Selecting Repertoire and Programming Considerations for School Orchestras

Selecting repertoire is one of the most important tasks a music teacher faces. While it can be difficult, it can also be a lot of fun!


  • Foundation of most curricula
  • Motivates students (or not!)
  • Wide variety of music to choose from
  • Can determine the success of your program!

Is it worthwhile?

  • Are their contrasts in musical style?
  • Does it provide aesthetic appeal?
  • Does it have audience appeal?
  • Does it have meaning or portray emotion?

What are our ultimate goals??

  • Have students learn how to be good musicians


  • How many pieces?
  • Think number of ensembles, concerts, levels
  • Determine the level of your students
  • What are the required skills to play this piece?
  • We can’t predict the future, but be must try!
  • How do we know what is appropriate?

Assess group by sightreading different levels

  • Assess each sections and their strengths
  • How much can you successfully play on the first attempt?
  • What is the “formula?”


  • Instrumentation
  • Divisi, etc.
  • Equipment needs
  • Strengths & weaknesses of players, sections
  • Solo, soli, unison
  • Range, position work, etc.
  • Are the parts already bowed/edited?
  • Reinforce newly learned technical skills through literature
  • Don’t introduce too many skills at once
  • Consider arrangements of standard literature in addition to original works
  • Find pieces correlated with your method book
  • Select music from a variety of publishers
  • Don’t limit yourself to just a few composers or arrangers.
  • At the beginning of the year review learned concepts, then choose music
  • Where will you be performing?
  • Choose music that is reachable, yet challenging = more practice!


  • Happens to everyone at some point
  • Don’t let it happen to you (again!)
  • How much of a piece should students be able to read from sight the FIRST time?
  • Concert too long, too difficult, etc.


  • Balance is key
  • The “safe” piece
  • The “reach” piece
  • Select music that will show your best!
  • How long do you REALLY need to work on this music?
  • Are you teaching students to be musicians or are you teaching the music?
  • If music is the appropriate level, it should not take 3 months to prepare for adjudication.

What’s wrong with this program?

The pieces are great, but they are all the SAME!  Similar tempo, key, etc.

Music for recruiting demonstrations

  • Top group or beginning group?
  • Future student appeal
  • Must be able to allow future students to see themselves in current students’ shoes

Don’t forget to teach the technical skills!!

  • Book 1 – teaches the foundations
  • Book 2 – Yes, you should use a book 2!
  • Book 3 and beyond – advanced skills

New Bowing Styles

  • Write out rhythm/bowing patterns, learn techniques by rote.
  • Reinforce with scales, etc.

New Time Signatures

  • Find literature to reinforce
  • Use or create rhythm worksheets to isolate rhythm skills, then combine with previously learned skills.

Learn Your Notes

  • G-string Notes – March of the Metrognome (Hubbel, Kendor)
  • F-sharp/C-natural (Mixed Finger Patterns) – Fiddles on Fire (Mark Williams, Alfred)

Make optional position work mandatory!

  • Makes “easy” music more challenging.
  • Brings out a mature sound
  • Can unify tone quality
  • Example: A Modal Festival (Marsh, Hal Leonard)

Some Personal Favorites

  • Grade .5 – New World Symphony Theme (Michael Allen, Hal Leonard)
  • Grade 1 – First Scale March (Mark Williams, Alfred)
  • Grade 1 – String Explosion (Frank Rogers, Frank Rogers Music)
  • Grade 1.5 – Elegy and Dance (Richard Meyer, Alfred)
  • Grade 2 – M to the Third Power (Carold Nuñez, Shawnee Press)
  • Grade 2.5 – Vanguard Overture (Richard Stephan, Kjos)
  • Grade 3 – The Gift (William Hofeldt, Kjos)
  • Grade 4.5 – Suite for Strings (John Rutter, Oxford)
  • Grade 5 – Prelude (Gerald Finzi, Boosey & Hawkes)

Favorite Pop Charts

  • Grade 2 – The Pink Panther (Mancini, arr. Caponegro, Kendor)
  • Grade 2 – Colors of the Wind (Menken/Higgins, Hal Leonard)
  • Grade 4 – The Magical World of Pixar (arr. Longfield, Hal Leonard)

Instrument Features

  • Violin: Celtica with a grade 1 or grade 4 solo (Brian Balmages, FJH)
  • Viola: Santa Plays the Viola (Mark Williams, Alfred)
  • Cello: Cellos Ole! (Richard Meyer, Alfred)
  • Double Bass: Revenge of the Double Bass (Reinagle/Allen, Hal Leonard)

In the Style of…

  • Aaron Copland… Iowa Spring (Paul Seitz, Latham, Grade 2)
  • Shostakovich… Chapter One (Carold Nuñez, Kjos, Grade 3.5)

Great ways to explore repertoire!

  • Web audio (MP3, etc.)
  • Score previews (PDF)
  • New: Live conductor’s score with audio! “Score Play” on YouTube (Hal Leonard)

Your core list

  • Study the literature to come up with your own core list.
  • You then have “safe” pieces to use in a rotation, if necessary.

Sources for orchestra lists

  • Strategies for Teaching Strings by Hamann & Gillespie (Oxford Univ. Press)
  • Teaching Music Through Performance in Orchestra, 3 Vols. w/ CD (GIA Publications)
    • All of the literature in these books is great!!
  • State Contest Lists
  • String and Orchestra Teachers Facebook Group = search archives


  • Let students have some input on repertoire selection. (Easy to do this and still get what you want!)
  • Push the classical envelope to bring out the cool factor
  • Balance without overprograming!

Discuss your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below!