Choosing Repertoire

I’m preoccupied this week with thoughts revolving around how we choose repertoire for our students.  I’d like to be able to say with rather than for our students, but most of the time the student gets at best a veto (not quite the same thing as being actively part of the process).

This topic was one I spoke on at the 2009 Australian Piano Pedagogy Conference held in Sydney in July, and at that time I titled my presentation Repertoire Roulette, attempting to draw attention to the hit and miss nature of a piano student’s repertoire selection, the element of risking something valuable (the attention and long-term interest of the student) if we should happen to stake our lesson time on a piece of repertoire that doesn’t come up a winner.

If only the pieces of piano music we use in our teaching came with guarantees. Or at least a warranty.

So here’s the thing that comes first, something which I think is so obvious it really doesn’t need to be said, but it turns out we are living in the real world, so here goes:

  • Does the student know how to ‘do’ the piece?  Have they mastered the technical skills required to perform the music?

The way many piano students have been taught this question has not really come into consideration. The repertoire is used as a vehicle for gaining a skill, not an opportunity for demonstrating a skill already attained.  Which means that students practice one hand at a time, 1, 2 or 4 bars at a time, taking weeks and weeks to learn the notes of the piece before they ever start to hear the music when they play.  And there will probably always be one section in the music that the student never really quite manages to perform perfectly.

To teach repertoire only once the requisite skills have been acquired means that teachers need to be aware of all the technical challenges a new piece of repertoire brings with it, and to have teaching strategies – in advance – for meeting those challenges.

I’ve been launching these three P Plate Piano books around Australia that I’ve compiled and edited for the Australian Music Examination Board, and there are quite a few pieces in the three volumes where I would find myself suggesting “teach the gesture first”.  For example, there is a piece I’ve composed for the first volume called Where’s Goldilocks?, which is almost entirely composed of sets of two staccato notes played on the same pitch.  Any experienced teacher of beginners knows that students will play the first staccato note with a beautiful crisp and detached articulation, but the second note will be played with a resigned tenuto touch (at best) despite repeated exhortations to bounce off, to lift swiftly, to play the note as if it were hot, or any other visual or verbal imagery that the teacher can conjure off the cuff in response to this lame effort.

Rather than waiting for the student to get it wrong, I suggest teaching the gesture first, in this case asking the student to knock twice with their knuckles on the piano lid as if they were knocking on a door.  This creates the two staccato note effect we will be looking to produce in the piece we are about to learn (Where’s Goldilocks?).  Once the student has demonstrated a mastery of knocking ‘staccato’, reduce the gesture to the fingertips (knock, knock), just two fingertips (knock, knock), and then just one single fingertip knocking out the two staccato notes we are seeking to perform throughout the piece.

Now we open the score of the print music and start exploring the notes, with the gestural content of the repertoire already well and truly a part of the student’s muscle memory and performance expectation.

All well and good.

But if as teachers we are not already conscious of the technical challenge students find with the repeated staccato notes we will not be prepared to guide our students into a mastery of the performance of the repertoire.  We will simply be onlookers as our students fumble their way through a new bit of sight reading, with our role restricted to correcting faulty readings.

This same principle holds true even in regard to quite advanced repertoire.  Firstly, do we know what the technical challenges of a new piece of repertoire actually are [in toto, as well as in regard to this specific student]? Then, does the student already have a familiarity with these skills? And finally, if the students does not [have a familiarity with these skills], are we ready to guide them in a manner that is enjoyable, efficacious and efficient, leading from the joy of learning how to do something new into the equal joy of learning new music.

It sounds so obvious, I know, and yet I also know we find ourselves, for a variety of reasons, teaching our students music that asks more than they can manage, and then we wonder what we did wrong when the student wants to abandon the selection before they are really able to perform it properly.  True performance happiness comes from putting the skills you have acquired to the task of playing music that you love.

Which is a clue to the second principle of choosing repertoire, but that’s for another post, another day.

2 thoughts on “Choosing Repertoire

  1. I’ve met many teachers who only teach the pieces for exams. Students prepare for months polishing these few, select pieces. I suspect these students have very little input in the selection of repertoire, and I suspect that a lot of lesson time is spent spoon feeding “how-to” play a technically challenging passage. These students are often short sighted; they recognize the concept as being specific to that piece. Sure, when evaluated these students truly shine in performance, but pale when faced with sight reading and general technique (scales and arpeggios, for example).

    On the other hand, I’ve met teachers who spend weekly lessons introducing and refining new concepts. When preparing for exams, these students seem to shine both in performance of repertoire and technique, but yet, adjudicators will sometimes deduct points because their selected pieces were not difficult enough.

    Perhaps, when selecting repertoire, it is the general nature of piano exams which is not so obvious to teachers. Exams are the glue binding skill set and repertoire. I do not enjoy when students play difficult pieces poorly; I am not impressed by their effort. I value their actual performance and their satisfaction with the material they present.

    Am I suggesting we water down repertoire selections for exams? No. I, too, want to find the happy balance of developing a student’s skill set and developing their repertoire. Furthermore, I’d like to hear students performing repertoire learned for exam, more frequently. They tend to treat much of their repertoire like material for standardized testing at school. Memorized tonight, forgotten tomorrow. Some of my favorite pieces I perform in recital today are ones learned during my exam years!

  2. Elisse-
    Really wonderful entry. I feel I have found a kindred spirit in approach. I am so drawn to this idea that we can create new ways of experiencing a musical concept with our students before (very important part) we even sit down at the piano or in the case above, open the lid to the piano.
    I have been trying to push the limits in my lessons where the student and I play 3 games (I call them games…but basically it’s an activity that promotes musical fluency) before ever sitting at the piano and discussing the song of the week. To me the song is the celebration…not something that exists just as a teaching tool.
    At any rate, I am looking forward to reading more of your ideas. Very helpful, encouraging, and inspired.

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