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Repertoire Rules (for students): How to Transition

A long-promised follow-up to my Repertoire Rules (for students) post.

The new teaching year is only three weeks away for most Australian and New Zealand piano teachers, and most teachers will be looking forward to seeing most of their students from last year return as well as welcoming some new students into the studio as well. Of these new students most will be absolute beginners, but maybe 2, 3 or even 4 will be what are known as ‘transfer students’: students who have already been taking lessons but who are transferring from one teacher to another. Most of these transfers occur when students move from one part of town to another, or from city or town to another, or even from one country to another.

This period of transition from one teacher to the next needs to be carefully managed: there is the issue of adjusting to the new personalities (on the part of both teacher and student), as well as making an action plan together for the year(s) ahead. Sometimes there are issues of gaps in the student’s skill sets and it can take weeks for the new teacher to establish why those gaps exist and how to best address them. And there is the issue of the self-esteem of the student: it’s terribly important to not have a transfer student doubt their achievements as a pianist thus far in their learning adventure….

But if you have already set about transforming your teaching from being repertoire-poor to a repertoire-rich then you and your transfer student have yet another hurdle to overcome – how to go from learning (and expecting to learn) 6 or 7 pieces a year at most to learning 25 to 30 pieces at a minimum?

[This ‘transfer effect’ will also apply to your own students when you first begin to transition your teaching to a repertoire-rich program.]

How to manage the process?

REWARD QUANTITY. Right from the start of the year make it clear that students who learn a great number of pieces will be rewarded in some way. This sets a positive framework for learning new work, and implicitly encourages students to learn work that can be mastered within a realistic timeframe.

CELEBRATE BEGINNINGS. And be enthusiastic about a student commencing a new piece. This will be counter-intuitive for most piano teachers (the student can’t actually play anything yet!), but teachers should focus on the reality that shared excitement about a new piece fosters and feeds the student’s desire to master the work.

ASSIGN CHALLENGES. This is especially important if you are assigning a piece that the student will initially perceive as being ‘easy’. But it’s worth thinking about every repertoire assignment in terms of its challenge, and generates more energy in the lesson and in subsequent practice when students are focussing on more than simply playing the music. For instance, you may wish to assign a Preliminary standard piece by Kabalevksy to your Grade 5 student: this becomes a challenge when you tell the student it must be played from memory at the next lesson! This also takes the focus away from ‘easy/hard’ in the student’s sense of musical identity and onto the more constructive ‘what-can-I-do?’.

SET TIME FRAMES. Open-ended assignments are no challenge at all, and deadlines generate positive energy both by reassuring students they don’t have to learn that piece forever as well as letting them know right from the start what kind of progress is expected and achievable. When used as in the “Assign Challenges” example above time frames also make sense out of assignments that might otherwise seem (to the student!) misguided….

DON’T BE AFRAID TO ‘GIVE UP’ ON A PIECE. Many a lesson has been wasted persevering with a piece for which the student feels no empathy. You only have 40 lessons a year, (in Australia, if you’re lucky), so don’t waste even one of them plodding through bars a student has utterly no interest in learning. There is plenty of music composed for piano/keyboard students in the past 250 years for you to abandon one piece in complete confidence that a better match will be found for the student.

REWARD QUANTITY. But make it clear that when a student ‘gives up’ learning a piece they also abandon the rewards that come from learning that piece; a piece that is not completely learned does not count for the ‘quantity rewards’. Students quickly reach the conclusion that it is in their best interests to follow through with a piece that is 60% mastered rather than start from scratch with a brand new piece. I know. This is the same principle we began with. It’s all delightfully circular….

Now, with these principles firmly in place, there is one more component to the transition that needs to be thought through and managed with great care.

MAINTAIN THE STUDENT’S SENSE OF DIGNITY. In other words, do not, under any circumstances, allow (or encourage) the student to believe they have been ‘put down’ a grade (or two or three). Students experience some pretty substantial shame when they are made to repeat a year. And beyond shame there is complete bewilderment when the student who passed Grade 5 with a B is being told they are really Grade 3 standard. Now you might have considerable grounds for reaching the conclusion that your new student is really Grade 3 standard, but work assiduously to rebuild their skill set without tearing down their sense of self.

The principles outlined above should help you manage that balancing act.

Next in the Repertoire Rules series? Your suggestions are welcome! But maybe a specific post about transitioning your entire studio….

15 thoughts on “Repertoire Rules (for students): How to Transition

  1. Thank you for this much anticipated post. Since reading the previous entry on increased repertoire last year, I have been transitioning more and more of my students. Many of the techniques you have mentioned in the entry have been very useful. Particularly setting challenges for students. I have found that a 3 month (term) or 6 month challenge has worked particularly well. Most students haven’t had an issue completing between 15-20 songs in 6 months. Many have surprised themselves (and me). The biggest factor I have found in the success has related to choice of material.

    And the thing I have had to let go of? Students always seeing a song through to the end. It is so much against my nature to let a student “give-up” on a song. In doing so though, I have found that I can present material to them that they both enjoy and learn the same skills presented in the song they didn’t like. They just do so with much more enthusiasm- we all enjoy it more.

    Thank you for your motivational post last year to become a Repertoire Rich teacher. It is much more fun!

    • Carly, how fabulous to hear your experience, and to discover how closely it matches the principles I only just got around to detailing tonight! And isn’t it interesting how we as teachers resist ‘giving up’… despite the misery perseverance produces! Thanks so much for your comments, and I’m thrilled to hear that you (and your students) have been enjoy the change so much!

  2. I love the way you are so clear and set difinite goals, deadlines etc. I loved the workshop in Melbourne with Dan Coates and Gayle and have decided to start setting up this program IMMEDIATELY.
    Thank you so much!

    • tetra: many, many apologies for not replying to your question 9 months ago!! I was very ill throughout 2014, and particularly ill in the March-July period, and as a result I missed following through on nearly any question I was asked during those months – many apologies!

      The question you ask if such an important one! I’ll write a brand new post about it, but the core of it comes down to building up a student’s skill set and then connecting them with pieces from the classical canon that are a *perfect* fit for the student’s current skills. This means having access to great repertoire, and being able to match repertoire to student on a case by case basis, much of the time. But it also means taking a good hard look at what we want a lesson book to do for our beginners; many method books are so focussed on *reading* skills that sound production gets left a long way behind – and classical music requires even beginners to be able to make beautiful, stylistic sounds from the instrument.

      I hope to get back to this topic as a stand-alone blog post within the next month or so…. And again, apologies about making you wait even longer!!!

  3. Thanks for this post..it helps. I’m trying to get my current batch of students out of the ‘exam’ mentality and am having varying degrees of success. I think what you said about allowing a student to ‘give up’ on a piece makes sense. Also, what you said about ‘transfer students’ who are actually below their grade, in actual knowledge and playing – bringing them up and preserving their self-esteem – i really liked that.

    • Hi Alexandra, the only way at the moment to access these publications is to source them from an Australian retailer. I’m so sorry I don’t have an easier answer for you at the moment!

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