Choosing the Right Piece for the Right Student

Choosing the Right Piece for the Right Student | Tips for Music Teachers on The Music Blog

As recital season comes to a close, most of us find ourselves in the middle of one of the most exciting and challenging parts of teaching: choosing new repertoire for our students.

Choosing the right piece for the right student is one of the most crucial parts of productive, successful teaching. Getting this part right can be the difference in making our students average musicians or winners.

But it doesn’t have to be daunting, and it doesn’t have to be excessively time-consuming.   It can actually be really fun when you have an effective, organized way to approach it. Here are four practical steps that help me keep choosing repertoire simple and the approximate amount of time it takes me to get each step done.


1. Evaluate Your Student.  

Approx. 10-15 MINUTES

This is definitely the first step and may even be the most vital for choosing the right piece for your student!   Before you can even start to pick the right piece, you have to know the things that most important for your student to learn right now.  Here’s a good place to start:

♦  List the biggest technical weaknesses he needs to master.
♦  List the technical strengths you want to help him develop further.
♦  List the music styles/forms he has played most & the ones he’s not played at all.

Our goal is to develop our student into a well-rounded musician, and that means having the ability to play a variety of musical forms, styles [Romantic, Baroque, etc.], and techniques.  Students, and even teachers, naturally drift towards pieces that exhibit their musical strengths, so make sure you’re not consistently neglecting composers and styles that aren’t your student’s strengths.

Balance is key!

[box style=”white” ]TIMING TIP:  Recitals are the ideal times to give our students pieces that really showcase their musical and technical strengths.   Pieces that focus primarily on their weaknesses are best to work on in between recitals.[/box]


2. Gather 3-4 Potential Pieces. 

Time Varies*

There are countless wonderful compositions to choose from.  But most of them simply will not be beneficial for your student right now.  As teachers, our job is to eliminate all of the good pieces and find the right piece.

So, as you look through your repertoire books, only set aside pieces that emphasize the specific techniques and styles you listed earlier.  This will help you quickly narrow your options to three or four of the best potential pieces.

[box style=”white” ]KEEP in MIND…  You may find a variety of pieces that match the specifics on your list – for example, a Classical Sonatina, a Baroque Minuet, and a Romantic Waltz that are all in minor keys and full of trills.   That’s fine!   You don’t have to find three of the exact same kinds of pieces to find the musical elements you are looking for.  Many composers will teach the same techniques with their own unique flair, so look through a lot of repertoire books and try a variety of pieces.[/box]

*The timing on this one really varies depending on the level of your student.   I can usually find repertoire for beginner-intermediate students in about 20 minutes, but music for an advanced student may take me an hour or more…  Simply because it takes longer to play through Beethoven Sonatas than Bach Minuets.


3. Analyze the Potential Pieces.  

Goal: 20 MINUTES

ALWAYS play through the piece.

Finding a piece is a hands-on project, and flipping through the pages simply won’t get the job done.  Pieces are often harder (or easier!) than they look on paper and have a lot of hidden details tucked away that only your fingers can catch.  You need to be acquainted with the intricate details of the piece, including its difficult passages and musical nuances, and playing through the piece is the only way you will be able to evaluate it accurately.

A few things to consider when analyzing a piece:

♦  What new skills will this piece teach?  Our students need to be learning new physical skills and musical concepts constantly, so they will never have a moment when they’re not growing musically.  Shoot for each new piece to introduce 2-4 new techniques.  (More than 4 new skills at once will be overwhelming for most students.)

♦  What old skills will this piece reinforce?  This is vital.  If we don’t make sure our students are reviewing recently-acquired skills, they will lose them!  Always try to give your student pieces that are well-balanced between introducing new skills and reinforcing old ones.

♦  How does the difficulty of this piece compare with his last piece?  Is it too hard?  Too easy?  The difficulty of a piece is dependent on a lot more than just the amount of black on the page!  Here are some of the basic elements to took for when evaluating a piece’s difficulty:

      • New Rhythms
      • New Key Signatures / More Accidentals
      • New Articulations (staccatos, slurs, leggiero, pulling, etc.)
      • Complex Dynamics (crescendos, sforzandos, etc.)
      • Complex Musical Phrasings (multiple voices, LH melody, etc.)
      • Faster or More Interpretive Tempos (rubato, ritardandos, etc.)
      • Ornaments (trills, turns, grace notes, etc.)
      • Pedaling Techniques
      • Difficult Finger Passages
      • Bigger Stretches & Interval Jumps Between Notes
      • More Interaction Between Hands
      • Length of Piece
      • Estimated Time it Will Take to Learn the Piece

Choosing the Right Piece for the Right Student | Tips for Music Teachers on The Music Blog

4. Select the Best Piece

Goal: 10 MINUTES

As you’re analyzing those 3-4 pieces, one of them will probably match more of the qualifications on your list and stand out as the obvious choice above the others.   If so, you’re done!

But if more than one of the potential pieces will be equally beneficial to the student, don’t stress – have fun!  When this is the case, I usually play the remaining 2-3 options for my student and let him choose his favorite.  This can be a great way to involve your student in the process musically and emotionally without sacrificing his technique or quality.

The right pieces can work wonders in a child, because it’s through their pieces that students are stretched and developed into mature musicians.  So have fun!

[box style=”white” ]REMEMBER…  Once you settle on a piece, keep playing it!   Familiarize yourself with the phrases, develop the musical nuances, and work through fingerings, before you give the piece to your student.[/box]


Any tips you’d like to add on choosing pieces for students?  Leave them in the comments!