Repertoire Choices: the start of the year

When choosing repertoire for their students, piano teachers often find themselves navigating a dangerous course between discouraging and dull, and these somewhat negative terms of reference frame the often frought quest for music that will inspire, instruct and entertain.

The start of the new teaching year sees returning pupils full of enthusiasm for the sheet music they bring with them to that first lesson, maybe the music their much more advanced best friend is learning, maybe the latest piano-based pop song, and (these days) maybe something they saw on YouTube and downloaded from a free sheet music website. No matter what, the music is likely to be much more technically demanding than the student’s current skill set caters for, possibly unpianistic and, to top it off, of limited pedagogic value.

There are a number of ways for a piano teacher to respond to this enthusiasm (and attendant sheet music).  The first is to discard whatever plans may have been laid for the first few weeks and devote the lessons to attempting to master this music that has so captured the interest of the student.  In this instance the teacher hopes to turn the wave of enthusiasm into a tide of achievement.

The second option is to disparagingly tell the student that this is far from appropriate material for learning to play the piano, and move straight on to the planned lesson.  The risk here is, of course, that the student spends the entire lesson fixated upon the music that has not been assigned, with this fixation continuing until at least the next lesson, often for the rest of the month.  The benefit is that precious lesson (and practice) time will not be frittered away in the pursuit of the unattainable.

Students don’t select these pieces because they wish to gain the requisite technical skills the pieces demands; they have brought the music to the lesson because they identify with it in some way, and they wish to deepen this identity-connection through performance. The teacher is left attempting to bridge the gap between the meaning the music delivers to the student and the skill set that the student delivers to the realisation of the score.

Which brings us to the third option, rarely taken up.  The teacher can choose to sit with the student and (together) take a look at what the musical text will demand of the student as a performer, while learning from the student what this music means to them (on however a superficial or deeply personal level).  This process is one of shifting perspective: during this time the student perceives the music as a series of performance challenges, while the teacher perceives the music as part of the student’s sense of self.

The end result can often be that the student concludes that the technical challenges are too extreme, and resolves to return to it once those technical skills have been acquired.  Another common result is the teacher finding common ground between the technical requirements of the piece and that of other repertoire and activities that had been planned for the term’s work.  Simple tweaking of the lesson plans can incorporate the music for the student has so much enthusiasm.

But there are always those students whose idea of learning to play the piano does not involve much effort on their part!  And with these students another alternative can be to find an easier arrangement of the piece they have their heart so set upon.  In my experience this generally turns out to be quite a let-down;  student’s aural imaging is impressively accurate, and even poor students are honest enough to notice that their easy-arrangement version does not produce the same emotional experience that they had been seeking to replicate.  Great easy arrangements are somewhat hard to come by…

But just as students are honest about whether a piece of music fulfils their emotional expectations so teachers need to be honest with themselves and their students about whether a piece of music fulfils the expectation that at the end of a term the student will be a better pianist and musician than they were at the start.  Going along with repertoire choices the student suggests is only ever of value if it contributes to that aim.

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