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How do you avoid assigning repertoire that is too difficult too soon?

​Each spring, I adjudicate festivals and write comments, review auditions for a summer program that I co-direct, and judge precollegiate competitions. Sitting with other pianists on these panels, the conversation is often something like: "Wasn't it wonderful the way Student X played repertoire at his or her level with polish and fine preparation?" Sadly, the more common remark is: "That piece is just too difficult for Student Y at this time. His talent and ability would have been better showcased with a less demanding work." The concerns with the latter type of performance run the gamut from technical issues (poor hand position, incorrect forearm alignment, tight or hunched shoulders) to a wide range of musical details (note reading errors, lack of control over the rhythmic pulse, infidelities to the expressive indications in the score, misunderstanding the stylistic features of the composer). Witnessing a student taking on a big warhorse from the repertoire with technical equipment that needs growth is the equivalent of tossing the wide receiver of a middle school football team out onto the field during an NFL scrimmage. Those of us watching are holding our breath, aware of the truly potentially damaging effect on the youngster's health and future career. Playing a work that is incompatible with the student's current musicianship level can leave the audience equally confounded. I worry about the student playing a Liszt operatic paraphrase without ever attending an opera, or the one who flails about in a big Rachmaninoff prelude without first mastering good balance between melody and accompaniment. Even if the hands can pull it off, does it give a false sense of accomplishment? Does a year spent slaving away at an overly ambitious goal provide the student with a bit of tunnel vision? Did the student spend so many hours learning the first of Brahms's Rhapsodies from Opus 79 that he failed to even realize there was a second?

From my reflections:

The phenomenon of moving students into big literature as quickly as possible is something I can comment upon quite personally. Growing up in southern California, the level of pre-collegiate competitions was high, with throngs of students playing pieces such as Prokofiev's Third Concerto, Chopin's Scherzi, and largescale sonatas of Beethoven. Fearing that I might be left behind, my mother encouraged me to join them, and I eagerly conceded. Together, we decided to approach Lucille Straub, an Orange County teacher with an upand- coming crop of local competition winners, for lessons and guidance. Among her star students was a girl who learned and performed the complete Goldberg Variations of Bach long before she walked through high school graduation. Ms. Straub and my mother were my support team, and together the three of us moved quickly, from Haydn and Mozart sonatas to short works of Poulenc and a big Chopin nocturne. We continued onward (insert gulp), to Beethoven's Sonata Op. 110, Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy, Prokofiev's Sonata No. 7, and Mussorgksy's Pictures at an Exhibition. I learned the notes and patterns of half a dozen Chopin etudes and completed first movements of several major concerti. Years later I returned to those concerti, properly finishing all of the movements and performing them with orchestra. My grades suffered a bit, and on rare occasions my muscles ached, but I was on the road towards more education, now with internationally recognized artist teachers, even higher-level competitions, and, ultimately, a thrilling life in music.

Why are we moving so quickly—or, in some cases, deciding to jump forward so radically?

I believe there are many reasons teachers assign large-scale, challenging repertoire to their advancing students. Sometimes the student and teacher want to fulfill the difficult repertoire requirements necessary for a particular exam or competition. At times the student has heard a very popular, yet extremely difficult piece, like Grieg's Piano Concerto or Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata, fallen in love, and begged the teacher to learn it. The reluctant teacher, faced with this dilemma, wonders if the student's newfound passion may jumpstart his waning interest in the piano. Perhaps if Johnny is really crazy about the piece, he will work harder than last year, and be able to play it. Other teachers, having attained a high-level of performance in their own careers, actually know the advanced literature best, and therefore are most comfortable teaching it.

