Honor Choirs and Choral Festivals


Share This:

Honor choirs and choral festivals are huge tasks, requiring long-range planning, significant organization, and many hours of work. However, the musical rewards for those who participate are worth all the effort. As in any choral situation, repertoire is a huge factor in determining an ensemble’s success; however, in festival settings, this is even more the case because the rehearsal time is so short. When I conduct honor choirs, I always try to program a variety of pieces. I especially look for pieces with flexible voicing or optional parts (in case singers are unprepared or very prepared). I also try to include pieces with memorable melodies and some dance-like elements to help keep rehearsals interesting. Additionally, I take the opportunity to expose students to standard choral repertoire, meaning works from a variety of time periods, as well as other chestnuts and traditional folk songs. Some ideas are listed below, and I hope they inspire you for your next event.


Somebody’s Knockin’
arr. Ken Berg
Choristers Guild
Composer and arranger Ken Berg has the rare gift in being able to write interesting and meaningful music for ensembles of every level. In this arrangement, Berg takes the popular spiritual melody, adds blue notes, motions, and a rollicking piano part. The piece can be performed in unison or the optional divisi notes can be followed. Berg’s arrangement lends itself to festival settings in particular because the music is straightforward (in case students are not prepared), but time can also be spent on unifying the spiritual style and motions (in case students are prepared). In either case, conductors will have plenty to work on and also have the confidence of knowing that spiritual arrangements always appeal to singers and audiences alike.


Niska Banja

Niska Banja
arr. Nick Page
Boosey & Hawkes
Nick Page’s well-known arrangement of this folk tune adds flair to any festival performance. The infectious rhythm (an asymmetrical grouping of 9/8), combined with the four-hand piano, clarinet, and tambourine parts, make Niska Banja quite memorable. Additionally, in honor choir or festival settings, songs representing the diversity of global cultures help round out concert programs. Page’s arrangement is also available in SSAA, TB, and SATB voicings.


Loch Lomond
arr. Anne-Marie Hildebrant
Hinshaw Music
Certainly, many choral conductors are familiar with the Loch Lomond melody; however, young students are perhaps not as connected to the folk tradition as earlier generations. And how could they be if they are not exposed to these kind of arrangements? Hildebrant’s arrangement of this tune is sincere with a contemporary piano arrangement. She does occasionally alter the melody and harmonies in a tasteful manner. Programming this kind of straightforward folk tune for choral festivals not only familiarizes the next generation with the rich folk tradition, but also allows conductors to focus on vowels and phrasing because the notes and rhythms are learned quickly. Score and audio previews are available online: http://www.hinshawmusic.com/search_results.php?keyword=loch+lomond&search=Search.


Danny Boy
arr. Erick Lichte
Neil A. Kjos Music
At many two- or three-day festivals, advanced mixed choirs will also perform SSAA and TTBB pieces. Finding challenging and interesting repertoire for such groups can be difficult. Erick Lichte, a founding member and former artistic director of the acclaimed men’s choir Cantus, has arranged the beloved Irish air Danny Boy for TTTBBB voices. The significant divisi, extreme vocal ranges, and exposed solos restrict this piece to only expert choirs. However, one of the purposes of honor choirs is to provide students with mountain-top experiences that differ from their typical choir. An audio preview is available online: http://www.kjos.com/detail.php?division=2&table=product&prod_id=5574.


Flying Free

Flying Free
Don Besig
Shawnee Press
Don Besig’s Flying Free is a classic piece for young voices. The text speaks of yearning for freedom, a theme with which many young singers will identify. Besig creates drama in the piece through repetition, dynamic shifts, and poignantly-placed dissonances. Flying Free can be easily learned and is also available in 2-part, SSA, TTBB, and SATB voicings. A score preview is available online: http://www.shawneepress.com/product/viewproduct.do?itemid=35006974&lid=2&keywords=flying%20free&subsiteid=204&


Cantate Domino
Giuseppe Ottavio Pitoni
Choral Public Domain Library
Regrettably, fewer students are being exposed to music from a variety of musical eras. When choosing repertoire for honor choirs, I always try to include works from the Renaissance, Baroque, and/or Classical eras. In addition to sharing the glories of this music with students, another benefit of programming this music is that much of it is available for free on the Choral Public Domain Library. Instead of simply sending the .pdf to the participating directors, first put all relevant markings in the score (such as breaths, translations, articulations, et cetera), scan it, and then send it. This will save significant rehearsal time. I highly recommend Pitoni’s Cantate Domino, a standard in the choral repertory. Rafael Ornes’s edition, available on CPDL, is superior and is available for free online: http://www2.cpdl.org/wiki/images/sheet/pit-cant.pdf.
Ave Verum Corpus
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Choral Public Domain Library
Very few choral conductors are unfamiliar with this great work by Mozart. However, how many students know the piece, let alone how many have actually performed it? I am passionate about supporting new choral compositions, and I am equally passionate about preserving the standard repertory. Most “chestnuts,” including Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, are part of the standard repertoire for good reason. Like Pitoni’s work discussed above, Ave Verum Corpus is available for free online (http://www2.cpdl.org/wiki/images/4/4d/K618_Ave_verum_VS_PML.pdf), and I recommend Philip Legge’s edition.

Tango to Evora
Tango to Evora
arr. Jon Washburn
Movement and dance rhythms enliven any choral rehearsal. In the festival setting, these elements are especially beneficial in terms of providing variety in those of long days of rehearsals. Jon Washburn’s playful arrangement is easily learned and will get students energized about the process. Its flexible voicing and opportunities for soli provide conductors with some latitude regarding the performance.  Tango to Evora is also available in an SSAA voicing.

Hark I Hear the Harps Eternal
Hark I Hear the Harps Eternal
arr. Alice Parker
Alfred Music
Alice Parker’s arrangements are staples in the American choral repertory, and for good reason. Perhaps her best-known arrangement, Hark I Hear the Harps Eternal, is at once both poignant, triumphant, and fun. With the piece’s syncopated rhythms and a hearty, robust singing style, performances of Parker’s arrangement will be remembered for a long time. Although the piece is most commonly heard as an SATB piece, it is also available in SSAA and TTBB voicings. Score and audio previews are available online: http://www.alfred.com/Products/Hark-I-Hear-the-Harps-Eternal–00-LG51331.aspx


The Word Was God
Rosephanye Powell
Gentry Publications
Rosephanye Powell’s setting of the text from the beginning of the Gospel of John centers on a short melodic motive. As this motive is repeated and moved between voices, a rhythmic groove develops. Not overly difficult, The Word Was God allows conductors to focus on ensemble, articulation, and style. This work is also available in SSAA, TTBB, and SATB voicings.

Lay a Garland

Lay a Garland
Robert Pearsall, ed. Bartlett
Some choral festivals require at least one true eight-part piece (not just a piece with some divisi). Finding a variety of works within this category can be difficult. Robert Pearsall’s rich setting of a scene from The Maid’s Tragedy (a play by Beaumony and Fletcher) is a glorious example of polyphonic writing. Each voice is its own truly beautiful melody, and the voices combine to form rich, thick harmonies. Interestingly, Pearsall later set the Tu es Petrus text using the same music so that the work could be preformed in liturgical settings. An audio preview is available online: http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780193418226.do.

More to explore...