Building a Repertoire

Potluck Creative Arts Lesson LineSimply Music

In the last Lesson Line piece, we looked at an optimal approach for practicing individual songs, in particular Foundation pieces. Let’s now start to take a look at how to think about your practice time so that the work you do on individual songs adds up to the efficient and effective development of your entire repertoire.

Why Build a Repertoire

Most other piano methods don’t explicitly focus on the building of a repertoire. There are, however, several compelling reasons for why this is done as part of the Simply Music program. It’s worth making clear just why it’s so valuable.

  • It’s fun! — When you can sit down at the piano and play a variety of songs across a variety of styles, you really experience yourself as a musician. That’s a great, enjoyable experience.
  • You can focus on musicality — Once you’ve really become fluent with a given song, you’re then free to give extra attention to making it sound really beautiful and adding your own sense of expression.
  • It’s the foundation — Keeping your songs alive so that you can effortlessly play your repertoire gives you a solid foundation for moving confidently onto more complex pieces, reading, theory and other advanced material.

So many other piano methods fail to focus on the building of a repertoire. A student works on new material each week, and once it seems in satisfactory shape, it’s ignored from that point forward. The only songs such students maintain in their repertoire are the few songs, if any, that they personally like enough to continue to play. This is like creating a garden by carefully planting each new plant only to let it die as you focus on each new plant you’re planting. The result of this approach would be something quite different from the beautiful garden you might have had in mind.

Simply Music, on the other hand, focuses on the maintenance of a repertoire precisely so that you will have a musical garden that is not only always growing but in which everything ever planted there continually flourishes. Just like with a garden of plants, this is only possible through regular cultivation.

Two Types of Practice

To start to see just how to cultivate your repertoire, let’s first distinguish two different ways of practicing songs, both of which you’ll need in order to manage your practice routine.

Playing the Piano

This is what it’s all about. Being able to just sit down at the piano and know how to play something. This is what was meant when we talked about practicing an individual song and getting it to the point of being alive. This is a song you, quite simply, know how to play on the piano. It has become part of your repertoire. While you will continue to develop greater fluency and musicality with the piece, formally practicing it is now just a matter of playing it and enjoying when you do so.

It’s really important that you have time to just play all the songs in your repertoire and bask in the glory of what you are able to do! No fixing problems, just playing through whatever mistakes may occur. Mistakes here and there in songs you know are totally normal, and recovering from them in the middle of a performance is an important skill to learn. You’ll learn that skill as you refrain from dwelling on mistakes while playing the songs in your repertoire. The point here is to simply enjoy the experience of making music.

You only get to this point with a song, though, after a fair amount of work has been put in. This brings us to the second type of piano practice.

Working the Piano

Until a song is fluent and you are able to play it, you need to work it. This will be true of:

  • Newly assigned pieces.
  • Other pieces with which you’ve not yet become fluent.
  • Older songs that entered your repertoire but that you then didn’t practice enough, so that they now have weak spots, recurring mistakes, or perhaps you’ve even forgotten how to play them.

You’ll spend the majority of your practice time on current projects such as these. It’s not enough to merely play them through a couple of times each day and expect that you’ll easily get them to the point of fluency. Use the approach described in the last Lesson Line piece. Use and remain conscious of the learning strategies for each part of each song. If a part is particularly difficult, go over it as many times as you may need to work things out. Get comfortable with each part before moving onto another. Everything prior to the point of the song coming alive is what’s involved in working the piano.

Balancing Work and Play

In a way, it’s the story of life in our modern world — how to balance work and play? All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy — and Jill a dull girl. This won’t work for us, because one of the key reasons to learn piano is enjoyment. At the same time, as some extend the proverb, all play and no work makes us each a mere toy. Try to have only fun, and there’s no surer way of failing to get anything done. Only through both work and play can we get to that real enjoyment.

How much time to spend working the piano, then, and how much time to spend playing it?

Spend too little time on your older songs, and they may get out of shape. But spend too much time on them at the expense of newer songs, and you’ll never get songs solidly into your repertoire in the first place.

Spend too little time having the experience of just playing songs for enjoyment, and you may lose interest in the piano. But spend too much time playing for enjoyment and failing to address problem areas, and we won’t be able to really enjoy what we play anyway.

The key is to find the right amount of time for each — and that’s very different from finding the same amount of time for each. Work and play have different needs. If you meet those needs properly, you’ll actually find that your practice routine can be very efficient. Each song will take the shortest possible amount of total time to learn, your practice sessions will be as short as they need to be to build and maintain your repertoire, and you’ll be able to manage an ever-growing number of projects.

In the next two pieces for the Lesson Line, we’ll explore each area in detail — how to efficiently and effectively manage both working and playing the piano.

Leave a comment below.

4 comments for “Building a Repertoire

  1. Luc Lebrun
    October 27, 2010 at 10:28 am


    Very good website – however, if I may. I note that several piano websites continue to use the term “song” when referring to piano pieces. My teacher taught me that you” play a piece” and you “sing a song”. If there are no words, it is a piece.

    Just a thought!!

  2. October 27, 2010 at 10:43 am

    Glad you enjoy the site.

    Sometimes the spirit of a thing is more important than the letter. Even then, some official definitions show the flexibility: — definition 2, simulating a piece to be sung: Mendelssohn’s “Songs without Words.” — definitions 2 and 3, suitable for singing or sounding like singing.

    Even a song with words probably doesn’t stop being a song just because one plays without singing.

    Semantics and other technicalities can stand in the way of people’s involvement in music. I’ll take the involvement even if it means sometimes compromising technicalities 🙂

  3. Mia
    May 1, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    Interesting article, I love how you describe a practice as either “work” or “play”.

    • May 1, 2014 at 2:42 pm

      I’m glad you like that distinction. It’s definitely a valuable one, especially with this method where we’re cultivating a repertoire.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *