Here’s a wonderful tip for developing a program that follows a theme. Once you have chosen a theme and planned out some possible sections in the program, send an e-mail to some composers you know and ask them for suggestions about which of their pieces might fit into the program you are developing. I’ve done this several times with good success, and here’s how it has looked for me.

I had chosen the theme, “I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” for a choir I was directing, and I had planned out the following four sections in the program: “Jesus,” “The Way,” “The Truth,” and “The Life.” The first section was to be a section of praise, and the other sections would explore the significance of each description of Jesus. I sent out an e-mail to nine different composer friends. After describing the theme and the sections of the program, I ended with specifics about what is useful to me. Here’s an excerpt from the e-mail:

“If you have written or arranged any pieces that might fit particularly well into any of those sections, let me know. I will happily consider anything that is a cappella and easy, medium-easy, or medium (some divisi is okay, but too much will take it out of the running). If I use a piece, I will purchase around 45 copies.”

Many of them responded with ideas, and I ended up using one or more pieces from four of those composers including “Upon This Path” by Ivan Martin and “Eternal God” by Lloyd Kauffman (The Way section), “You Are the Way” by Douglas Byler (The Truth section), and “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” and “Just As I Am” arranged by Wendell Glick (The Life section).

The beautiful thing about asking a composer for suggestions is that the ball is in his court. He doesn’t have to respond if he doesn’t want to. That’s why it’s nice to say how many pieces you need. I needed around 45 copies, and I told them so they could determine how much value to place on my request. If I use one of their pieces, they are guaranteed a sale of $45 or more depending on the price of the piece. If it takes them 10-15 minutes to type out a few suggestions, that’s a pretty good return on investment, and it’s also good motivation for them to explain how their pieces may fit the theme. They will probably see connections more easily than you will because they know their pieces so well. On the other hand, if they choose not to respond, it’s no skin off your back or theirs.

You may ask, “Isn’t it lazy to ask a composer for suggestions instead of doing the looking yourself?” The answer, of course, is “maybe, but it doesn’t have to be.” It’s not being lazy if you look for repertoire before and after you send an e-mail to composers. If you do that, you can simply add the composers’ suggestions to your already-growing list of potential pieces.

Choosing repertoire takes a long time, so if you can streamline the process a bit by contacting a few composers for ideas, ending up with a program that follows a theme more closely, go for it. The more details you can give (notice that I mentioned difficulty level and divisi in my e-mail), the easier it will be for a composer to give suggestions that are specifically suited for your group.

Here are some composers I’ve contacted with repertoire requests: Douglas Byler, Wallace DePue, Anthony Glick, Wendell Glick, Wendy Good, Lloyd Kauffman, Ivan Martin, James Martin, Larry Nickel, and David Seitz. I’m sure there are plenty of others who could be on this list, but this should get you started.