Thursday, October 11, 2007

Find Your Repertoire

So many of us learn and play musical works not because it's the stuff we love, but because we're told to do it and it's supposed to be good for us. Of course, there is nothing like a wide variety of musical experiences and it's good to play Bach, as well as Beethoven, Chopin, and Debussy. However, there are those of us who will only find our muse if we look farther afield.

I'm a firm believer that one doesn't really come into their own on an instrument unless they find the right repertoire that will propel them there. Speaking from my own experience, I got seriously bogged down in my teenage years learning music that I didn't enjoy playing very much. Then I discovered contemporary music. Much to the consternation of my parents, teachers, and friends, I developed a serious liking for listening to and playing the music of our time that has continued up to the present. If I had never discovered this, there is almost no chance I would have developed my skills to the level where I can play and teach for a living.

Most of the professionals that I know have similar stories about falling in love with a certain corner of the repertoire and developing their skills to the level where they can actually play it. Here are some possible repertoire and style niches:

  • Learning historical performance practices, especially as they relate to playing the precursors of the modern piano such as harsichord, clavichord, and fortepiano.
  • Learning music from countries not in the mainstream of musical creation, but whose composers nevertheless produce music of the hightest caliber: Canada, The Netherlands, Portugal, Brazil, Scotland, or Japan have all produced composers who have written some fine piano music.
  • Learning jazz and popular styles alongside classical playing. Includes ragtime, novelty, swing, bebop, free jazz, Cuban jazz, Brazilian Bossa, popular, R&B, anime, and video game music are just some of the styles currently popular among pianists.
  • Learning contemporary music, working with living composers, and even commissioning new work for the piano.
  • Learning historical vocal practice in order to effectively perform music written prior to the mid-eighteenth century.
  • Learn vocal music in a language that genuinely inspires you: French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portugese, Russian, Czech, Polish, Hungarian, Ukranian, and English are all languages that have sizable art song and operatic traditions.
  • Learn a vocal style that is at the periphery of Western art music. Fado, Ladino, Persian, and Yiddish styles are a few of many distinct possibilities for exploration.
  • Work with composers and librettists to create the operatic repertoire of today. Companies such as Tapestry New Opera Works and Queen of Puddings Music Theatre in Toronto specialize in this niche and are always on the lookout for singers who have the skills to workshop and perform new works for the opera stage.
Exploration and discovery are the name of the game for many successful performers, and boundary-pushing rather than conformity can be the path to artistic discovery for many young musicians.

Next: Take Your Performance for a Test Drive...Every Day


  1. Well timed entry, Chris! Last night, I had a student come in and tell me that "piano isn't fun anymore" and that he wanted to quit. He's a talented boy and his parents and I aren't convinced that he wants to drop piano.

    You know how it is, when you progress to a certain level and realize that you need to work harder and that it takes longer to get results? That's where he's at.

    We had a conference last night to toss around a few ideas. Both his mother and I told him that in life, there will always be some parts you don't enjoy.

    I concluded the conversation by telling him that music is his gift and although his parents and I can help, we can only do so much. He must take responsibility for his gift. He should, as you said, "Find your repertoire" and actively seek ways to make music fun again.

  2. Great point on those countries, Chris, for piano music. You might want to add Sweeden (Palmgren).

    You'd be doing your loyal readers a big favor if you gave a few names, at some later stage so's not to interrupt your Thirty One Theses!

  3. Thanks, Rhona-Mae and Robert. I wish that all of us can be lucky enough to be exposed to the music that will inspire us. And the sad news that often a student's exposure to great music is limited to his teacher's exposure. Here's to looking further afield for great new repertoire from unexpected places!