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] 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)