Repertoire Rules (for teachers)

Yesterday I gave a one hour presentation at the BlitzBooks-organised Winter Piano School held in Sydney’s CBD with the title “An In-Depth Look at Repertoire Collections”.

I went along with a suitcase full of books for an intensive show and tell session: collections for beginners, graded collections, period-collections (Baroque, for instance), geographical collections (Australian, for instance) and stylistic collections (tangos, for instance). 16 kilograms of print music material.

My intention was to begin with a short spiel about the importance of repertoire, covering the need for teachers to invest their time and money in getting to know new pieces every year, as well as the need for students to work on a much greater number of pieces than traditionally has been the case (a topic I’ve covered in my blog previously). And then I was going to launch into the music in the suitcase…

The “rationale for repertoire” part of my presentation was supposed to be about how music is where musical ideas (for the most part) take residence, and by exposing ourselves [as teachers] and our students to a limited number of pieces each year we are limiting our mutual exposure to musical ideas. To me this seems self-evidently Not a Good Thing. And conversely, by exposing ourselves and our students to as many pieces as we possibly can we are increasing our mutual engagement with musical ideas – again, to me a self-evidently Good Thing.

But there’s more to it than the self-evidence of more ideas being better than fewer ideas; the manner in which we meet this new music matters too.

In their 2005 book, Freakonomics, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt explored (amongst other things) contributing factors to children’s literacy, and it turns out that the best thing parents can do to support their children’s developing literacy is to have a house where books are plentiful. Turns out that reading to your children might be a nice bonding experience, but there is no evidence that it will turn your child into a voracious reader. When all the data is sifted down it seems the single most effective strategy a parent can employ is buying their child plenty of books and having plenty of bookcases in which to store them all. Access to books trumps anything else a parent can provide.

Now let’s apply this same discovery to reading music: having two or three books of music in the house simply doesn’t cut it when it comes to supporting the development of a child’s musical literacy.

So my ‘rationale for repertoire’ began with this idea that our students need to own many books of print music – at least two or three books for each year they have been learning, and preferably [many] Β more. Not only does the student gain the aforementioned ‘access’ advantage, which is a demonstrated effective means of improving literacy, but the student has access to more musical ideas – enabling better contextual understanding of the pieces they learn and piquing an interest in music they don’t yet know.

And the same principle applies to piano teachers – you just can’t set a good example to the families engaging your services if your music library consists of 20 odd volumes sitting in a pile beside the piano. Your library should be dynamic, and your interest in musical ideas that are new to you will have an extraordinarily positive impact on your teaching life.

My repertoire rules of thumb for piano teachers are simple, and they are as follows:

You should be spending 2% of your fees income per annum on repertoire and resources. So if your gross takings are $40,000 you should be spending $800 a year on print music and other resources. In Australia it costs just under $300 to purchase the entire set of AMEB Series 16 books, and a minimum of $500 to purchase a full set of books in a method series such as Alfred Premier or Hal Leonard Student Piano Library or Piano Adventures (depending on how many of the supplementary books you wish to incorporate into your teaching program).

So $800 buys a reasonable amount – but by no means can you set up a full teaching library with that kind of money! It would take over $1000 to set up a skeleton library of the basics (Bach’s 48, Bartok’s For Children and Mikrokosmos, Beethoven’s Sontas, Chopin’s Waltzes, Mazurkas, Preludes and Nocturnes, selected Handel Suites, selected Haydn Sonatas, and so forth), and that’s without purchasing repertoire compilations, theory resources, sightreading and aural skills resources, technical materials, and so on.

The second repertoire rule for teachers is that you should be spending, in addition to your teaching hours, a minimum of 8% of those teaching hours playing through repertoire (learning it, sight reading it, preparing for teaching it). So if you teach 22 hours of lessons each week (somewhere between 34 and 44 students in a typical suburban studio) you need to spend another hour and three quarters working on repertoire. This is an absolute minimum. Every week, all year (even the weeks you don’t teach).

So hopefully the 8% of your teaching time will be adequate for you to acquaint yourself with the repertoire you’ve spent 2% of your gross income acquiring!

All well and good, as one teacher at the Winter Piano School pointed out, once you have all these fabulous books of repertoire on your shelf and under your fingers – what are you going to do with it all when it comes to your students?

