Three types of Repertoire

Supporting Your Piano Playing Journey

Since writing my article What can you play? readers have shown quite an interest in the concept of Active Repertoire.

In this article I explain a little more about how Active Repertoire fits into the wider picture of your piano journey.

The Three Types of Repertoire

To understand exactly what Active Repertoire is, it is useful to consider the three basic types of repertoire that make up most of our playing experience.

These are of course not definitive, but as a construct they help us to clarify what we mean by the phrase ‘Active Repertoire’.

And so there are three types of pieces:
• our New Repertoire
• our Old Repertoire
• and our Active Repertoire

New Repertoire

New Repertoire is in some ways a misnomer. The pieces I am thinking of here aren’t really repertoire at all, because we can’t yet play them well. These pieces are in fact works in progress – pieces which we have started to learn, but are still working at.

It is great to choose and set to work on New Repertoire, and it is natural that as players we are excited by each fresh challenge and musical enterprise. There is a sense that we are moving forward in our journey. So it is natural that most pianists spend the vast majority of their practice time working on New Repertoire.

However, there is a danger that if we spend all our time working on New Repertoire, neglecting what we have previously learnt, we can simply end up frustrated, with nothing that we can actually play right now.

Another endemic problem in the piano world is that of constantly playing only from sheet music books. A positive result of this tendency is that a good sight-reader can play New Repertoire with fluency after just a little practice. But in too many cases, players become entirely dependent on notation, and are unable to play at all without the sheet music – leaving them with nothing to play when an opportunity to perform for friends and family arises.

  • Always have one or two pieces you are currently working on.
  • Try to include a ‘challenge piece’ that inspires you as well as an easier ‘quick study’ piece that can be mastered with just a few days of practice, and which will help you develop fluent music reading.
  • Select varied music in a variety of styles; sometimes try pieces that are outside your musical comfort zone.
  • Listen to as much piano music as possible and seek out recordings and performances of works by composers whose music you are playing.
  • Dream big in terms of music you want to play in the future.
  • Try to improvise, compose and develop New Repertoire of your own.
  • When practising New Repertoire have a Zero Tolerence approach to mistakes in the rhythm and notes: learn pieces effectively so they can become successful and secure Active Repertoire pieces.

Old Repertoire

At the other end of the spectrum, Old Repertoire comprises those pieces which we once learnt – but oh dear, we can no longer play them!

Often once a piece is mastered, we simply leave it behind, concentrating our efforts on the next challenge. Our enthusiasm for New Repertoire – and the sense of progress that moving on can bring – robs us of the joy of playing the music we have already mastered fluently.

It’s not uncommon to find that a piece of music that we learnt just a month ago has already been forgotten. Only with fresh practice can we relearn the piece, which can be incredibly disheartening.

Certainly we should question the quality of our original learning, and the haste with which we abandoned the piece. Having said that, not all of the pieces we learn are destined to bring us lasting fulfilment, and many don’t actually belong in our ongoing Active Repertoire.

In these cases it is right that they become part of our Old Repertoire – pieces which played an important place in our piano journey, but which don’t have a special ongoing part to play.

We all have Old Repertoire, and in most cases this shouldn’t cause us any regret.

  • Be grateful for all the pieces which make up your Old Repertoire. They played a big part in helping you become the pianist you now are.
  • Don’t lose sleep or fret that you can no longer play Old Repertoire pieces. This is quite normal!
  • You can always go back and relearn Old Repertoire, but don’t rush to do so. There is no shortage of wonderful music to explore!
  • And be sure to look for a fresh interpretation if and when you do decide to revisit pieces from your past, because you are a more mature player now than you were when you previously learnt these pieces.

Active Repertoire

Somewhere between New and Old lies the potential for Active Repertoire to flourish.

Active Repertoire is not “New” because we have already mastered it. Nor is it “Old”, because we have not forgotten and left it behind. It is “Active”, a vital ongoing part of our playing today.

Our Active Repertoire is the list of pieces that we can play without notice, without embarrassment and ideally without notation. It is “Active” (rather than passive) because it is at the forefront of our present day piano playing, and it is our top priority.

By making our Active Repertoire our Top Priority we can become more positive learners and players, more quickly memorise our favourite pieces, overcome the anxiety associated with playing to others, and start our piano time each day in a positive place, so developing confidence.

We are far more likely to continue on our piano journey with enthusiasm and satisfaction.

  • Try to play one or more pieces of Active Repertoire a day. This works well either at the start or close of your daily piano time.
  • Once you have played an Active Repertoire piece for a while, lose the sheet music notation. Make a mental note of mistakes, and use any uncertainties as a guide for fresh ongoing practice.
  • Use quiet moments (for example before going to sleep, while travelling, or in the bathroom) to play back the “recordings in your head” of Active Repertoire pieces, reinforcing your memory of them, and experiencing them “as an audience”.
  • Go back and study the score: look for details previously missed or neglected.
  • Try alternative interpretations of Active Repertoire pieces.
  • When playing your Active Repertoire visualise an audience – and give them your best performance!

Vive la différence!

It’s vital that as players and teachers we can spot the difference between Old, New and Active when assessing our own and our students’ playing.

We must ask:

  • Is this piece really ‘performance ready’, or does it need more practice as part of our upcoming New Repertoire?
  • Has the playing of this piece gone stale – should it be left behind as Old Repertoire?
  • Now that a piece is learnt well, is it one to keep as Active Repertoire, or shall we move on?

As a teacher I find it interesting to discuss with my students their choices of Active Repertoire. In some cases I don’t think they have correctly identified whether pieces are Old, New or Active. Spending time with each student exploring this is proving hugely helpful to their ongoing journey as pianists.

The challenge for those of us who teach is to know each student – and their musical development – well enough to give effective advice

Let’s all have an Active Repertoire

Without Active Repertoire, we feel unable to simply sit down at a piano and enjoy playing purely for our own pleasure, and for the enjoyment of others.

The aim of the regular Active Repertoire Challenge on Pianodao is to focus on addressing this by encouraging all players to keep three pieces of Active Repertoire performance-ready.

Many players already have a large Active Repertoire, so have no need for a special programme that helps them develop one. But for others, there is a burning need to focus on this project.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.