'We live off the beaten path': The Challenges of Finding Great Community Chorus Repertoire

For any chorus, finding the right repertoire can be an imposing task. But the process is especially difficult for community choruses. Why is the search so hard for them, how do they deal with the obstacles, and what more can be done to help these ensembles locate the music that’s right for them?

“It’s probably the biggest challenge I face in a given day,” says Thea Kano, artistic director of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington DC.

“It’s like birthing a baby,” says Deborah Simpkin King, director of Schola Cantorum on Hudson in upstate New York.

“I know I don’t spend enough time doing it,” admits Matt Fritz, who leads a non-auditioned chorus in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. “It’s probably one of the most important things we do, but it’s one of the hardest because it just takes time.”

Balancing the budget? Audience development? Singer recruitment? No—these community chorus conductors are all lamenting the never-ending challenge of finding good repertoire.

Many of them have been searching for and selecting music for decades, but they all agree it’s still an uphill battle. It’s not that there isn’t plenty of music out there, they acknowledge. Available to them are tens of thousands of published pieces spanning six continents and thousands of years. Much of it is even free. All the same, finding the right music often feels like opening a closet full of clothes only to discover you’ve got nothing to wear.

What makes finding good music an especially taxing task for the conductor of an amateur chorus? Maybe it’s the fact that adult community choruses, which by definition are made up mostly or entirely of volunteer singers and usually aren’t affiliated with a church or a school, are still a minority in the singing world. (Chorus America’s 2009 Chorus Impact Study found adult community and professional choruses made up less than 5 percent of American singing groups, with school choirs outnumbering them three to one and church choirs eighteen to one.) Or maybe it’s because community choruses face unique challenges, including huge differences in age, music taste, and artistic ability among their singers. Perhaps it’s because community choruses range in size from four to more than 200, or because some learn pop songs by rote while others are full of classically trained sight-readers. 

Maybe—probably—it’s all of the above.

The challenges they face

The subject of community chorus repertoire is complicated, whether you’re a conductor trying to find it or a publisher trying to sell it.

Shortly after Tom Dean joined the sheet music purveyor J.W. Pepper & Son, Inc., last year, he wondered: Was the company serving community choruses as best it could? “We were assuming the community choirs were in large part buying the same music schools were,” Dean, the editor for classroom and choral products sales, says. But after glancing at some data and observing purchasing patterns, “I saw that wasn’t true, not even a little bit.”

Publishers’ Picks

Where would a music publisher point a conductor of a community chorus in search of repertoire? Chorus America asked a wide range of publishers in the field to recommend one work from their own catalogue that they felt is especially suited to community choruses. We have compiled this list of pieces—including pieces representing a broad spectrum of voicings, orchestrations, and cultural traditions—in this companion article.

The music the community choirs did want was buried pages deep in search results, doing both parties a disservice: Directors couldn’t find what they were looking for, and J.W. Pepper wasn’t effectively marketing the music it offered to the audience who wanted it, leaving money on the table.

After almost a year of weekly reports, face-to-face interaction with conductors, website rearranging, and re-tagging, Dean believes he’s finally begun to crack the community chorus code. For the first time at J.W. Pepper, a 141-year-old music company, there’s a category on its website and in its print catalog dedicated specifically to community choruses. Dean has experimented with curated lists of pieces he thinks community choruses would love, including one called “Songs of Peace.” In the company’s eClub newsletter, he’s carved out space to spotlight a new community choir each month, giving conductors a chance to share their last three years of programs and repertoire. And he’s trolled YouTube and solicited publishing companies for recordings in order to offer as many audio samples as possible. “We already publish a lot of music community choirs love,” he says. “It was just a matter of letting them know it’s there, pulling it out from the shadows.”

But why had all this community chorus music been hidden in the first place? Why, on almost every music publisher’s website, are there “middle school” and “advanced high school” categories, yet no “adult community chorus” option?

One of the main obstacles community choruses face is built into most publishers’ websites: Their online catalogs don’t seem to be organized with these choruses in mind. Unlike school or church choirs, community ensembles often program around themes—songs about nature, about coming together as one, about passionate love. But on most publishing sites, you can’t filter music by subject.

That leaves Susan Medley, music director of the Pittsburgh Concert Chorale, wishing “there were a place where everyone could upload their concert programs and share the repertoire they picked for a certain theme”—something J.W. Pepper’s eClub column has partially addressed.

