It seems obvious, but it’s easiest to program if you have the broadest possible knowledge of the repertoire for your choir. The bigger the lists of “possible pieces” and your knowledge about their demands (whether they’re appropriate for your group), the more options you have. For young conductors this is a challenge. For them in particular, but for all of us, searching for new repertoire is a constant occupation, whether browsing at the local music store or music library, subscribing to various publishers’ new issues, noting pieces on someone else’s concert program, following repertoire postings on choralist, enlisting your colleagues’ help, listening to recordings, or attending reading sessions at music conferences or workshops.
I was lucky to have some great mentors early in my career. Neil Lieurance was a student teacher at my high school during my sophomore year, took a non-music job there my junior year (but accompanied the small ensemble, and I also started to take voice lessons from him at that time), and then took over the choral program my senior year. Neil loved learning new repertoire (still does!) and provided a great role model. Even after I graduated and went on to university, I’d visit and he’d share whatever new music or recordings he’d added to his library. His excitement about this was catching. Since he was working on a master’s degree at Western Washington University in the summers, I got to know Bob Scandrett, who headed the program there, and attended several summer workshops with clinicians such as Gregg Smith, Günther Graulich (editor/owner of Carus Verlag) and Louis Halsey (a fine conductor in his own right, but probably best known now as the father of conductor Simon Halsey—who’s been Simon Rattle’s choral conductor since the beginning of Rattle’s career in Birmingham). Just with those three conductors/workshops I learned a wealth of American repertoire, European repertoire, and British repertoire.
Rod Eichenberger was my first teacher at the University of Washington and also had a great appetite for exploring new repertoire. During my sophomore year (after Rod had come up to Western for the end of the Gregg Smith workshop and we collaborated on making a rather potent punch at the after-party) I started hanging around his office with the grad students (I learned a lot from them, too—during that time I sang in almost all of their graduate recital choirs). Rod always received lots of new issues from publishers—ah, the days when it was easy to get complimentary copies! —and had them stacked all over the place. He made a deal with me: if I’d file all this music for him, I could keep any duplicate copies. That was the beginning of my personal reference library. I got some fantastic music, but just as importantly began to get an overview of the repertoire. If I filed a piece by Hindemith, let’s say, I looked through the file to see what else he’d written. This was an incredible gift to me.
All of us need to continually expand our knowledge of repertoire. This will also be shaped by the ensembles you conduct: the choral repertoire is broad and has so many sub-genres: treble, male, mixed, sacred, secular, for large ensemble, for small ensemble, etc., plus all levels from the most inexperienced choir to advanced repertoire only a professional choir could attempt. For example, when I taught at Mount Holyoke College for three years (a women’s college), I had a crash course in women’s literature and learned as much as I could about it and searched it out. Later, when I wasn’t conducting a women’s chorus, I didn’t keep up with this repertoire so much—but with the advent of the men’s chorus at PLU (which I led), I began collecting men’s rep appropriate to my beginning level ensemble. Whatever your choir(s), you’ll want to explore and acquire as much literature that’s appropriate as you can. When you take on a new choir with a new and different repertoire, get to know experts in that area and pick their brains, look at their programs, browse their libraries. When I became Artistic Director of Pro Coro Canada, Jon Washburn (conductor of the Vancouver Chamber Choir, whom I’d known for some time) let me come up to visit and spend an afternoon browsing through his extensive personal library, specifically looking at Canadian choral works. Again, an incredibly gracious gift.
One of the glories of the choral medium is that there is such a wealth of repertoire to explore. We’ll never run out of it, and that’s one of the joys of this job. It should never be dull.