Where do syllabi generated exams fit into your teaching? How can we personalize and adjust them

Parents and students today want a tangible measurement of success from a music education that can go right alongside their high ACT and SAT scores. Freshmen students frequently enter college with sophomore standing because of all the Advanced Placement courses they have taken in high school. In music, there is movement toward a standardized, nationwide syllabus. Defining criteria and quantifying expectations present real advantages and disadvantages for teachers and students. On the one hand, it is very helpful for teachers in the sometimes isolated world of independent teaching to know that their colleagues believe a level-seven student needs a certain number of scales and a particular type of sonata. On the other hand, syllabi can miss the mark, either by placing a particular piece in the wrong group or by remaining too stringent about the number of categories required of a student. Yes, most years of a student's development should cover all of the major periods of music, but aren't there years when exceptions can and should exist? In examining syllabi or repertoire requirements for competitions, always consider the individual student. Technical limitations are rarely universal. In other words, a student with uneven passagework can sometimes play chords with surprising fullness and ease. If time permits, assign a student two works from the syllabus—one that stretches the student in an area needing improvement, and another that will be performance ready. These syllabi often present a wide range of works. Each of Chopin's nocturnes presents its own very distinct challenges, even if they may be categorized as a unit on a syllabus. As teachers, the choice is ours. It is comforting to remember that we are not alone in the struggle with standardized testing. Public school teachers feel this dilemma daily, and college professors have administrators counting everything from retention rates to credits generated per course.

Does the intense focus on big repertoire take time away from other important skills such as improvisation, theory, sight reading, and technical development?

​For me personally, some periods of my early training focused on challenging repertoire for student performances and competitions, trumping time spent developing other skills. My sight-reading, for instance, needed a boost when I arrived in college and began to accompany voice lessons. Of course, there is no perfect solution, and learning a variety of skill sets at the same time is always a juggling act. I have seen successful, independent music teachers work on activities in group settings, offering scale festivals, duet sight-reading activities, and theory workshops. When selecting summer programs for students, other skills may receive a boost if there are offerings besides private lessons and master classes. Some community music schools and pre-college programs provide a great service by offering theory courses open to students whose independent music teacher might not be affiliated with the institution.

As I continued to ponder this complex topic, I consulted a few colleagues from different regions of the country for their input.

What alternative repertoire choices might be more appropriate in place of some of the very popular warhorses? How can we incorporate lesser-known works?

​I sometimes feel that I have heard the Chopin Ballades played more frequently than any other works. These masterpieces require the utmost musical maturity. Even among the very technically equipped teenage pianists, performances of these pieces can fall short. Lisa Yui, who teaches piano literature at the Manhattan School of Music, corresponded with me about this subject. She offered Chopin's posthumous Polonaises as excellent substitutes for the Ballades. She also mentioned the lovely Ballade, Op. 6, by Amy Beach. The opening melody is based on her song, My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose. In searching for lesser-known dazzling piano pieces that display virtuosity, she suggested the Humoresque or Toccata by Ukrainian composer Igor Shamo, or Manuel de Falla's virtuosic Ritual Fire Dance. For the younger pianist who wants to tackle a first sonata, she offered three beautiful pieces by Schumann, titled Sonatas for the Young, Op. 118. Performing lesser-known works brings fresh joy to audiences and can even stand out effectively to judges in competitions.

Do parents offer input regarding the teacher's repertoire assignments, and what are some of the ramifications?

​I spoke with Sean Schulze, Chair of Piano Preparatory at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He said: "I have had parents put pressure on my colleagues and me to assign a piece that will showcase their child more favorably in a competition. Since we have a leveled curriculum at CIM, some parents want to make sure their child is doing a particular grade level. Sometimes, parents want to know why the grade level at CIM does not correlate with the child's grade level in school. At that point, I have the challenge of explaining to parents that the two things don't always equate." He went on to say that many times the parents involved in selection of repertoire have limited musical training themselves. "So, when a parent asks why a student who is studying a Clementi sonatina isn't playing the Chopin Fantasie-Impromptu, there is education involved in explaining the many intervening steps necessary to bring the student to that level."

When working with a new student, will the student's enthusiasm be hurt if you decide to assign shorter, less difficult literature in order to focus on new concepts?