Another major challenge? Many publishing companies don’t provide audio samples of their pieces, leaving music directors to conduct their own time-consuming searches on YouTube and Spotify to find out what a piece sounds like before purchasing it.

“A lot of [publishers] seem to be technology-resistant, but they should realize how important it is,” says Fahad Siadat, who sings, conducts, and runs his own publishing company. “We live in a world where there’s so much information that we need ways to cut through it quickly. I wish there were scrolling-score videos for every piece every living composer wrote.”

Any conductor committed to programming cutting-edge music can also attest to the challenge of finding new pieces that are somewhere between too easy and devilishly difficult. “Some of the [music] that tends to bubble to the surface is either gimmicky and dumbed down or it’s so far out there and difficult for the sake of being difficult,” says Fritz. “It just doesn’t make sense to me. I want music that’s moving and meaningful. Keep it real, man.” Mimi Bornstein, who conducts the Midcoast Community Chorus in Maine, is also tired of “music that’s written to be intellectually clever or musically challenging just for the sake of it.” What they and so many other community choruses are looking for is music that’s innovative, interesting, thought-provoking, and moving—music that hits the sweet spot between overly simplistic and overly challenging.

Where they’re looking

The composers who discovered that niche need are some of the most successful today: Eric Whitacre, whose pieces sound lush and layered but are easy to read with all their stepwise motion; Ola Gjeilo, whose double-choir arrangements are ethereal yet easy for singers of different skill levels to tackle; and Morten Lauridsen, he of the crowd-pleasing melodies and intuitive chord progressions.

One of the publishers attempting to fill the void between the kitsch and the overkill is Fahad Siadat, who runs See-A-Dot Music Publishing. Siadat founded the company to create a place for, as he puts it, “new music that happens to be for choirs, not choral music that happens to be new.” Community chorus conductors can browse Tibetan chants, layered melodies and multi-part wordless pieces that are unexpected, exciting, and great for every ability level.

EmberDeborah Simpkin King conducting her community chorus, Ember.

Of course, not everyone can solve such problems by founding a publishing company—the same way not everyone can get just the right piece by commissioning it from a famous composer. But there’s one tool that’s free, widely available, and indispensable to almost every conductor working today: YouTube.

“YouTube is an amazing gift, and I don’t know how we all got along without it before,” says Kano. “I’ll search the name of a song I liked years ago, something I heard on the radio, and I’ll often find that a TTBB arrangement of it already exists.” That’s a huge money-saver for Kano, who spends a chunk of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington budget on obtaining rights and hiring arrangers. For Mimi Bornstein, whose community chorus often sings folk music from far corners of the world, YouTube is frequently the only place she can find the music she’s looking for. “A lot of music from indigenous cultures, say from South Africa, is taught through the oral tradition and hasn’t necessarily been written down,” she notes. Finding and teaching that kind of music with an authentic recording on YouTube is, she says, a great way for her and her singers to honor and learn about another culture. The fact that international folk music is lively, melodic, and repetitive by nature—therefore perfect for a multi-generational, non-auditioned ensemble—is just a bonus.

Bornstein, who’s always focused on programming folk music from lesser-known places, also finds inspiration by attending conferences and workshops outside the classical choral realm. Doing so is a surefire way to find music no one else is performing—and if it’s a workshop close to home or a smaller affair, it might also save money.

“If choral directors are interested in diversifying the music they bring to their choirs, they might diversify where they go for professional development,” she says. “You might go to a community arts engagement conference, or a gospel music workshop, or a South African or Balkan music workshop.”

No need for deep pockets

Another way to stay innovative without breaking the bank? Revisiting the Choral Public Domain Library. If you thought CPDL was good only for easy church music and mistake-riddled masterworks and madrigals, think again. When Kano isn’t tracking down original arrangements of popular songs on YouTube, she’s scouring CPDL for free arrangements of social justice songs such as “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” and “We Shall Overcome.” A recent search found a glut of new music by living composers, folk songs from all over the world and pieces by Vaughan Williams, Holst, and Janáček you probably didn’t know were free.

Good, free sheet music isn’t just on CPDL. If you’re putting together a program celebrating our own country’s history, a great starting place is the Library of Congress website, where thousands of American folk songs, war songs, and hymns for multiple parts are available for download.

