Organizing Small Ensembles for District Contest | by Tresa Jo Wilson

Small ensembles have the greatest chance of success when they are set up by the director for musical reasons.  When students sign up for their own groups, it is often for social reasons.


The director should determine how many groups can realistically represent a school and still have enough time for quality rehearsals.  Then decide if ensembles are required in some class, if they are extra credit, or if they are a part of the class grade.  Though student input into selections may be helpful, the director should at least narrow the choices to insure appropriate literature that is within the capabilities of the singers and has contrasting styles.


Especially for ensembles made up of less experienced singers, you might want to consider having an alternate on each voice part.  That provides a prepared backup singer if someone is ill at contest time or if a person is not responsible about coming to practices.


When possible, having a pre-contest performance is helpful.  This makes memorization a goal in advance of the contest date, and provides an opportunity for the alternates to sing with the groups.  Parents could be invited to attend, and another music professional could fill out rating sheets with comments.


Students should dress appropriately for competition.  When in matching outfits or just similar styles, their attire should be a positive reflection on the school and should represent the fact that they are performing artistic literature, not pop culture.  Make your expectations clear and enforce them.


Tresa Jo Wilson, Retired

Francis Howell School District


Small Ensemble and Literature Selection for Music Festival | by Sandy Cordes

 Selecting the Ensembles

  • You choose the singers and the ensembles.  You are the expert on the voice so use that training and expertise.    
  • Choose only the amount of ensembles that you can work with.  The only exception to this is if you have an assistant that can help you or a trained musician that is willing to assist you.  It is your responsibility as the choral director to instruct and train these ensembles so don’t choose 36 small ensembles if you know that you will not be working with them on a weekly basis.
  • Although mixed double quartets are wonderful because you can involve more singers I have found that women’s trios, men’s quartets and mixed quartets work the best.  It involves fewer singers and is easier to schedule.


Choosing the Singers

  • Choose the singers by listening to them in quartets, trios or any combination that you like.  I always did this after my Holiday Concerts.  I chose a Christmas Carol that they were familiar and I had everyone sing.  After I listened to them once, I had them fill out a Contest Information Sheet to see the degree that they could be involved.  After that I categorized the singers and then started matching them according to the tembre of the voice, their vocal ability and intelligence and the people that could sing best.  Although I did let them make requests of who they would like to sing with I always made that decision.  If I felt they really belonged with a certain group of singers I put them with that group.  You ultimately have the responsibility for that ensemble so take that responsibility seriously. 
  • After you have selected the singers choose one person from each group that will serve as the group leader. Their responsibility is to organize rehearsal times with you and calling extra rehearsals on their own.  I required the students to rehearse 30 minutes a week on their own besides the 30 minutes that I rehearsed with them. 
  • If you see that someone is not attending rehearsals or holding up their responsibility meet with them one time and after that replace them.   


Choosing the Music

  • You choose the music, not the students. They do not have the training to do this.  You are the expert so do this.  Warning-it takes lots of time.  It is alright to take their requests but if it does not fit their voices choose something else.  Ex:  SSA “Fire, Fire My Heart”  Thomas Morley is very difficult.  I would not let a young freshman ensemble do that selection even though many have wanted to.  Let them do it when they have more ability and stronger voices. 
  • Make sure and choose contrasting styles in their selections.  The success of the ensemble depends on the literature chosen.
  • Remember they are only rehearsing 1 hour per week.  Choose music they can learn quickly.


Closing Thoughts

Remember that music festival should be a positive experience.  A 4 or 5 rating is not positive.  Choose your ensembles, singers and music wisely and make it an experience that they can feel good about.


Sandy Cordes


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