Choosing your singing repertoire

With so much potential repertoire to choose from, putting together a programme for your student’s singing exam can be a challenge. We asked professional soloist, consort and opera singer, Vanessa Heine, to give us her advice for choosing singing repertoire that will engage your students and help them demonstrate their strengths as performers.

Explore your student’s interests

When choosing repertoire for an exam, from the Initial Grade all the way up to Grade 8, the most important thing for you as a teacher is to work together with your student. There is no point preparing someone for an exam when they take little joy or interest in the songs you’ve chosen. So find out which languages they may be learning at school or know from home, with which they have an affinity. Discover if they have a particular genre they’re passionate about. They may love musical theatre, so make that a focus while also incorporating some opera or operetta. Perhaps they enjoy singing folk song, so that can play a large part in your song choices as many art songs already have a folk song basis. Choose repertoire that they’re familiar with whilst also throwing in a few options that will challenge them.

Showcase your student’s skills

The next thing to think about is what can you do to play to your student’s strengths. Do they have a fantastically fluid voice? Then suggest some Handel, Bach or bel canto opera. Do they sing with a beautiful legato line? Then perhaps something more lyrical would suit them. It’s also important to be sensitive to any limitations they may feel they have at this point in their vocal development. If they run out of breath easily, avoid songs with endlessly long phrases. Take into consideration their range, which is particularly relevant for boys whose voices have just broken and who may currently be struggling with anything wider than an octave. If they struggle with concentration, perhaps choose songs that aren’t too long. And most importantly think of stamina. You don’t want to overload your student with too many heavy or demanding songs one after the other, especially with younger voices.

Finally, make sure they can demonstrate a variety of skills. The programme should have a good balance of speeds, structures, moods, tonalities and languages that highlight technical and musical prowess. I find a checklist of these qualities is useful to have on hand when choosing exam repertoire.

Structure the programme

Once you’ve chosen your pieces, it’s time to decide the order. When it comes to putting together a programme for a singing exam, it’s best to structure it like you would a recital. Start with the piece your student feels most confident singing, move onto something more technically or musically challenging and finish with a lighter number that shows off their expressive range. Again, it’s completely up to you in which order you place things but make sure that there is a good flow and that each song contrasts in some way with the next.

Here are just a few suggestions of how I would put together an exam programme for beginner, intermediate and advanced grades.

Grade 2:

  • Start with a musical theatre opener that’s expressive and energetic and will grab the examiner’s attention like Who Will Buy? or Consider Yourself from Oliver!
  • Then move onto an art song like Schmetterling (The Butterfly) by Schumann or Pigs Could Fly by Skempton or a folk song like Farewell, Lad (Trad. O’Neill).
  • And finish with a lovely musical theatre ballad such as Just One Person from Snoopy!

Thus you’ve demonstrated a variety in speed, dynamics, mood, emotion and skills, both musical (Pigs Could Fly changes meter quite frequently) and vocal (Schmetterling is both high and fast and in a foreign language so quite a challenging little piece).

Grade 5:

High Voice

  • L’ho perduta (Barbarina’s aria) from La nozze di Figaro
  • Waldeinsamkeit by Reger
  • Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Styme


Low Voice

  • How Willing My Paternal Love from Samson by Handel
  • L’heure exquise from Chansons Grises by Hahn
  • Guys and Dolls from Guys and Dolls by Loesser


Grade 8:

The choices can seem endless but again, keep in mind the skills you want to show and make sure there’s enough variety to keep it interesting.


  • Care speme, questo core from Guilio Cesare by Handel
  • Et exultavit from Magnificat in D by Bach
  • It was a Lover from Seven Shakespeare Songs by Dring
  • Nuit d’étoiles by Debussy


  • Villanelle from Les nuits d’été by Berlioz
  • Esureintes implevit bonis from Magnificat in D by Bach
  • Widmung by Schumann
  • Could I Leave You? from Follies by Sondheim

Counter tenor

  • Cor ingrato from Rinaldo by Handel
  • Bereite dich, Zion from the Christmas Oratorio by Bach
  • Poveri affetti miei by Vivaldi
  • Sleep Now by Samuel Barber


  • Call forth thy pow’rs from Judas Maccabæus by Handel
  • Come Away Death from 3 Shakespeare Songs by Quilter
  • Fêtes Galantes from Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon by Poulenc
  • Maria from West Side Story by Bernstein

Baritone and Bass

  • Non più andrai from Le nozze de Figaro by Mozart
  • Du bist die Ruh by Schubert
  • Rollicum-Rorum from Earth and Air and Rain by Finzi
  • Pretty Women from Sweeney Todd by Sondheim


Vanessa Heine is a mezzo soprano who works in London as a soloist, consort and opera singer. As a consort singer, she regularly performs with the BBC Singers, Philharmonia Voices, Metro Voices and London Voices. It is in this capacity that she has had opportunity to work with some of the world’s leading conductors such as Daniel Barenboim, Sir Colin Davies, Vladimir Jurowski and Esa-Pekka Salonen. She regularly sings on recordings for Opera Rara and in the extra chorus at ENO. Recent operatic roles include the title role in Carmen and soloist in the world premiere for Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht. Vanessa has also appeared on numerous film soundtracks such as The Hobbit, Alice in Wonderland, and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises.

Trinity’s new Singing 2018-2021 syllabus features lists of over 1,000 songs, covering a range of styles and languages, to allow you to put together the sort of programme – one which speaks to your student’s interests and helps them perform to their strengths – that Vanessa has discussed.

Download Vanessa's advice as a PDF