Choice of repertoire can be a stumbling-block for piano students needing to balance the needs of private practice with public performance, says Melanie Spanswick
Piano students occasionally struggle to find appropriate repertoire. By ‘appropriate’, I mean piano works which whilst challenging and fun to learn are still within performers’ current capabilities. It’s always tempting to attempt pieces which, whilst close to our hearts, are beyond our technical grasp. Most are guilty of this at some point or other.
So, how do we find an enjoyable, engaging selection of pieces on which to work, but which can also be programmed in a concert, festival, or diploma programme?
Here are a few ideas:
- If you’re preparing for an exam, festival or competition, consult the syllabus and listen to every piece on that syllabus. Although teachers sometimes discourage students from listening to music online, because they want them to form their own interpretation and not copy others, it’s vital to ‘hear’ pieces before you embark on learning them. This is a crucial stage because you must really like – or better still, love, your selected music, as you will be living with it for a long time.
- Even if you are working on just two or three pieces, try to ensure that they all come from different historical backgrounds and genres. This is important because it provides a thorough education regarding musical style, boding well for overall understanding and improvement.
- I encourage all my students to play at least one work by J S Bach, irrespective of their level. However, if you don’t fancy playing Bach, you could select Handel or Purcell, or many other Baroque composers. By playing such repertoire, you are learning the fundamental building blocks of piano technique: perfecting control, articulation and rhythmic grasp. You might not wish to play Bach in public, but it’s a good idea to include a piece in your current repertoire list. My students are usually working on exercises too, not especially long or tricky studies, often simple exercises which will improve aspects of their playing; these aren’t for public consumption, but rather for home practice and progress.
- Once the technical side has been taken care of, you are free to play what you like. If you prepare Classical or Romantic fayre, perhaps explore lesser-known composers, such as Jan Ladislav Dussek, Muzio Clementi or Ignaz Pleyel for Classical period works, and Edward MacDowell, Amy Beach or Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka for the Romantic era. It can be easier to make a piece ‘your own’ when it is relatively unknown – and you might just unearth some wonderful repertoire, too.
- I’m keen for students to learn contemporary music. Its inclusion in educational programmes helps to put piano music into context, and, whilst the early learning stages are often more demanding, students invariably end up enjoying their contemporary choice as much or more than the rest of their programme. If you prefer jazz or blues styles, as opposed to more dissonant, challenging contemporary choices, there’s plenty of music from which to choose.
Aim to play at least one or two pieces below your current level, so that you’ll always have a party piece to play at short notice, and you can combine these easier pieces with those that are more demanding to create interesting, engaging programmes.
About the author
Melanie Spanswick is a pianist, writer, teacher, adjudicator and composer. She is the author of Play it again: PIANO (Schott) a three-book piano course for students who are returning to piano playing.