by Karen Marshall, creator of the PianoTrainer series
As a piano teacher, I have learnt the hard way that making sure students play a balanced range of repertoire – from Baroque to Classical, Romantic to Popular, Jazz to Contemporary – is extremely challenging. Tricky though it is, it is such a worthwhile aim. Just like the parent who wishes crisps were as nutritious as a vegetable, hoping Einaudi is as good pedagogically as Bach is, in my opinion, a little optimistic. Don’t get me wrong, my students love to play Einaudi (the poor man has been debated considerably after being selected on an exam syllabus this year) and I have no particular objections to my students playing him. But I do think that balance is so important when it comes to repertoire selection for our students, however. When we are competing with so much popular repertoire that our students experience online and on social media it’s not easy to achieve – especially because they come across classical music pretty rarely.
So why is it so important to try? If a piano student wants a comprehensive range of technical, musical, notational, theoretical and interpretative skills it’s utterly essential that they have a balance range of repertoire from across the periods (just as we need a balanced range of foods for a healthy diet). Especially now that exam syllabuses commonly allow students to play pieces from a limited range of genres, we teachers need to be even more aware of our repertoire selection. Here are some tips from my own teaching on finding ways to achieve this. All students are different, so some suggestions may be more suitable than others.
- Keep a record - Giving a student a repertoire record that logs what they’ve learnt in terms of musical style and period can be an excellent way to make sure a balance of material is being achieved. You can find a free download of this here.
- Embrace popular classics – Even though we may have heard Für Elise a thousand times, I haven’t had a pupil yet that hasn’t love it. And there are plenty of others, like the Moonlight Sonata, Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca or Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer, that are adored by students time after time.
- Search for repertoire gems – We are lucky that the piano repertoire is so vast and there is always more to discover. Keep listening out for new material – that particular piece that can capture a student and really inspire them to develop and grow. Some I’ve found over the years (included in the PianoTrainer series) are Night Journey by Gurlitt (The Foundation Pianist Book 2), Chaconne Variations by Handel (The Intermediate Pianist Book 3) and Les barricades mysterieuses by Couperin (The Advanced Pianist Book 2).
Explain to the student the value of repertoire – Sounds obvious, but easy to forget. Actually explaining what the benefits of a piece of music to a student and why they should learn it can seriously increase their motivation.
Provide some quick wins – If you are struggling to get a student to play a certain genre, try giving them something from that period they can learn quickly (several grades below). Something is better than nothing – even if it’s just sight-reading practice, they are still experiencing the genre.
Bargain – A colleague of mine has a ‘one for you, one for me’ policy when selecting repertoire. This has been successful over the years with my students, too.
Embrace the music that comes through the door – I am now pretty good at reacting enthusiastically when a Disney piece such as Let it go arrives in my teaching room. Over the years I’ve found this ‘give and take’ encourages students to then accommodate some of my own suggestions.
Provide inspirational opportunities to experience live performance (including virtual ones) at various levels – They could be inspired by seeing another student perform music they like at a concert or festival. Watching a concert pianist perform music they may never be able to play, for the sheer joy of it, can also inspire.
You may be surprised, so don’t write anything off – I can remember being shocked when a student loved an atonal piece from an exam syllabus. I’d only played it to help with recognising style for aural assessments! Since then I never make damaging assumptions like that. Provide as wide a choice as you can.
- Play the long game – A student may only want to play their own choice of music for many months. We need to be patient and remember that keeping playing and not giving up is the most important aim, even if repertoire choice is limited. My own experience has been that students often tire of the same genre eventually and decide to try a wider range of music themselves.
The award-winning PianoTrainer series, created by Karen Marshall, provides a curriculum from post-Grade 1 to Grade 8, including carefully selected repertoire, quick-learn studies and theory and musicianship activities.