By Bob Mensel -- Artistic Director, Portland Gay Men's Chorus
I have often found inspiration for making music from some of the greatest minds in allied arts. In regard to programming, perhaps my most important inspiration came when reading the forward to a cookbook by Paul Bocuse, a famous French chef. In response to a question about how he plans his menus, he responded (and I'm paraphrasing), "I never plan a menu until I've gone to the market and seen what ingredients are available. Then, my dinner is made using the finest and freshest ingredients on hand that day." Or in the words of my early college-choir director Ralph Woodward (Brigham Young University), "Conduct the choir you have, not the one you want to have." Understanding and managing your performing resources is probably the most important lesson every successful conductor needs to learn. Here are some things to keep in mind when programming for your chorus:
1) Program music that works for the size, range, and musical proficiency of your choir. The biggest mistake here is selecting repertoire that doesn't match your skill set, or putting your singers into a range that won't allow them to sound good. Transpositions are your friends.
2) Always consider the amount and complexity of your music within the context of whether or not it will be performed off-book. Choirs of almost any proficiency can memorize an evening of harmonized show tunes, but I can't think of any choir that would take on a memorized performance of Bach's B-Minor Mass. (And aren't we all looking to program the B-Minor at some point in our careers?) There is a very specific equation for how much rehearsal time it takes to accomplish any specific amount of repertoire. Learning yours is paramount to your success.
3) Never, never, never, program a piece that depends upon a solo for which you don't have a dynamite singer to deliver it. If you don't have the soloist and it's the tune that's important, have the piece rearranged without the solo. If it's the solo performance that makes the piece, wait until you have that singer before your program that piece. Patience is a virtue.
4) Select music that is congruent with your mission and the expectations of your audience. What works in Seattle may well not work in Dallas nor in your city, just as what works beautifully in Iowa City or Hampton Roads may not find resonance in San Francisco, Denver, or New York City. I've enjoyed numerous pieces performed by LGBT choruses from other communities that I've never programmed because I didn't think they would work with my audience. We don't have to all look and sound the same for each of us to be successful. Excellence will come in many hues.
5) While artistic originality is important, don't reinvent the wheel if you don't have to. Use your fellow conductors (inside and outside of GALA) for inspiration. But a word of caution here. When building your own program, it's easy to develop "choral envy" when hearing and seeing an accomplished chorus and over- or mis-program your own in hopes that "borrowing" what you've seen elsewhere will bring you the same success. But "borrowing" rarely leads to artistic excellence. "Stealing" however, does. The difference is that when you steal something, you disguise the theft by making it appear to be your own in the first place.
All that said, despite our best planning, sometimes a song (or a piece of staging or choreography) doesn't work out as we envisioned. Be flexible! This might include rearranging your program order or even dropping a number. And sometimes the work we do one year on a song doesn't find fruition for another season or two. That's OK. But the cardinal rule of artistic direction is: Never, never, never let your chorus go to stage looking or sounding unprepared. And if your programming reflects the best possibilities inherent in yourself and your performers, you will find success.