By Jane Magrath

I am often asked, “How do you go about selecting repertoire for your students?” Most pieces that a student plays have a clear place in the progression and sequence of music that person is studying, and should fit in well with his other works, balancing difficulty levels, genres, and techniques, etc. Does he or she need a relatively long, major work, or a quick-study piece, or maybe a show stopping etude? Perhaps a contemporary piece is needed to balance the current repertoire. Yet, probably the most important consideration for the student, even more than for the teacher, is that the piece “feels right” for him at this time in his study.

Sometimes new repertoire pieces are chosen to supplement a core curriculum, a classical literature leveled series, or volumes of a beginning piano method. The core repertoire for the student to play is chosen, although flexibility always exist within the framework of that core repertoire anthology or method. The advantage of such systems is that the base literature plan is set at a skill and musicianship level that the student works through gradually, ensuring smooth progress. Masterwork Classics and Classics Alive! are two series that have served this purpose for teachers and students alike.

Some teachers build the student’s repertoire piece by piece, especially at the advanced levels. In those cases, works chosen are generally larger and longer than intermediate or even early advanced works.

Different systems can work effectively for different students, depending on their level of ability, their personality, and personal preferences. However, the principles in this article can guide a teacher through the process of choosing a new piece, highlighting some of the considerations to be aware of. These are the primary deliberations for me when choosing pieces for students.

1) Balance the new piece with the student’s current repertoire.

These are the first questions I ask myself in choosing a new piece:

  • Does the student need a longer or major work next?
  • Does the student need a shorter work?
  • Does the student need something entirely different from what they just played?

I sometimes use the term “quick-study pieces” for elementary through upper intermediate students to refer to pieces that I hope can be mastered relatively well in two to three weeks. These are pieces that we will work through in a limited time, and then put aside, perhaps returning to them for further refinement at a later date. They serve as excellent “filler pieces.”

2) Match the piece to what the student seems to enjoy.

Some students have a clear idea of what they would like to play next, or even of what they need next. Others trust the teacher implicitly to make choices for them. And some students are a combination of these two types, wanting to take a small part in the choices but also willing to follow the teacher’s plan. Research has shown that students who have a choice in what they study thrive more than those with no choices. It is important, however, for teachers to provide boundaries for the student. If given too much freedom or too many choices, the student can feel overwhelmed, and may not easily be able to make a wise choice from a group of pieces that is too large. Generally, providing a choice between two or three selections is adequate. Otherwise, the student gets lost in a sea of choices and the teacher spends inordinate amounts of time trying to “please the student.” Repertoire in Masterpieces with Flair! and Modern Masterworks provides a framework for choices that may be especially motivating for a student. The two-volume anthology series Modern Masterworks was created in part with the intent of providing attention-grabbing 20th century pieces that students at level 6 and above would be motivated to play.

3) Match the piece to what I as the teacher sense the student needs next.

Using intuition to perceive how the student is feeling at the specific time in the academic year, how the student feels at this point about his playing, and what might motivate him or her at this time in the year is essential. It can be considered a gut-feeling or instinct on the part of the teacher. Is the last month of lessons for the year the time to begin a major new concert piece? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Is it the time for a quick-study etude or dazzling piece? Perhaps having the student play a shorter work akin to his or her favorite piece from the year’s repertoire might fit the bill. Remember, a simple choice is best, and sometimes, one suggestion might be all that is needed.

4) Determine the literature level of the new piece.

For a pre-college student as well as a college piano major, the teacher will determine whether and how much the student needs to be challenged in terms of moving to the next level or stage of repertoire, as opposed to continuing to reinforce and secure the playing at their current level. This consideration bears more weight than one might initially think. When given repertoire that is too large of a jump in level of challenge, a good many students will become over-stimulated and possibly frustrated. On the other hand, if the literature choice is below the level of appropriate challenge, the student will gain too little stimulus from the new pieces and become bored—unless the teacher suggests to the student the purpose for the next piece, such as to serve as a “quick-study piece” or is an “on your own piece.”

5) Match the level or grade of difficulty with the student’s performance level.

Even though I touched on this previously, it is important to reiterate that the piece’s difficulty level be considered along with the reading and performance level of the student. As a student progresses, for most who are studying classical pieces it becomes imperative to develop reading skills. If the new piece is too far above the reading level of the student, then the student spends too long taking the piece off the page of music and begins to lose interest. This piece is too much of a challenge to keep his interest. Students become strong readers by reading through music that is slightly below their performance level. Most successful teachers see to it that their students have sight reading pieces or quick-study pieces in the weekly assignment. Sight reading pieces may be read by the student once, or even several times, during the week and then replaced the next week. Quick-study pieces may be mastered, as a goal, in one week or in two weeks. The goal is to move through a good bit of literature chosen carefully to match or be slightly above the reading level of the student, and to be part of a regular part of the student’s practicing.

6) Consider assigning pieces that will stimulate and enliven the teacher’s instruction.

Much of the music that I teach needs to also feed my interest aesthetically and musically, stimulating me to continue to discover new aspects of learning and teaching. As a young teacher, I recall early on teaching so many of the Bach Inventions that I thought, “Wow, I need some more Bach options to keep me interested.” I had grown weary of bringing the Inventions in A minor, C Major, B-flat Major, F Major, D Minor, and so on to life in my students’ work. Of course, some of the additional Inventions could have been eventually be mastered by various students as well, but I needed something different. That is when some of the Bach Short Preludes, Handel Suite movements, and even Purcell Suite Preludes were helpful in filling this void.

The same can be true in teaching the easier pieces from the Schumann Album for the Young, Op. 68. Masterful pieces though they are, the 10 or so most accessible ones are short, relatively speaking. I am especially aware of the need to assure depth and length in the level of literature performed. For the intermediate student, works from the Burgmüller 25 Etudes, Op. 100 can fit the bill; a typical intermediate student plays around 6 or more of them. In truth, these pieces are “character pieces” more than etudes. Various pieces by Heller also can be effective. Are these sub-par selections for the student, in terms of quality? Not at all, as long as the teacher chooses those that are musically substantial, and there are many. One can look in some of the best anthologies on the market, or can make their own choices from the major collections of Heller such as his Opp. 45, 46, 47, 138, and 125. In addition, pieces from the three-volume series Classics for Students: Burgmüller, Heller, and Schumann are useful for such choices.

The concept of finding literature that will stimulate the teacher as well as student applies both to the college-level teacher and to the teacher of junior high and high school students.

Ultimately what is right in terms of repertoire selection depends on a careful balance and combination of these considerations:

  • What the student wants next
  • What he needs next
  • The season or time in the year of his study
  • The balance of the new repertoire within the student’s full repertoire plan
  • What will be stimulating for both student and teacher

It is especially important that the repertoire fit into the overall curriculum devised for the student and match the student’s performance level in conjunction with his sight reading level.

Jane Magrath is well known as an author, clinician, and pianist. Her book The Pianist’s Guide to Standard Teaching and Performance Literature has become a classic reference work for pianists throughout the United States. Dr. Magrath’s work in the area of the standard classical teaching literature has been central to the revival of interest in this music throughout the country. She currently has more than 30 volumes published with Alfred Music, and her music editions are used widely throughout the U.S. and abroad.