And that I will cover in my next piano teaching related post: Repertoire Rules (for students). (coming soon)

21 thoughts on “Repertoire Rules (for teachers)

  1. I appreciate your guidelines on how much time and money to spend on new repertoire, Elissa. I do have quite a collection when I look at my shelves, but I don’t spend enough time playing through it. You give me something to aim for, which is useful, because it is hard to commit to playing time when I am only accountable to myself.

  2. Great post — and it’s true not just for piano, but concert and jazz bands too (but also more expensive to manage). When I grew up playing piano I had all the books that my Dad had used so I had heaps of different material to play through whenever I wanted.

  3. Wasn’t it a fantastic seminar! *Sigh* now I need to purchase another bookshelf to store all that music I bought on Friday ;D

    It was great for me to start teaching again yesterday and to have my first student of the day turn up with a brand new book and her justification of “I was SO bored and missed my lessons SO much that Dad went out and bought me this book and I haven’t put it down”.

    Thanks for the effort you put into your presentation. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it was great to be recharged and re-motivated.

  4. And what a great talk it was, too!
    Was just playing through one of the books I bought on Friday, thanks to you … and thought of visiting your blog again. Lovely to meet you and chat a little about the joys of blogging.
    Am looking forward to your “repertoire rules for students” post (I think maybe I was the one who asked ‘what are you going to do when it comes to your students?’) because I struggle with wanting to do the right thing i.e. not photocopy, but also have a large library of books, some out of print, some I want to use a piece here and there but not the whole book …

  5. PS and on Friday, also thanks to you, went home with new music and theory books for my most talented students, all from one family, who I think have the most “economical” parents, armed with your insights and reasons for owning real music and plenty of it, things I have long felt but not been able to articulate so well!

  6. Excellent article thanks – I absolutely agree and have a huge amount of repertoire in my bookshelf which I try to practice each day to prepare my students…am buying another bookshelf soon to put more books in……

  7. This is very interesting article. I’m just starting to teach my daughter from a Teaching Little Fingers to play that cost me 20c from the book coop. πŸ™‚ I’ve just ordered two of the Hal Leonard piano library books to augment the repertoire. πŸ™‚

    I wanted to extend your reading analogy. My daughter is 7 so this has been very much on our minds the last two years.

    When you teach a child to read, you don’t give them 3 books to read for a year and then next year 3 much harder books. Hopefully your child is started off a series of “method” stories, introducing phonemes and grammar concepts one by one, and then they are given boxes of “levelled” readers where each box contains an interesting mix of works in different styles and degrees of difficultly which range from easy (to consolidate what the student has learnt and promote condfidence) to challenging, but not so challenging as to dishearten the student.

    Reading pedagogues call this “literature” which sounds like a fancy word for “The fat cat sat on the mat”, but assembling a repertoire of “stepping up, stepping down, then a skip” and pieces of similar difficulty achieves the same thing in music.

    Unfortunately there is not the huge industry of music publishers churning out these “leveled” pieces as there are for readers. Perhaps they would be called “players” if there were such a thing. πŸ™‚

    I’m looking forward to exploring this repertoire with my daughter and advancing to your P-plate and peppers collections.

    • Well, interestingly there is a somewhat substantial industry churning out pieces very carefully graded through that first year or two of learning. Every method book has a plethora of supplementary material: original solos, classical themes, popular songs, film themes, hymns, folk songs, you name it. On top of this there are an extraordinary number of classical repertoire collections very carefully graded from the early years.

      There are literally thousands of these books available!!! Tens of thousands!!

      • Ah true true!

        Now I don’t want to beat a dead horse here and even if we get to an “oooh riiight!” moment it may be quickly followed by a “so?” moment. πŸ™‚

        However …

        these albums of compilations for the very young tend to either clump together pieces by genre, “Classic for tiny tots”, or in some methodical order, progressively increasing in difficulty; “Progressive Solos for little fingers”. This latter in particular gives the impression that the pieces should be played in a particular order and that the ones at the end are superior and that playing one at the beginning is a retrograde step, no matter how much you may enjoy it.

        Let us suppose that we invent the box of “players” based on the example of the box of leveled “readers”. First of all, each box would span quite a small interval of difficulty; about 1/5th of the difference between one grade level and the next.

        Secondly the box would consist only of individual pieces and span many genres and time periods. To achieve this we would have to tear apart our albums and distribute each across 2 or 3 boxes.

