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Selecting Choral Music

Stefanie Cash | November 2019

    After years of preparation in instrumental literature and techniques, band directors enter the classroom with a foundation for selecting high-quality literature based on the ensemble before them. However new band and orchestra teachers might also be asked to teach choral classes – without the same preparation in courses or ensemble experience. As an instrumentalist who accepted a choral position, knowing where to find high-quality literature and the different factors that should influence choices was rather overwhelming. Instrumental courses did not cover the vocal ranges for different age groups and voice parts, diction rules for foreign languages or the far more difficult language of English, effects of literature selection on vocal health and development, or knowing whether the text and composer’s setting was high quality. Literature selection will be addressed by looking at appropriate ranges and voicing selection for different grade levels, addressing diction concerns and covering factors for consideration when programming literature.

    It is essential to pick music with ranges that are suitable for the age and experience of the group. When working with fourth and fifth graders, Ken Phillips, Professor Emeritus at The University of Iowa and an award-winning researcher and teacher in the area of child and adolescent vocal pedagogy, recommends a range in music from D4 to D5, although their tessitura may extend below C4 and up to E5 or F5. Some fourth and fifth graders with considerable singing experience might be able to sing in a healthy and free manner above D5. It is best for students to stay above middle c while in elementary school and even more preferable that they stay in the staff because students tend to use a loud, harsh, and strained sound when music stays in a range at the bottom of the staff.
    Middle school and early high school ranges can be quite challenging due to changing voices. The male voice change makes picking literature particularly difficult due to often limited ranges and tessitura of the singers. The cambiata, which means “changing,” voice has a narrow range of approximately G3-G4 ,and the tessitura is often smaller. This limited range eliminates much literature, as the tenor part in an SATB is often too wide, the baritone part of an SAB piece goes too low, and the alto part of an SSA piece goes too high. Composers and arrangers have written with these students in mind, either three-part mixed SAC (part three is limited to a range for cambiata voices) or SACB. The three-part mixed repertoire meets the needs of the cambiata; however it creates a two-fold problem. To keep the range high enough for the cambiata and part one have a wide enough range for the melody, part two often has a limited range, sometimes as small as a third for the entire song. This limited range is not ideal for developing female voices. Conversely, the range of the changing baritone/bass voice differs from the cambiata, and the range for part three is often too high for these students to sing comfortably.
    Phillips shows the range for a changing baritone as D3-D4 and recommends music be in a tessitura of G3-D4. Although this fits within the part-three range, it does not account for the E3s and F3s often written in the music or that these singers will consistently sing at the top of their range in a part that could cause them to strain. Although most students singing bass in choir will eventually be considered baritones, a few may be true basses. Phillips describes the range for the changing bass as Bb2-F3, then possibly a gap and they can also sing from A4 to C5. He encourages a limited tessitura of C3-E3 for these singers, which is far below the requirements of three-part mixed music and too limited for the wide range of SAB music and most bass parts of SATB literature. Even if the students can sing higher than the E3 Phillips suggested, singing SAB and three-part mixed music proves difficult as it often requires singing around middle C, a note many singers may not have at this point in development. Even if they do, it would be a strain to sing it on a consistent basis.
    Female voices at the middle school and beginning high school level also change. Because their vocal folds are not lengthening as much as the male folds, the changes seem less dramatic. However, there are significant changes in the timbre. A student with a changing voice will often have a breathy sound as their vocal folds are thickening and do not completely come together when vocal production occurs. Finding Ophelia’s Voice by Lynn Gackle, is a wonderful resource on the female changing voice.
    At the middle school level, Phillips recommends a tessitura of D4-D5 for girls, although their range should be around Bb3-F5. However, with coaching, girls might be comfortable singing higher than D5 by eighth grade. With this limited range, Ken Phillips, long-time choral music education professor Judy Bowers, and others recommend not labeling sopranos and altos, but rather having the girls switch between melody and harmony on each song. This allows all girls – and boys with unchanged voices – to explore their range through the high notes in part one and lower notes in part two as well as learn to maintain a harmony part.
    In high school, the ranges become a bit more distinct. According to Phillips, soprano ones have a range of Eb4-Bb5, soprano twos from C4-G5, alto ones from A3-E5, and the rare alto twos from Gb3-Db5. High school tenor ones have a range of D3-A4, the tenor two from Bb2-F4, the baritone G2-D4, and the bass E2-B3. Because ranges are wider, SATB literature works well, and a large amount of SSA/SSAA and TTB/TTBB music can be programmed.

