How to Practice the Piano: Selecting Repertoire

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How to Practice the Piano: Selecting Repertoire

This is a continuation of a series. For the previous installments, see How to Practice the Piano: The Warm-Up, Part I—Preparatory Exercises and How to Practice the Piano: The Warm-Up, Part II—Etudes and Scales.

Piano 4Piano repertoire is the collection of music a pianist is able and ready to perform. If you are taking piano lessons, your teacher will have lots of input into what pieces you learn, based on your experience. Most teachers use a piano series, supplemented with other favorite pieces from time to time, in a sequence designed to help you progress in your mastery of the instrument.

If you are not taking piano lessons and you do not have a basic knowledge of the piano and musical notation, please don’t handicap yourself. Find some instruction, even if it is a group class through community education.

However, if you do know your basics (for example, you took lessons when you were younger, and you can still play many of the pieces you learned back then), you can progress on your own, but it will take discipline. (See Sit. Stay.)

What kind of music do you want to play? Classical? Pop? Jazz? Standards? The music you most enjoy listening to will influence what you select for your repertoire.Piano 8

One caveat about popular music. If you play pop songs from published music, you may find it doesn’t sound like the CD. It’s often notated by people other than the songwriters, for lots of reasons. For example, a lot of songwriters aren’t trained musicians, and can’t write music notation. So the publishers rely on scribes to put it into written form. The scribes might get the gist of the melody, but they’re not as invested in it to make the harmony exactly right, or they miss little stylistic things the original performers do. And the syncopated rhythms are often beastly to translate into note values. Don’t bother with “easy” or “simplified” versions—they will not satisfy you, unless you’re five years old. You’re probably going to have to listen to the music over and over again to pinpoint how the recorded version varies from the sheet music and determine for yourself how to edit your sheet music so it matches the original recording.

Or you can play by ear, as many musicians do.

Or you can even put your own twist on the music. (Always acknowledge the performer you’re “covering.”)

I mostly play classical music, and I prefer to play from notation. I like piano teaching series books. I grew up with the Michael Aaron and John Thompson series. Nowadays I like the Celebration Series from The Royal Conservatory, updated in 2015. It includes pieces from diverse eras–Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Contemporary. Some pieces are well-known favorites, others more obscure, but most have stood the test of time rather than being written by one teacher expressly for his own series.

Celebration 6I like using series books because they help me grow a varied repertoire relatively inexpensively. I rarely buy single pieces if I can find a particular piece in a book. The only time I deviate from that practice is if the book is pricey, and I seriously only want to learn one piece in it.

One of the benefits of using series books is that they are graded. In other words, each book in the series is progressively more challenging that the one that precedes it. As you work your way through the series, you should be systematically increasing your skills.

But there are many types of piano books other than series: collections of a single composer’s works; books with all or most of the selections on a particular CD (usually popular music); collections from a particular style; and collections of particular forms, such as sonatas, etudes, preludes, and waltzes.

If you have a music store near you, go and browse. But don’t go crazy—music is nonreturnable. I can’t tell you how many bad choices I’ve made that I ended up giving to Goodwill.

Something to consider as you choose music is the level of annotation. Some music has fingering written in. Some has footnotes where embellishments are written out, or commentary about style. These features will enhance your ability to learn the pieces.

If you live in an area far from a physical music store, some excellent online sources are Dover, Sheet Music Plus (which also offers digital downloads), and, of course, Amazon.

In a future post, I’ll write about practicing repertoire, explaining how you can make your practice time most productive.

How do you select pieces for your repertoire? Share in the comments below.

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