​As a freshman at Indiana University, my teacher Menahem Pressler assigned me several smallerscale works. Initially, I was concerned that several of these works only had an MD (moderate difficulty) rating in Maurice Hinson's Guide to the Pianist's Repertoire. After all, I had learned many pieces with a D (difficult) rating during my high school years! Was I getting worse? Or, did Mr. Pressler believe that I never should have tackled those big pieces during my teens? Today, I believe it was neither. These smaller works allowed him to teach me new concepts, and also to introduce me to composers with whom I was less familiar. During that freshman year, I learned a wealth of information about phrase gesture, color, voicing, and how to delve deeply into the character of a piece. As a college piano professor now, I am often faced with the same dilemma. One graduate student, who had played several big pieces of Schumann, admitted having very little exposure to Brahms. I immediately surmised that the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel was out of the question. Another student auditioned with Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata, exhibiting youthful enthusiasm, but a lack of rhythmic control and tonal refinement. I assigned her a short Haydn sonata and spent the first semester enforcing a new standard of listening and attention to details. In such instances, it is important to reinforce that performing at a high level with sophistication and a clear interpretation is not "moderately difficult," but "very difficult," regardless of the size, scope, and technical demands of the piece.

Are there instances when, although a student does not completely grasp the subtleties of a piece, it can be worthwhile to assign a "stretch-piece"? Will the student then have that piece "for life," and be able to return to it with more maturity in future years?

​I consulted David Cartledge, an Associate Professor at Indiana University. He felt comfortable with the idea of "note work, under guidance, with the intent of banking away the large piece for the future." On the other hand, he warned against the student who might "drive the same piece in preparation for a competition or performance—believing that he or she has achieved a level of polish that isn't actually there."

​What harm might come from "over-assigning" a student a difficult piece too soon?

​In continuing my conversation with David Cartledge (who also co-directs the Indiana University Summer Piano Academy—a program that enrolls many gifted young pianists each summer), he said, "I see examples of this all the time. When combining limited practice time with a somewhat limited technique, the risk of physical injury becomes significantly more dangerous and likely." In an age when wellness topics regularly appear at seminars and workshops, a serious consideration about what repertoire can be played and when it should be assigned to aid an individual's development is essential.

What about the "superstar" high-achieving student who excels at a variety of activities?

​We have all met this type of youngster. They have a perfect SAT score, five Advanced Placement courses, and a Liszt concerto under their belt all at the same time. The level of playing can be as wonderful as the grade point average. Sometimes, such a student even plays with a musical maturity that is almost eerily sophisticated. As adults, we are filled with questions. Are they imitating a recording? Do they ever sleep? With all of those academic endeavors, are they really able to practice an instrument in a meaningful way? Is a parent hovering about in the background? Or, is the student truly gifted, and taking genuine pleasure in the learning process?

A few years ago, I saw a short Facebook post that read: "Stop the glorification of busy." I paused. How very different from the entourage of social media updates I see: "Just made senior partner at my firm." "OMG, got into Harvard med :) " and even "Dropped all four kids off to school—now for my half-marathon!" I love the motivated and ambitious world we live in, but don't those in the arts need to take a moment to think, reflect, and plan for the future? I encourage my students to be involved in as many activities as possible, but remind them that truly learning a craft and an art form takes patience. Sometimes it evolves slowly and it does need to allow for a life outside the practice room and study hall.


​A few years ago, I was faced with the nostalgic task of packing up my late parents' home. As precious as old photos and dusty scrapbooks was a collection of performances on VHS and cassette tapes from childhood. First solo recitals and concerto appearances were among them. These tapes had sat in a box ever since. Do I dare listen? Reluctantly, I inserted the tape and pressed play. Teary eyed, I watched a young boy bound across the stage, bow too quickly, and descend upon the keyboard with seemingly fearless abandon. As I dissected the playing, I considered how a teacher in graduate school would show me how to handle certain transitions in the music more gracefully. I thought about how future chamber partners would require a greater rhythmic clarity. I wistfully noticed aspects of my hand position I would eventually reconsider. Smiling, though, I appreciated the potential of my youth and an obvious love of music making. In so many ways the mental and emotional investment from Ms. Straub carried me very far. And, my mother's firm will allowed it to happen. Extra lessons replaced extra science courses in school. Practicing sometimes took precedence over studying. Proper editions were purchased for my library. Books by Abram Chasins, David Dubal, and Maurice Hinson about pianists and piano literature sat next to my set of encyclopedias on the bookshelf. In the instance when a devoted parent, child, and teacher come together with a shared vision of a future in music, moving cautiously into major repertoire can be a timeless gift. As teachers, our strategy for the right course of literature for our students at the right time is among our greatest responsibilities

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