Voicing Selection
    Based on knowledge of the students’ ranges in an ensemble, decisions can be made on the voicing of the literature. For inexperienced choirs, beginning with unison melodies provides opportunities to develop a beautiful tone using the head voice, unification of vowels, phrasing, and many other fundamentals for quality singing.
    Once students have gained skill singing in unison, Judy Bowers’s hierarchy for independent singing provides a great resource for the progression of difficulty in the addition of parts:

    1. Sing a melody (middle school mixed choirs: find phrases that fit each section, adapt treble music, sing as SATB).
    2. Add an ostinato (rhythmic, melodic).
    3. Use partner songs.
    4. Add a descant.
    5. Sing chord roots.
    6. Add vocal chording. For a I-IV-I-V progression, part 1 sings sol-la-sol-sol, part 2 sings mi-fa-mi-re, and part 3 sings do-do-do-ti
    7. Sing phrases or sections of a round.
    8. Sing rounds and canons.
    9. Sing transition pieces These will have elements from above, such as ostinato, descant, partner song, canonic entrances, and call and response.
   10. Sing songs with parts for two to four voices.

    It is often assumed two-part, homophonic music in thirds is easiest to sing. However, based on Bowers’ hierarchy, it is actually the most difficult, as the second part is attempting to sing something that follows the same rhythm and similar contour but is not a melody.
    There are many two-part partner songs (two independent melodies that work well when sung together) that are quite effective for introducing harmony. Several standards in the choral repertoire include Al Shlosha by Allan Naplan, Dodi Li by Nira Chen, arranged by Doreen Rao, and Bashana Haba’ah arranged by John Leavitt. All are all Jewish pieces in Hebrew, but phonetic pronunciations in the octavo make teaching the language less challenging.
    Middle school literature again presents the problem of limited voice ranges, especially in the male voice. Often, teachers will continue to program two-part literature due to its simplicity; although the boys in the ensemble often cannot sing some of the notes in the part. The better choice is a separate part for the boys, whether that be SAB or three-part mixed where the third part has the limited range for the cambiata voice. These present a challenge, as middle school baritones might struggle with the third part of three-part music, and cambiata voices might not have the lower notes written in SAB literature. Bowers suggests revoicing literature to accommodate these limited ranges. It also provides a way to address the balance problems that come with having far more girls than boys in a choir classroom.
    Bowers recommends taking SSA literature and revoicing it with a middle school boy’s voice in mind. The girls will be split evenly between all three parts, and the unchanged male voices will sing one of the three parts with the girls. Cambiatas will be placed on a part that stays around middle C and with a tessitura between G3 and G4, often the alto part at pitch or the melody down an octave. Basses will be placed on a part that stays mostly around C3-E3, which again could be the alto part down an octave or perhaps the soprano two part down an octave. When revoicing the bass part, avoid creating a false bass line. If necessary, rewrite the ending pitch so the bass ends on tonic. 
    Below is an example Bowers recommends using when revoicing three-part treble music, taking into consideration the male unchanged, cambiata, and changing bass voices. The soprano one part, when taken down the octave, revolves around middle C, making it ideal for the cambiata voice. The melody in the soprano two part stays below middle C when dropped the octave, but does not go below a D3, which will be more comfortable for a changing baritone voice.  Finally, the alto two part sits above middle C and may be good for unchanged male voices or the tenors comfortable singing higher in their range.

