For Teachers: Choosing Appropriate Repertoire for Your Students

Just because your student can play or sing the notes of a particular piece, doesn't mean they should.

Just because your student can play or sing the notes of a particular piece, doesn’t mean they should.

So we turn on our favorite daytime talk show and the host celebrates their special guest – an amazing musical prodigy who performs music well beyond their years. A 7 year old boy soprano singing the Queen of the Night’s “Vengeance Aria”. A 3 year girl plays “Flight of the Bumble Bee” on the piano. A 6 year old boy plays the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. There is no question that these children have talent and certainly talent beyond their years but the question is, are we doing a disservice to them assigning them pieces they aren’t physically and emotionally ready to play? Here are some suggestions for why choosing appropriate repertoire for your students is so important.

Technique is about more than just playing the notes

Technique requires control of the muscles and tendons. It requires coordination of several parts of the body. It requires stamina. When a young child’s body is still in its growing stages, ultimate coordination and control are not possible in most. Advanced repertoire requires advanced technique. They can practice technical issues for hours but when their body starts to change or a growth spurt happens, they have to relearn that technique because their body doesn’t respond in the same way it did. This is also when bad habits form. Bad habits can lead to damage down the road.

In the past 15 years or so there have been several child stars who have been hailed as the next great opera singer – it started with Charlotte Church and most recently it is Jackie Evancho. These young girls are given mature operatic arias to belt over a full orchestra and the result is a pushed, over-darkened tone that is on its way to ruin. Any trained singer looks at these girls sing and they can see that the jaw and tongue tension is so pronounced their jaws shake uncontrollably and before long we start to hear a wobble or a fast flutter in their vibrato. This is a path to severe damage as they grow. Their growing bodies cannot handle the advanced physical technique required to sing this repertoire not to mention how to sing over an orchestra. If they are lucky to leave their young performing career early enough before they do irreparable damage, they may be able to save their instrument and relearn how to to sing properly when their voices and bodies mature.

Learning music requires a full spectrum of cognitive skills

I taught piano lessons for a community music school many years ago and I had a student that was in kindergarten. This student couldn’t read yet and so teaching him the basics of reading music was a challenge. But he would come to his lessons every week and he would play the little songs I had assigned him. What I soon learned was that his father was actually learning the songs right along with him and the child would memorize the songs after he heard his father play them. So he wasn’t actually learning how to read music, he was simply playing by ear. The key cognitive skills that are crucial to learning include:

  • Attention skills – obviously this can be a challenge for younger students
  • Memory – long term and short term
  • Logic and reasoning – this is perhaps the set of skills that is the most challenging for young brains, these skills come with learned experience – learning to reason, form concepts and solve problems
  • Auditory processing – being able to analyze, blend and segment sounds – an important aspect of differentiating the subtleties of musical tone
  • Visual processing – being able to perceive, analyze and visualize
  • Processing speed – the ability to understand and perform tasks quickly

Now of course you are saying to yourself (or yelling at the computer screen), “But music helps develop all of these skills!” And YES! You are absolutely correct! That’s why it is an excellent idea to have children study music at a young age. But the advanced repertoire that we are talking about in this article require that these cognitive skills already be fully developed.

Being a “player” is different than being a musician

Yes, young students can learn dynamic and expression markings. They can even learn how to sound “musical.” But being a musician and artist is about having something to say through music. A musician expresses the joy, the pathos, the fury, the longing, within the turn of a phrase, the touch of an onset attack, the intense spinning of the tone. These abilities come not from just studying what is on the page but it comes from a deeper understanding of music through life experience. Expressing the meaning of the piece is what moves people. A young student might be able to show technical virtuosity but very few will be able to truly express the emotional truth of an advanced piece of music. And this advanced repertoire often has a complex emotional journey.

One last note

Of course there are exceptions. There are true musical prodigies that are capable of advanced technical facility and are able to access emotional depth that is far beyond their years. And all of this does not mean that you should never challenge your students with difficult repertoire that you feel they can handle and will teach them something valuable. But repertoire inflation as a rule does not serve the student in the long run. Choose repertoire that is appropriate for their abilities and mental capacity.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.


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One Response to For Teachers: Choosing Appropriate Repertoire for Your Students

  1. Technique is about more than just playing the notes.
    Don’t get me wrong, you have to be strong and confident to be successful in just about anything you do – but with music, there’s a deeper emotional component to your failures and successes. If you fail a chemistry test, it’s because you either didn’t study enough, or just aren’t that good at chemistry (the latter of which is totally understandable). But if you fail at music, it can say something about your character. It could be because you didn’t practice enough – but, more terrifyingly, it could be because you aren’t resilient enough. Mastering chemistry requires diligence and smarts, but mastering a piano piece requires diligence and smarts, plus creativity, plus the immense capacity to both overcome emotional hurdles, and, simultaneously, to use that emotional component to bring the music alive.
    Before I started taking piano, I had always imagined the Conservatory students to have it so good – I mean, for their homework, they get to play guitar, or jam on their saxophone, or sing songs! What fun! Compared to sitting in lab for four hours studying the optical properties of minerals, or discussing Lucretian theories of democracy and politics, I would play piano any day.

    But after almost three years of piano at Orpheus Academy, I understand just how na√Įve this is. Playing music for credit is not “easy” or “fun” or “magical” or “lucky.” Mostly, it’s really freakin’ hard. It requires you to pick apart your piece, play every little segment over and over, dissect it, tinker with it, cry over it, feel completely lame about it, then get over yourself and start practicing again. You have to be precise and diligent, creative and robotic. And then – after all of this – you have to re-discover the emotional beauty in the piece, and use it in your performance.

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