In the 11 month history of my blog I’ve discussed how students having access to more books of music is going to have a positive impact on their musical literacy, and how learning a large number of pieces each year will have commensurate educational benefits. I’m not going to rehash either of these posts, but rather cut straight to: what are the rules we need to apply to students and their repertoire?
First up: a rule of thumb. If your student learns less than 26 pieces per annum they will be bored. They may not tell you they are bored, but they are. If learning 6 pieces a year truly engages their curiosity they must be almost entirely disinterested in learning to play the piano. On the other hand, you may have a student who only learns 6 pieces a year with you; they are busy finding their own repertoire (jamming with friends, composing their own songs and pieces, playing songs they listen to on their iPods, playing pieces they’ve discovered on YouTube, accompanying worship services at church, accompanying friends at school, and so on) which makes up the 20-piece deficit in order for a piano student to not completely die of boredom.
Second: a rule of development. Once a student has hit 15 years of age they get to have a very large say indeed in their repertoire; before a student reaches 12 years of age they get basically none.
Or let me put that in the correct developmental order; children under the age of 11 don’t necessarily know what they like, because they haven’t tried it yet, and further, they may think they don’t like something via some truly superficial or temporary rationale (such as a scary looking key signature or because they can’t already play it). Children at this developmental stage don’t have the requisite knowledge and insight into learning (and learning the piano) to construct their own programs of study. Don’t let them.
On the other hand, a student over the age of 15 is in the throes of forming their identity and finding ways to take greater control over their own lives. Repertoire choice is the perfect zone for a teenager to exercise agency – you literally cannot make them practice what they do not want to practice, and you certainly can’t stop them from playing what they like. Take advantage of this! Students around this age will research their own repertoire, and your job becomes akin to that of a counsellor, guiding their choices rather than restricting them, showing the student the best means of attack rather than discouraging them from their planned endeavours.
Next: two rules of motivation. Interesting music is interesting to learn and Almost-instant gratification is very gratifying. It is tautological to state that interesting=interesting and gratifying=gratifying, yet our profession as a cohort hasn’t quite grasped these two basics: students will be interested in learning music that is interesting and students love hearing themselves playing music right from their first encounter with the score/piece. I’ll write more detailed blog posts on each of these two ‘obvious’ rules in the weeks ahead.
A rule of context: The more students can put their music into a context the more excited they are to play that music. Context can be as simple as music the student is already familiar with because an older sibling learned to play it, or that it featured in an advertisement on television, or the student has watched performances on YouTube. Context can be biographical, historical, technological, technical, sociological, interpersonal. A piece of music free of context is a piece students will be ambivalent about investing time into.
And finally, a rule of pacing. For each new technique, skill or understanding a new piece requires a student to gain, add another week to the length of time it will take the student to learn the piece. So if your student has never played in F sharp minor before, in a 9/8 time signature, with double sharps, mordents, demisemiquavers and dotted semiquavers before you will be looking at a 7 week ‘acquisition’ process prior to being able to work on performance aspects of playing the piece. Ideally a new piece will have no more than 2 new elements, so that students are quickly moving into performance learning (and sounding as if they are playing music). And of course, if they are learning new pieces all the time they will have gained 26-50 new techniques/skills/understandings within a year without really trying.
These rules are all focussed on different aspects of student experience, but all come down to one thing – creating conditions favourable to joyous learning and performance.
Next, of course, is the issue of transitioning students from their almost repertoire-free modes of learning (3-6 pieces a year) into a repertoire-rich mode of learning. See the forthcoming blog post Repertoire Rules (for students): How to Transition.