    High school literature varies depending on the group. An all treble freshman ensemble with little experience might need to start with unison pieces or partner songs to build skills. A freshman mixed ensemble may have boys still in the midst of their voice change, requiring revoiced literature similar to the middle school ensemble. SSA(A) and TTB(B) choirs are common at the high school level and literature selection will be determined by the skill, size, and needs of the ensemble. Women’s choirs may need to sing SSA pieces, or if they are more advanced can work on SSAA. Extreme ranges are common in SSAA literature so be careful when placing singers on the soprano one and alto two parts. Likewise, ensembles with all lower voices will perform literature ranging from TB, TTB, TBB or TTBB. As with SSAA, extremes of ranges are often present in TTBB music so be thoughtful in choosing tenor ones and bass twos.

Part Assignments
    Know what music works for each age, considering more than just ability level. Determining which singers will go in specific parts also influences the music programmed. It is crucial to listen to each singer to decide which part would best suit their voice. It is possible to listen to multiple singers together, but groups of four or less are recommended.
    In middle school, knowing ranges and tessituras for the unchanged, cambiata, baritone, and bass voices will help place students in the correct parts. Girls at the middle school level and all elementary school students should alternate between treble parts. It is good to evaluate where they may be in the voice change. However, do not to determine whether they are a soprano or alto at this young age.
    It is more difficult to assign parts with high school groups. Because a majority of singers will be sopranos or baritones, filling a balanced choir can be a struggle, and often, students are placed on a part that is ill-suited for their voice because they have the range required for a given part, with little thought given to tessitura. This is particularly true for alto two and bass two, as many singers lack the volume or presence required for the lowest notes in the song, and these voice types are rare.
    As voices develop in high school, to listen to range and color to determine the part best suited for the voice. Women with a lighter, bell-like quality will often be placed on the soprano one part, while those with a richer, somewhat heavier quality may be placed in the alto section. Men with a light, lyric tone and higher range will often sing tenor one, while the bass voice at the high school level is often missing the depth of low notes until much later in their 20s. There may be a heavy and dark quality to those who will sing baritone and bass, but their low notes may not be as present and the range may not extend as far as the music requires, especially in TTBB literature.
    Often, teachers listen to the extremes of a singer’s range to determine voice part. While this is one factor in determining voice part, it should not be the only consideration. Teachers should consider the passagio, literally “the passage,” where the voice transitions between head and chest voice or into falsetto.
    One common problem is that inexperienced singers may not have a healthy production of sound, manipulate a sound to be darker, or switch to falsetto before needed. Students who typically sing bass might begin to shift through the passagio around B3 or Bb3, while tenors begin around E4or Eb4. Altos will likely shift an octave higher than basses, and sopranos can be expected to shift an octave higher than tenors.
    These are estimates, as each singer is different and the passagio may occur at a different point. It can be difficult to determine where this occurs in a singer, particularly one who has been singing throughout school. There might not be a noticeable change around the passagio, and the teacher may need to rely more on range and color or have an expert come in to ascertain the part best suited for the student.
    Once you have listened to all the students in the choir, have their ranges listed and preferred parts, then decisions can be made to create a more balanced ensemble. Although a balanced ensemble is desirable for concerts and festivals, do not sacrifice students’ vocal health to create balanced sections.

