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Programming, Programming, Programming

October 17, 2011

not my first conducting teacher

One of my first conducting teachers said to me, “You know, how they say in real estate, ‘location, location, location?’ Well, it’s like that when you are a conductor: ‘programming, programming, programming.”‘ Come to think of it, he didn’t say much more than that. I remember nodding in tacit agreement not knowing what the heck he was talking about. Now that I have spent the past 17 years conducting, I think I understand some of the broader points of “programming, programming, programming.”

One topic of discussion on the League of American Orchestras conductors’ e-mail list is that of a “programming advisory committee.” Some boards of directors feel necessary to have such an entity for a Music Director. Truthfully, they are probably a mixed blessing. And, I would bet money (for what it’s worth these days) that the effectiveness of such a committee is directly related to the attitude of the Music Director. If the Music Director is the slightest bit territorial or insecure, or is a mean-spirited jerk, the whole process could devolve into an ugly morass.

(But I WANT to program all Wagner!)

At my first conducting jobs I did the usual thing a young conductor does: I programmed music I knew from grad school and I programmed music I wanted to conduct, regardless of whether or not the orchestras could play it. I didn’t have the expertise to predict what my orchestras could sound successful performing, and building an audience was off my radar.  The first youth symphony I ran (for 12 years) was fairly easy to program: lots of standard repertoire. They weren’t getting it in their public schools, so we were filling a niche. The kids complained only once in that time about the repertoire. The offending piece? “The Orchestra Song” by William Schuman.

 (Sorry I broke your track record, Brian.)

As much as I admire Schuman’s music, I have to side with the kids on this one.

With my adult orchestras I began to develop some philosophies that put “butts in the seats.”  We seemed to do well when we programmed: 1. music that was an “event” like Beethoven’s 9th or Carmina Burana, 2. a concert that involved a collaboration such as The Nutcracker Ballet (or see #1, for pieces with choir), or 3. A concert that featured someone who had a local cult following.

But now I am in a very different situation. I have a nice youth orchestra that has lots of talented kids in it that don’t need a steady diet of standard repertoire. I have been wondering what it is that they would like to play;  and the best way to know is to ask them. (Well, duh.) When I did, I was suprised by what I heard. Some want to play movie music (they still love Star Wars after all these years), some want to play the old standards like Beethoven, some want to play Stravinsky and Bartok. Most don’t really think about it that often outside rehearsal (they do have other lives outside rehearsal, you know) and are happy to get to play most anything.  The college orchestras I conduct have similar points-of-view, but I think it is part of my job to expose them to as many different styles and genres as possible while they are here.

(Luke, I am your Conducting Teacher.)

One of the college groups I am conducting is doing a concert that will feature Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Jazz music – all for string orchestra.  The group seems to love it and they sound good.

So, what does all this “programming, programming, programming” business mean? Here are some thoughts that I put into choosing repertoire:

  • What will the group enjoy playing?
  • What will sound good on the group?
  • What will I enjoy conducting?
  • What’s new for me – what have I not conducted yet?
  • What’s new for them – what style of music or composer have we not touched on yet?
  • What will the audience enjoy hearing?
  • What will a guest artist bring with them? (They inspire the orchestra as well as the audience.)
  • What will the “stake holders” enjoy? (That term strikes me as a bit smarmy, but there are patrons out there for most orchestra programs, and it is probably in the orchestra’s best interest to know their interests.)
  • What is in the best interests of the group as a whole?
  • What repertoire addresses the orchestra’s strengths?
  • What repertoire helps lift up the orchestra’s weaknesses?

This isn’t necessarily listed in order of preference, of course. 

What are some things you consider when you program? Your comments are appreciated!


6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 18, 2011 8:06 am

    One needs a balance of comfort and challenge. That goes for the audience, board, players and conductor. Some fun, some indulgence, some challenge. Your list seems a bit to safe. An orchestra that programs for even five years under those criteria will be playing the same top forty pieces that we hear churned out on public radio.