Even if you’re committed to performing new music, there are easy, affordable ways to put together cutting-edge programs. PROJECT : ENCORE, the creation of Deborah Simpkin King, is a free-to-use website offering a searchable library of pieces that have had recent premieres but haven’t yet been performed twice.

PCCThe Pittsburgh Concert Chorale, conducted by Susan Medley.

And keep in mind, says Fahad Siadat, that commissioning a piece isn’t always as expensive as you think it is. “I spoke on a panel once about commissioning,” Siadat says, “and lots of people said they were too intimidated to make an offer because they didn’t want to insult the composer.” Choruses often forget how much more they can offer besides money, Siadat says. As a composer himself, he can attest that a block of free tickets to the premiere, a quality recording of the new piece, and full royalties from subsequent performances are all alternative forms of payment many composers consider valuable, especially those who are still building their portfolios.

“There are all kinds of composers who want exposure more than money,” says Linda Mack Berven, artistic director of the Durango Choral Society in Colorado. Once, a young composer in Santa Fe sent her a “gorgeous piece for women’s choir” and asked if she was interested in a premiere. “We recorded it and put it on our website, and everyone was happy. We got to sing a great piece, and she got a good recording to shop out.”

Chorus America’s Commission Consortiums, another budget-friendly option, allow choruses to share the cost of a new piece. That means just $1,500 could buy you a regional premiere by a big name like Craig Hella Johnson. Chorus America offers two opportunities—one for children and youth choruses and one for SATB choruses— every year.

There are so many ways to take the road less traveled to find interesting music—many of which are free or surprisingly affordable. But what’s still most difficult about them is they take an inordinate amount of time—days of digging through CPDL titles; weeks of blind emails to composers; hours at a library, whether it’s brick-and-mortar or virtual. “I believe there’s plenty of material out there, but it’s a little bit off the beaten path,” says King. “Creative programmers were always going off the beaten path anyway. We live off the beaten path.”

It’s getting better

Though there’s still a long way to go, community choruses’ literature needs are no longer the mystery they once were to publishers, composers, and music stores alike. That’s welcome news for any community choir conductor who wishes she could spend less time searching for music and more time growing an audience or writing grants.

Tom Dean, now nearly a year into his time at J.W. Pepper, feels he understands the needs of community choruses a bit better. He knows many of them love the golden oldies, pop, folk, and patriotic tunes, and they are less afraid to program the sacred music many school choirs shy away from. He’s tuned in to their interest in music about social justice, acceptance, human rights, and community celebration. And he’s seen good response to his monthly eClub guest columns.

Following years of resistance, publishers and composers alike have answered the call for more sound clips. As recently as a few years ago, Santa Barbara Music Publishing had very few downloadable recordings available; now, audio is nearly ubiquitous. On the Alliance website, another favorite among community chorus conductors, every single piece in the catalog comes with a sound recording.

More and more composers are beginning to understand community choruses’ need for music that’s innovative but not too tricky. Many have rearranged some of their best pieces for fewer voice parts or offered a version with accompaniment to make their music more accessible.

“There are some composers who everyone wants to sing but haven’t always been able to,” Susan Medley says. “Now they’re coming around to arranging for choirs that aren’t on the level of the Santa Fe Desert Chorale.”

Generally speaking, the pool of published music is diversifying every year. Kevin McBeth, who represents community choirs on ACDA’s national Repertoire and Resources committee, says he’s noticed more community chorus-friendly secular, gospel, and world music coming from major publishers. McBeth makes sure those works are getting more representation at conferences and reading sessions, along with pieces from smaller publishers and self-published composers. “I’m looking for music that experienced musicians will want to sink their teeth into but isn’t so far over the head of the more novice performer,” he says. “Balancing that is probably the hardest part of the job.”

Whether it’s four parts or eight, whether it’s straightforward verse-and-refrain or improvisational, everyone agrees unearthing the best repertoire might always take a bit of patience—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “It’s like going to the thrift store and finding that beautiful skirt hidden among racks and racks of junk,” says Linda Mack Berven. “I love the challenge.”

Conductors recognize that the diversity of repertoire out there is as much a blessing as it is a curse: It lets every kind of community chorus, from barbershop quartets to the likes of VocalEssence, share the kind of music that brings them the most joy. And that’s what choral singing is all about. “The world is always better off,” says Deborah King, “when people are happily singing.”

Jill Kimball is the public relations manager for CU Presents at the University of Colorado Boulder. She devotes her spare time to choral singing, freelance writing, blogging, and traveling.

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