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

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Judge Not: the question of assessment (beginners)

The really big question when talking about assessing piano/instrumental students is: are external assessments of piano students a motivational tool, encouraging serious effort which certainly would not be made if an external assessment (and the possibility of failure) were not looming OR are piano exams something that strips time from the lesson that could have been spent developing a wider knowledge of the repertoire, a more varied technical expertise and a broader set of musicianship skills? A firmly believed, but often not-expressed, view amongst piano teachers is that the use of graded assessments often ends up being a way for students (and their parents) to compare themselves with their peers, and this competitive perspective can undermine the motivational benefits that an assessment deadline can deliver. I’ve recently been spending a great deal of time considering the benefits of assessments for beginner pianists, many of whom may be as young as five years of age.  It can be exciting for beginner

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P Plate Piano: the composers in Book 1

The P Plate Piano series will be available for sale in Australia on November 4, so I think it’s time for me to talk about the composers whose material I’ve used to create this series. Book 1 starts at roughly the point that a traditional method Book 1 ends – students are expected to know the basic mechanics of playing notes on the keyboard, reading steps and skips (2nds and 3rds), staccato and legato, rests, basic dynamic markings, and to be comfortable playing black notes and reading flats and sharps when placed directly before a note, while all the time playing within a set five-finger position. There are precious few composers who choose to create works within these extremely restricted parameters, but I found that, about 200 years after piano lessons really started taking off in the middle class, there is now at least a body of work from which to select the very best at this early stage of study,

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P Plate Piano: What is it and why?

On November 1, 2009, throughout Australia, a new series of books from the AMEB (Australian Music Examination Board) will be available in all good music shops: P Plate Piano Books 1, 2 & 3. Australian piano teachers will be quite curious about these new books.  The AMEB only publishes materials that are for use in conjunction with their examinations, and the title P Plate Piano doesn’t sound like anything like an examination! And it’s not an examination.  But it is an assessment.  And there’s a difference… But we’ll come back to that later. Firstly, P Plate Piano is a series you can use alongside any of the method books you use now, and the first book corresponds roughly to the skill level a student would have achieved at the end of the first book of any of the well-known method books. The idea of this series is to map out the various keyboard skills and techniques that students need to master

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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

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How hard is a piece of music?

For piano teachers working in countries with a strong examination culture (this means anywhere that is, or once was, part of the former British Empire/current Commonwealth) there is a general consensus about how hard certain pieces of piano music are.  And this general consensus revolves around an idea of ‘grading’ – that a piece of music ‘is’ Grade One, or Grade Five, or Grade Eight. No one ever talks very much about what makes a piece have Grade One-like qualities rather than the qualities of a Grade Two piece.  But, within a teaching culture where the lesson is almost entirely focussed on the exam, teachers develop an acceptance of the gradings given to pieces by the examination boards they choose to use, and this becomes the basis for intuiting a degree of difficulty for new repertoire.  If the piece ‘feels’ like Grade Four, then Grade Four it must be. The challenge to grading new repertoire is most keenly felt when grading

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