Literature Selection
    When choosing music for the ensemble, it is important to look at the vocal demands of the work, language and source of the text, standards that can be taught, time needed to teach the piece, additional instrumentation needed, and the site of the performance.
    When reviewing vocal technique requirements, compare the amount of stepwise singing to the leaps, and note which intervals appear often. Check whether any accidentals are common to the ear, such as the raised seventh in harmonic minor or a Picardy third. Compare the harmony parts with the melody and look for clashes as well as any voice crossing that makes the piece more challenging. See if the accompaniment supports the students’ parts or if the students will be singing something completely different than the accompaniment. Consider how the work will help or hinder their growth vocally. For example, if you are teaching elementary chorus and the piece often dips below the treble clef or sits around E4 or F4, this can present a challenge in developing the head voice that connects naturally to the chest voice and may encourage singing in a shouty, chesty manner. A better selection might be a song with a tessitura that spends more time around A4 to C5. Consider how the selection you pick can promote vocal growth. If you are working with a more advanced choir of eighth graders you have taught for three years, you may want to pick a piece that works to expand their range by a second to help them navigate a wider range in a healthy manner.
    Few instrumental musicians take college diction classes and will steer clear of programming pieces in languages other than English – and perhaps Latin. Although it may appear easier to sing in the native tongue, it is often less complicated to sing in a language other than the one spoken, as diction used for singing can be quite different than the vowels used for speaking. Also, publishers continue to make language easier to learn and teach with either phonetic or International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) pronunciations in the octavo, providing a high-quality recording of the work on their website, and sometimes offering resources pronouncing difficult languages by a native speaker. Often works from  Africa can be quite easy to pronounce, and the text can be rather repetitive. Additionally, there are many works from Latin America, and with most schools offering Spanish, cross-curricular collaboration can be a benefit of programming music from other cultures.
    There are other factors to consider when looking at text. When evaluating excellence, look at who wrote the text, what its meaning is, and if it is from a famous author or poet, which will allow for collaboration with the literature teachers at the school. Decide if the text is appropriate for the age group. Research to see if there are other meanings to the text (this is a concern at times in madrigals) and if it would present a problem if students discovered information on the internet, even if your intention was only to discuss the literal translation. Also, with a large amount of the choral music canon being sacred, consider how it would be approached from a historical and academic perspective. Finally, consider how the text will connect to students’ lives. Many composers are writing music that addresses contemporary concernss and provides ways to empower and cope.

Literature Sources
    Finding high-quality repertoire can be challenging when you begin to teach choral music without collegiate choral methods and literature classes. Large publishing houses can provide a wealth of music through their search engines and can be sorted based on season, level, and ensemble voicing. Although large stores have music from multiple publishers, it is often helpful to go directly to publisher websites to see the full scope of music available from the company. Some publishers will have a full score, sometimes missing several measures for copyright purposes, that can be perused while listening to a full-length recording. The Music Publishers Association (MPA) has a full list of publishers available on their website at
all-publishers. The number of composers who are self-publishing continues to grow, so checking individual composers’ websites is also a helpful source for finding good literature.
    State, regional, and national conferences are also good sources for finding literature. Concert performances, interest sessions, and reading sessions will all have music that can then be researched after the conference. Reading sessions can be offered by a repertoire chairperson for the organization, a publisher, or a speaker at the conference, and each can provide music for different purposes. Often a publisher reading session will have all the new music being released and perhaps some of their best-selling pieces. Repertoire chairpeople may be provided new releases from a variety of publishers and are likely to collect a variety of styles, publishers, and languages.
    There are other free online resources as well. The Choral Public Domain Library ( contains free downloads of pieces that are no longer under copyright restrictions. Examine the piece carefully prior to programming. With limited budgets often being a concern, CPDL can provide a free alternative to purchasing octavos while providing students access to high-quality literature.

    Although teaching a choral class might not have been a major part of your college coursework, through research and consulting others in the field, it is possible to feel comfortable picking music that is well-suited for the developmental level of your students. The rich variety of texts, cultures, and time periods in choral repertoire make programming for ensembles a creative endeavor of endless possibilities.  

Finding Ophelia’s Voice, Opening Ophelia’s Heart by Lynne Gackle (Heritage Music Press, 2011).
The School Choral Program: Philosophy, Planning, Organizing, and Teaching by Michele Holt and James Jordan (GIA Publications, 2008).
Teaching Kids to Sing by Kenneth H. Phillips (Schirmer Books, 1996)