a good sound. Inability to get through the piece reasonably well when sight reading is a sign the repertoire is too difficult. When you find yourself stopping frequently – you know you have reached the ceiling

4) Consider ideas about about motivation from psychology:

A theory from psychology that can be valuable when thinking about repertoire selection is called “flow theory,” which was developed by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (b. 1934).14 Central to flow theory is that we all place value in the “optimal experience”—a feeling of being in control of our actions, leading to a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished. Flow is most likely to occur when there is a balance between skill and challenge. Students who are assigned achievement goals where the amount of challenge exceeds their skills will experience anxiety and diminished motivation for learning. Optimum motivation occurs when skills and goal difficulty are matched.

The Zone of proximal development was developed by psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934).  It refers to:

“the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers”

Students are most capable during the “skills development” portion of rehearsal when new left and right hand techniques can be presented independently of repertoire (or any form of visual notation). The learning of music reading skills can be presented outside the context of repertoire. The focus can be on a single thing. It is this time of rehearsal when the teacher should extend technique and bring students deep into the zone of proximal development.

The repertoire that is learned for performance should lie one level below the ZPD for optimal performance quality. I am going to suggest today that the repertoire you select for performance should always be a notch below what your students are capable of doing at the “edge” of their technique. (In group situations we are always talking about the “average” technique level – some students will obviously be more advanced and others less advanced).

Level 5 - Too difficult

Level 4 - Problem solving with adult guidance and feedback - rehearsal or lessons with immediate feedback, supervised home practice

Level 3 - Performances in large ensembles with peer and conductor support (many players per part) This is where you want to aim with your programming.

Level 2 - Group performances with one player per part (peer support, yet largely independent)

Level 1 - Independent problem solving - unsupervised home practice, playing tests, solo performances

Level 0 - Easy

As experienced musicians we all know that when you are playing a piece that is beyond your technical capabilities your intonation suffers, your tone suffers, your ability to be musically expressive and play with phrasing and dynamics suffers. Another important thing to remember that we all know is that whenever you enter into a performance situation as a musician there is a certain amount of stress and anxiety that you feel and that tends to diminish what you are capable of musically. Even in a large ensemble situation, our students do get nervous in performance. When a piece is beyond our technical capabilities it really becomes obvious in performance situations. If you know coming in to a performance that it could go either way , it adds to the anxiety level.

5) Divide rehearsal into a warm-up skills development portion and repertoire rehearsal portion.

If you can’t stand on the driving range and hit nine solid drives in a row, what are the chances you will do it within the context of the game? Just as golfers need the driving range and the putting green to develop their skills outside the context of the game, students must be able to develop the techniques required to perform the piece outside the context of repertoire rehearsal. This is the function of the warm-up - to develop new skills.

Advanced analysis is required by conductor to determine the specific knowledge (e.g., note reading) and performance skills (left hand, right hand skills) required to be able to play the piece. These skills should be isolated and taught in the warm-up prior to work on the piece. Depending on the technical demands of a piece of repertoire, a conductor may need to start skill development preparations several days or weeks in advance of introducing the repertoire.

In a healthy program what we would see is in the younger grades a greater proportion of the class period is dedicated to the warm-up portion of rehearsal.

While you are learning a piece of repertoire and trying to focus on the aesthetic and expressive qualities that you want the students to understand about the music is not a good time to be introducing a brand new technical skill, like shifting, or playing in an unfamiliar key. Lay the groundwork in advance in the warm-up portion of rehearsal. Use the learning of repertoire as a way to reinforce what has already been learned.

6) Establish the aesthetic goals of music making with students

There is widespread belief in music education (and education in general) that we are building a house, with every successive piece needing to be more technically difficult than the piece before. This creates in our students the mistaken belief that the reason we learn music is to continually be playing harder and harder music, as if playing hard music is somehow a goal in and of itself, rather than a means to an end. It leads to music educators saying things like “Russian Sailors Dance is a 9th grade piece” as if there is nothing aesthetically valuable about the music other than as some sort of technical stepping stone towards something harder.

If we always place an emphasis on the quality of the sounds we are making when we play repertoire, and what we are trying to communicate by making those sounds, then perhaps we can teach our students to avoid the illusory trap created by the artificial grading system. We need to teach our students that a piece of music is never “too easy.” If we cannot perform a piece with great intonation, tone, rhythm , and with expression so that we and our audience are emotionally moved by our musical offering, than the piece can’t possibly be “too easy.” A former colleague of mine, Evelyn Read, had a great quote she used to share, “The Haydn string quartets are too easy for the amateur, and too difficult for the professional.”

The relentless pursuit of pieces that are more and more technically difficult is not the primary goal of music making. The primary goal of music making is to produce musical sounds that are perceived as beautiful to both performer and listener and through those beautiful sounds generate an emotional response.  That is something we can do that students can’t get anywhere else in the curriculum.

7) Complete a repertoire selection rubric while studying the score

Going through this process will help you identify the musical challenges that you face.

8) Ask yourself these “reality check” questions

Will my orchestra be able to play the piece at the tempo indicated in the score?

Are my string sections large enough to balance with the size of the winds?  

Are my string sections too large (or small) to cleanly execute the style?

Are the musicians in my ensemble at a level of maturity to learn this music and have the patience to play it well?

Will the musicians in my ensemble have the stamina to play this piece?

Will they have the stamina to play the entire program?

Do I have enough rehearsal time available to play this piece well (and still have enough rehearsal time for the other pieces on the program)?

Am I picking this piece because I am in love with the piece, or is it really a good piece for my orchestra?

9) Do an assessment after first rehearsal. Ask yourself these questions:

Were they able to sight read through it at a reasonable tempo without too much difficulty?*

Was I stopping and introducing new techniques? Remember that the inability to get through the piece reasonably well when sight reading is a sign the repertoire is too difficult. It is best to introduce new techniques outside the context of learning repertoire.

10) Do an assessment after the performance.

Listen to the recording of your concert two weeks after the performance and answer these questions:

Did the orchestra play with high levels of pitch and rhythmic accuracy?

Characteristic tone quality?

Good intonation?

Clear articulation?

Was the tempo appropriate?

Did they play with expression?

Did we capture the essence of the musical style?

You may want to rate your groups’ performance on a standard ensemble performance rubric.

I hope that these ideas and suggestions help you when selecting repertoire for your orchestra. My belief is that through reflective repertoire selection practices we can better serve our students and generate great enthusiasm toward our programs.


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: HarperPerennial, 1991).

James Kjelland, “But What about the Sound? Toward Greater Musical Integrity in the Orchestra Program,” in Teaching Music through Performance in Orchestra, ed. David Littrell, Laura Reed Racin, and Michael Allen (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2001), 8.

Lev S. Vygotsky, “Interaction between Learning and Development,” in Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, ed. Michael Cole (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), 86.