One need not be a concert pianist to take the time and effort to develop a substantial repertoire. What does “repertoire” mean anyway? In short, repertoire is a body of works or songs that forms the pianist’s core or foundation. (Technically, a “song” has lyrics while a “work” or “piece” has no lyrics. The word “song” is often misused.) Many pianists believe that one must keep all pieces “under the fingers” or readily playable at all times and that this constitutes one’s repertoire. I believe, however, that repertoire implies something more all-encompassing. Let us now examine the term and explore the most efficient ways to develop, expand, and nurture it:
Five Golden Rules of Building a Substantial Piano Repertoire
1. Practice, practice, practice
2. Micro-cycle works you are currently practicing
3. Macro-cycle works throughout your life
4. Consider that no work is ever “finished”
5. Constantly add books and sheet music to your library
The first rule of practicing hardly needs explaining. To become better and more proficient at anything, one must do it, do it often, and love doing it with all one’s heart and soul. Tiger Woods did not become a great golfer by nibbling on snacks and watching TV. The world’s best surgeons did not get there by hanging out in bars and drinking beer. Likewise, an aspiring pianist wishing to have fun and success playing hundreds of songs or works will never get there by neglecting to practice on a regular basis. Ideally, one should practice not out of obligation, but rather out of the love of music and heart-burning desire to improve.
The second rule of micro-cycling works constitutes the pianist’s short-term plan, which may range anywhere from a few weeks to several months or perhaps a year at the most. This is what most people imply with the word “repertoire”, since it is the timeframe in which one could sit down at any time and play (preferably from memory) a set number of works. I have found the best results for micro-cycling by focusing on about five works at a time. For example, I will often spend an entire week practicing exclusively one work (like a Joplin rag), the next week exclusively another work (like a Mozart sonata), and the next week exclusively another work (like a Liszt étude). Then, I may not even touch them at all for two months and, upon returning to one of them, it feels like “meeting an old friend” which accelerates its re-learning phase. What once took a week to accomplish now takes only a couple days. Ideally, the pianist should strive to learn, forget, and then relearn works in monthly, weekly, and daily cycles. This is the eternal and never-ending plan I follow when practicing and preparing for my YouTube videos.
The third rule of macro-cycling works constitutes the pianist’s long-term plan, which may range anywhere from one to ten years. A thirteen-year-old just starting out usually does not realize that what is learned in these formative years sets his/her musical foundation for life. Writing this article at the age of 47 and having begun piano at the young age of 6, I am constantly amazed at just how resilient and powerful the human brain really is. For example, I began practicing Mendelssohn’s “Rondo Capriccioso” this week after it had lain dormant and totally untouched for 27 years, and I was shocked when it came back to me memorized again in only three days. What took as long as three months to learn well at the age of 20 took me only three days to relearn as well or better at the age of 47. This is one of the intriguingly satisfying aspects about music and piano repertoire. All music ultimately remains in your conscience and forms your “musical identity” until the day you leave this earth. It is never too late to learn piano, develop a repertoire, and tap into the power of one’s musical memories. After I work on the “Rondo Capriccioso” for a week and record it for YouTube, I will most likely not touch it again for several years.
The logical successor to the third rule of macro-cycling is the fourth rule of considering a work to never be finished. When I was a freshman music major in college at the young age of 18, I thought works became “finished” after performing them in a recital or concert. My usual plan of action was to work on a set number of pieces for a semester or year, “finish” them, and then move on to the next pieces my professor assigned. Now at 47 I can’t help but smirk at my youthful innocence. As demonstrated with my “Rondo Capriccioso” experience, I have learned through time that no work will ever be finished. Never. Micro- and macro-cycling piano repertoire is the bread of the pianist’s musical life. These cycles continue until the end just like food and water. I am constantly resurrecting works once thought to be finished, and never have I been more content with my musical evolution and progress.
While the first four rules constitute the mental or immaterial components of developing a large piano repertoire, the fifth rule of constantly adding books and sheet music to one’s library constitutes the physical or material component. Just as one cannot wash dishes without first buying or acquiring plates, cups, and utensils, a pianist will never succeed in developing a large repertoire without buying or acquiring printed music. Most people refer to all printed music as “sheet music”, however, this is really a misnomer. Technically, “sheet music” refers to single works of up to about four pages at the most. For example, I recently ordered “My Heart Will Go On” from my preferred music company, Sheet Music Plus. (Although I am primarily a classical pianist, I also enjoy practicing pop music from time to time.) Being a single title, it is correctly referred to as sheet music. On the other hand, William Bolcom’s “Complete Rags For Piano”, which I also ordered from Sheet Music Plus, is not sheet music at all but rather a “music book” or “music volume” because it is thick and contains 21 titles. (Please excuse me for this clarification, but the term “sheet music” is often misused.)
I love my music library and still play from books I have had since the age of 10. I always find new books and sheets to buy, cherish, and add to my library. I am constantly branching out and exploring new repertoire. In the age of the internet, the use of free PDFs has become far too rampant in my opinion. PDF printouts often last only a few weeks at the most because they get lost or torn so easily. I do rely on free PDFs sometimes, however, 98% of my music library consists of sheet music and books I paid for. Although any music published before 1922 is in the public domain, and thus legally free to everyone, one is cheating oneself by relying too heavily on free PDFs. Books last a lifetime and can be used and reused until the end of one’s life. Refusing to buy music and trying so desperately to get it all for free is like eating from paper plates and plastic utensils. A pianist will never formidably expand his/her repertoire without acquiring the physical accessories (i.e. books) along the way. Let us conclude with a story.
Once when I taught piano at a college, a student came to his lesson with the first movement of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” copied on twelve thin sheets of fax paper. They did not stay on the music rack and constantly fell onto the floor. This went on for a whole semester until I almost ripped out all my hair and suffered a coronary. Forever thereafter, I forbade the use of PDF printouts in my studio and began encouraging students to buy the music from a store like I did when I was in college (pre-internet days, imagine that!). Had my student invested a little money in a volume of Beethoven’s sonatas (as much as it costs to go to a movie and order popcorn), he would have had the “Appassionata” as well as thirty more great sonatas for the rest of his life. However, instead of investing in his future he chose the cheap way. The moral of the story is that quality and longevity prevail and that it is in one’s own best interest to develop and nurture one’s music library throughout the course of one’s life. The immaterial and material work in unison. Physical and non-physical. Yin and Yang. (In Chinese philosophy, the “yin” or “feminine” equates to the immaterial or ephemeral aspect of practice and cycling while the “yang” or “masculine” equates to the material accessories like music books and sheets.)
So there it is in a nutshell: practice, micro-cycle, macro-cycle, no work is ever finished, constantly add music to one’s library. These are the five golden rules of building a substantial piano repertoire. Thank you for your time, and happy practicing!