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Finding That "Sweet Spot" In Repertoire Planning

Hello from Ann Arbor!


I just finished the first week of my second year in the summer master’s program here at University of Michigan. It’s been a great start so far! I’ve had classes from 9:00 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. this week, so sorry for the late post.

I'm sitting in a classroom for roughly 4-9 hours a day right now. But at least the view is nice.

While working on some edits for my thesis proposal, I came across a nifty article called Programming in the Zone: Repertoire Selection for the Large Ensemble by Dr. Michael Hopkins. Coincidentally, I’m in his class this semester...but that’s beside the point.

Theoretical Framework?!

(Raise your hand if you wanted to die a little inside when you read that sub-heading)


Bear with me, the concepts can really help you make good choices.


Dr. Hopkins frames his discussion for choosing repertoire using Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, and Csikzentmihalyi’s (Chick-sent-mee-hi's) flow theory. I won’t get too technical with you, but if you’re interested in learning more about these two concepts, check out this article on ZPD, and this TED talk featuring Csikzentmihalyi himself.

But, before I continue, here is a teeensy bit of info just to give you some perspective:

  • In ZPD= Potential for new learning is strongest (finding the sweet spot)

  • If ZPD is too low= you’re teaching kids something they already know how to do

  • If ZPD if too high= you’re teaching kids something they aren’t ready for yet

  • Great for rehearsal, bad for performance! Students should be out of the zone by concert time, and skill and challenge should be balanced, leading to...

  • Most likely to occur when there is a balance of skill and challenge

  • Seeking the “optimal experience”

  • Ultimate feeling of being in control of our actions, allowing us to have heightened response, providing us with a deep sense of joy and satisfaction.

So, Where Is The "Sweet Spot"?

Have you ever programmed a piece of music that the kids just do fantastic with? You know, when you love it, they love it, it challenges them just enough that they’re motivated to work hard yet it’s still totally achievable?


That’s the zone...the point of flow...the sweet spot.


Pick those pieces.

Clear Water by Robert L. Hugh was one of the pieces that I felt that we really found a sweet spot on. This performance was at our adjudication this past April.

A lot of music teachers take time during the summer to begin thinking about choosing repertoire for the upcoming school year. Hopkins provides a list of reality check questions that I know I’m going to be asking myself as I’m perusing octavos in the underbelly of J.W. Pepper.

Reality Check Questions

​(taken directly from Hopkins' Music Educator Journal article)

  1. Will my ensemble be able to perform the piece at the tempo indicated in the score?

  2. Are the musicians in my ensemble at a level of maturity where they will have the patience to learn it?

  3. Will the musicians in my ensemble have the stamina to perform the entire program?

  4. Do I have enough rehearsal time for other pieces on the program?

  5. Do I have enough rehearsal time available to perform this piece well (and still have enough time to rehearse other pieces on the program?

  6. Am I picking this piece because I am in love with it, or is it a really good choice for the ensemble?

What To Watch Out For

Falling in love.

Don’t pick a piece just because you love it. You can love it all you want, but that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for your students. The old adage is “if you love something enough, let it go.” Not gonna lie, there are some pieces I just love too much to give to my kids, because I know they aren’t ready yet to do it justice.

World’s. Longest. Concert.

So I know that standard time for a professional performance/recital is around 90 minutes. But guess what? Our kids aren’t professionals, and that’s OK. They aren’t supposed to be. My mantra is quality over quantity. Pick 3-4 pieces you think they will be able to do REALLY well, and no one will be upset if your concerts are only 30-45 minutes long. Actually, your admin will probably thank you.

Getting between a rock and a hard place.

We all want to challenge our students. I know I always try to find at least one piece that will be tricky for them. But no one wins if every single piece on your concert is “the hard piece.” Find a balance between sheer difficulty by exploring other educational elements like language, culture, tone building, or history.


If you’re already planning ahead for next year, I salute you! If you haven’t gotten that far yet, I’m right there with you (and drowning in pages of research studies!) Either way, here are a few of my personal favorites to get your juices flowing. Keep in mind, I don’t generally use a lot of SATB. I prefer to use SSA, 2- part, or three part mixed and just adapt it to my needs. 

Unison/ 2-part pieces ( perfect for 6th grade)

Marienwurmchien                                            Brahms, arr. Goetze

The Lamb                                                             Sherri Porterfield

Quiet Sea                                                             Jill Friersdorf, Melissa Keylock

Sing to Me                                                            Andrea Ramsey

Les Marins De Groix                                          Evelyn Emerson

Three Quotes by Mark Twain                        Andrea Ramsey


Beati in domo domini                                      James G. Kantor

I Had A Paintbox                                                 Z. Randall Stroope

Clear Water                                                         Robert L. Hugh

Letter from a Girl to the World                      Andrea Ramsey

Los Cristales Turbios                                         J. Reese Norris

Cantate Domino                                                Nancy Hill Cobb


Cover Me With The Night                                Andrea Ramsey

Rest Not!                                                               Laura Farnell

Gloria                                                                     Mark Patterson

Jambo                                                                  Jacob Narverud

She Walks in Beauty                                         Laura Farnell

Set Me As A Seal                                                 Laura Farnell


Hopkins, M. (2013). Programming in the zone: Repertoire selection for the large ensemble. Music Educator's Journal, 99(4). 66-74.  Retrieved from

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