        And lastly, our sheet music would play a little preview of itself. πŸ™‚ In an analogous way that our “readers” give a preview of the story by their pictures.

        Now that we’ve assembled our carefully leveled “players” we’d say to the student, “You’re on green box, go and choose a piece.” Thus giving the student some autonomy and increasing the chances that they choose something they have empathy for.

        You could do the same thing with the entire AMEB preliminary syllabus, dividing it into 5 increments of difficulty and saying to the student “you pick”.
        Actually, in that case the “box” could be a CD the student listens to before picking. Although who has the resources to produce such a thing?

        Unfortunately leveling the “readers” is quite difficult, and I assume leveling “players” would be the same.

        There we are. In a couple of years you will be in the midst of reader boxes too and you might say “Oooh so that’s what she was going on about!” or you might say “Oh that silly bint!” πŸ™‚

      • No, I love the idea of a box of readers (I was one of the few children who absolutely adored the SRA boxes – do they still do/have them?), but because children practice at home, not at the studio, it’s important for students to have music to play at home. Back in the 70s when I was learning there were books like Step By Step to the Classics, but these days there are any number of cleverly devised compilations, at carefully managed increments.

        The AMEB has actually broken down the ‘Pre-Preliminary’ stages into four levels – absolute beginner, P Plate Piano 1, P Plate Piano 2, and P Plate Piano 3. Pieces in P Plate Piano 3 are the same standard as ‘easy’ Preliminary pieces.

        But I understand that your suggestion is to break it down into about 20 (or more!) stages pre-Preliminary, and to have material organised in a quite specific manner from one skill to the next. The issue is that teachers do not agree about the ‘correct’ order for teaching various skills: some start on black keys, some start with thumbs on middle C, some focus solely on reading, others teach a lot by rote, some use singing as an integral step in learning repertoire, others rely solely on the page, and so forth. A most notable divide exists between teachers who focus on the sound the child makes at the piano as the very first aspect of playing the piano and teachers who focus on note-naming and reading from a score. There are all kinds of reasons why the incremental grading that one teacher wants to use will not suit the students of another teacher.

        I think I need to write a blog entry on the fabulous graded repertoire collections already on the market at various pre-Preliminary standards: there really is a wealth of fantastic material to use, in my opinion.

  8. Loving those ideas but thinking a few thoughts:

    1. Just today I heard someone talk of the “thousands of dollars” that it takes to set up a classroom of readers ( a slight exaggeration, perhaps!) – but as you say “who has the resources?” (at our school we have to fundraise for such things but at least they get used over and over by 20+ students each year)
    and
    2. How many students already have CDs supplied by the teacher or in the back of their books which they never listen to?
    and
    3. I love Elissa’s “Getting to …” series which does much of that already in a manageable format, albeit over a small “range” or “level”, and has the CDs too! (Now I just need to get my students to listen to them, πŸ™‚

  9. Oooh .. its very interesting. I could say more but I wont bore you anymore.

    On the subject of different methods:
    When your son gets to school watch out for the teachers who teach kids to guess the notes words even on pieces books they’ve never heard.

    “Just guess the notes dear. Its marvelous how you’ll pick it up.”

  10. Ok … I’m a nag. Sorry. My daughter is having a piano crisis. She says “I hate the piano” and that follows working pretty hard on “Skipping Along” which I didn’t realise is actually a complicated piece because one hand plays triads and the other scales. Now she says piano is awful because you work so hard on a piece and then its back to the beginning with the next piece. So I’m back to my box of readers idea. If you could help me out with the list of pre-perliminary repertoire (preferably with CDs) that would be greeeeaaat! And when my daughter is the next Angela Hewitt she can say on her CD cover (or whatever they will have then), it was all due to Elissa Milne and her list of pre-preliminary reportoire. πŸ˜‰

  11. Hi Elissa,

    First of all, thank you for this series of posts, as well as your presentation at MTNA. It was brilliant to put all of those guidelines on a little card.

    I would like to hear more about what you do when you acquire a new book. Do you just play through it? What sorts of things might you write down? How do you mentally sort through the huge amounts? At least in America, a book is just under $10 (unless you do Frederick Harris…), so for me at least that’s approximately six new books a month. I can hardly keep track of what I got at MTNA. So I’d love to hear if you have a system for keeping track of it all.

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