Choosing Repertoire

Sep 16, 2015

Here are some thoughts from director Wendell Nisley about how he chooses repertoire.

How do you choose your repertoire?

A brief response is fairly simple, but the process of actually choosing a program repertoire can be almost excruciating. I often begin with a theme in mind. This year, however I didn’t so much choose the theme–I had decided that I would program less thematically for a change. In the end, it seems, the theme chose me.

There were a number of songs that, when I asked for volunteers to be programmed, just stood up and started waving insistently. The theme of healing emerged (and continued to develop as we interacted last year with our Irish audiences). It’s not tightly consistent throughout, but it is all loosely connected. The program begins with recognizing God, which is of course where all of our healing must begin. It also looks at the difficulties that we live in, which is tough for us to look at, because we like to be happy and we have so many things to buy and experience to help keep us happy. But unless we acknowledge and examine the brokenness in our lives, we will never get to a place where we are able to receive healing.

In a lot of ways, this program is simply about life. Thus, each text should speak of life in a way that expands our understanding of it. Whenever we look closely at life, what we find (if we look long and truly) is simply amazing. Our art ought to reflect that–there should be something in it that opens our eyes, a “wow factor” that engages our imaginations, that turns our hearts upward in gratitude. But all of this has to be with texts that are theologically sound, that line up with a deep and careful reading of Scripture.

What effect does your singing group have on your choice of songs?

I am a teacher, and so I want to choose music that will be educational and challenging for the singers. That doesn’t mean that it all has have a Bach-ian complexity–just that it needs to nudge the singers toward growth musically, vocally, and spiritually. I try to find a place that challenges the singers with more training and experience, yet doesn’t overwhelm those with less.

What about the audience–how do you program for them?

In concert there is at times this lovely dance between audience and choir, where we are not two separate groups doing two separate activities, but a unified whole engaged deeply in exploring and experiencing life through the sounds and the thoughts of the song. It requires a surrender to the sound. But for that to work, the songs must find some balancing point between accessible and challenging for the audience. I try to program enough well-known sounds (eg. hymn arrangements and predictable choral pieces) to give some comfortable familiarity, but enough new sounds to keep it challenging and fresh.

Are there other factors you consider?

Many. A variety of difficulty levels is one of the primary factors. But I also look for a variety of styles–lush and spare, slow and fast, major and minor and modal, hymns and spirituals, folksy and classical, new and old. Some should wash over you like a delicious shower, other songs should require the thoughtful attention of a beautiful physics equation unfolding step by step. And there should be a variety of keys; it would be tough on the choir to sing a concert mostly in F and G. One lesson I learned this year was to make sure that it is memorizable. Our test case was “I Want Jesus To Walk With Me,” and we found that memorization was extremely difficult. It hindered singing the song effectively. Finally, it has to be a piece that I can tap into and live with for two years. I’ve put a number of perfectly fine pieces back on the shelf because, for some reason, they just didn’t meet me at the moment.

Where do you find your pieces, and how much time does it take?

I figure that if I find one strong candidate in an hour of researching, I am doing well. I am eliminating songs as I go, but I’ll probably end up with a list of 20-25, and then start the final grueling process of eliminating and replacing. I find song candidates in my files, listed on programs from concerts I’ve attended, on CD’s, on YouTube and Spotify. I look at concert programs online, music retailers online, and publishers’ websites. We have commissioned a number of songs, in which case I work with the composer to come up with a text.