    • October 19, 2011 11:46 am


      Thanks for dropping by! Hopefully a conductor can program with imagination while still having some “ground rules” to govern his/her overarching programming philosophy.

      Please feel free to expand on some of your guiding principals while programming. We’d love to hear it!

  2. October 18, 2011 9:43 am

    At Brian’s invitation, I’d like to share a few thoughts. As we enter the profession we are all eager to program all those great works we’ve been dreaming about conducting. I remember my first concert at the University of Utah having the temerity to program Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances with an orchestra I didn’t know and that could barely blow its nose. Certainly after the eight years I spent there, the top orchestra could have nailed that work, or many others. How did I get there?

    In the Summer of 1990 I was a student at Tanglewood. Joseph Silverstein was there and found out about my appointment at Utah. He took me aside and told me this (I think I can remember it verbatim): “I let all the guest conductor program all the party pieces they want, but when it comes time to train my orchestra, I program Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert.” Now, here was a world-class violinist and conductor telling me that with his professional symphony orchestra he used works by these composers. After my first year in Utah, when I had radically changed the orchestral program to have an orchestra primarily for music majors and one for non-majors, I began to employ Maestro Silverstein’s philosophy and with great results.

    The challenges of such repertoire is making it sound “clean.” The precision of making ten second violins play brush strokes or full spiccato playing repetitive eighth notes on the G and D strings translated well into other works. Beginning with that first year of the new Utah Philharmonia I programmed a Beethoven symphony every year, a Mozart symphony or overture (an all-Mozart program every other year), and, in alternating years, a Haydn symphony, Schubert symphony, JC Bach, etc.; in other words, music written in the cusp between late Classicism and early Romanticism. Eventually this orchestra was sailing through Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Shostakovich and played a great deal of new music by underperformed and underchampioned composers and works.

    I offer here no basic formula, but to my younger colleagues I suggest the following: ignore everything you know; be concerned more about the training of the ensemble and less about developing your repertoire; choose music on its merits as an educational experience for both you and your orchestra/audience; use “chestnuts” and guest artists to draw them in, and then educate them with new music, rarely performed works by great masters, American works from the 19th and 20th centuries; make a plan spanning five years that allows you to develop your repertoire while creating programs that are interesting to musicians and audience alike.

    If anyone would like to see my repertoire list, e mail me or visit my website on MyApace (

    In spite of what is sometimes said of me, I don’t know everything nor do I claim to, but I do know that Maestro Silverstein’s words of advice as regards repertoire for training an orchestra how to play has borne great fruit in my work with orchestras both young and old. Good luck!

    • October 19, 2011 11:49 am


      Great comments! A conductor of your experience is a much-welcomed voice in this forum. I especially appreciate your philosophy about mixing the need for fundamental music-making with the willingness to be adventuresome.

      Please feel free to comment any time!


  3. October 23, 2011 7:34 pm

    I just wanted to say how much I value and appreciate your blog. I am a very young conductor. I’ve been conducting for about 3.5 years and am currently approaching round 2 of grad school auditions. I find that blogs are very inspiring and encouraging to read. Thanks for them and keep them coming.


  4. November 14, 2011 10:40 am

    One of my favorite subjects…and when done poorly, one of my biggest pet peeves. In my opinion, programming is the major factor for an ensemble’s success or failure.

    1. The purpose of the organization (it’s mission in military talk) is the first factor – high school ensemble, college ensemble, professional orchestra, or military band?

    2. What are the audience’s expectations?

    3. What does the audience want to hear?

    4. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the group?

    5. What does the ensemble need to continue its development?

    6. What story are you trying to tell? You are trying to tell a story, right?

    7. What has the audience heard over the last few years (if you’re performing in the same area)?

    8. How do you want the audience to feel at each juncture of the concert?

    Some other questions you should ask yourself (and I wish more people would):

    Before you program a piece, ask why.

    How long should the concert be and what should be the pace.

    If the piece of music is an indulgence that you know the audience won’t enjoy/like/appreciate, ask why you are programming it. If it’s for you, why subject the audience to it? If your audience expects you to play that kind of music, great; if not…proceed at your own risk.

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