Partnering with Adult Piano Students in choosing pieces

After many decades of working with adult pupils who have rekindled an interest in taking lessons at various life junctures, (including retirement), I’ve learned that affording them opportunities to choose repertoire is the best route to a harmonious and rewarding learning journey.

Naturally, once an adult student has mastered rudimentary note reading and basic rhythm skills and has the desire to delve into the piano repertoire from the Baroque through Classical, Romantic, and Contemporary eras, I offer various possibilities while considering the student’s own music preferences. (Disclaimer: I’m not a jazz mentor or do I focus on mainstream popular repertoire, though the skills acquired in studying Bach, Beethoven, et al are transferable to diverse forms of musical expression.)

In this discussion, I address various groups of pupils who are working on J.S. Bach Little Preludes and Two-Part Inventions; Burgmuller’s Twenty-Five Progressive pieces, Op. 100; Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, Beethoven Bagatelles, Tchaikovsky’s Op. 39 Children’s pieces (“Sweet Dream” and “Old French Song”); the Adagio from Beethoven’s Op. 13, “Pathetique” Sonata; the first movement of the “Moonlight Sonata,” Op. 27, No. 2; Enrique Granados Valse Poetico no. 6; a set of Scarlatti Sonatas; selections from Schumann’s Album for the Young, Op. 68; “Butterfly” from Grieg’s Lyric Pieces; Chopin Waltz No. 19 in A minor, Op. Posthumous; Chopin Nocturnes in Eb, Op. 9, No. 2 and Op. 72, No. 1 in E minor; Schumann’s “Scenes from Childhood” (Kinderszenen), among other works.

While the foregoing list encompasses pieces with so-called marked “level” differences according to standardized pedagogical assessments of these compositions, or by ABRSM or RCM (Royal Conservatory of Music), the truth is that having a blanket category for any of the selections I enumerated is unfair to the process that each student cultivates.

For example, one student was so in love with the middle Adagio movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique, Op. 13, that she wished to study it, knowing it would require unswerving patience in meeting its challenges. She accepted the premise that NO deadlines would be intertwined in the learning mix, but instead a slow and steady NON-judgmental musical journey was in the making. She would be advancing herself in baby steps into territory most mentors would discourage.

Simultaneously, this student had dipped into the “Moonlight Sonata” opening movement (another heartthrob that was on her favorites list) Prior to her immersion in these two compositions, she had made considerable progress in learning Granados Valse Poetico No. 6. (This was a particular work that was sent to her as one of my playing samples, before she gave herself the go ahead to dig in)

Traditional teachers might have given a resounding NO to pieces not LEVEL appropriate or compatible–and perhaps they would have taken a more directional if not an authoritarian approach to repertoire selection. Yet this particular student who played a pivotal role in what she wanted to spend her time practicing, expressed a preference for such “autonomy” that was common to an assortment of my adult students. (Note that in the technique universe of study, all my pupils journey through scales and arpeggios, in various permutations and articulations around the Circle Fifths- I regard these regimens as being foundational to all repertoire)

Back to the cosmos of repertoire choices: Sometimes an adult pupil will ask me to send examples of three or more pieces from which they can choose. They might not feel comfortable with free reign to pluck a piece they have worshipped, but would prefer my guiding them through a sequence of works that will advance their growth. By the same token, they want to practice what is appealing to their ears. (There’s nothing worse than having a student totally dislike what he or she is practicing. It can be a recipe for disaster!)

Still, a teacher must be sensitive to ruts that students may be stuck in–where they’ve experienced frustration levels that are overwhelming to them! (often tied to a particular wish list selection) In these instances, I find myself playing music therapist (for which I earned a Master’s Degree) redirecting pupils to navigate troubling passages by voice parceling in slow tempo; by imbuing breathing awareness and related relaxation techniques. Such practicing strategies are meant to be antidotes to self-assigned “failure” labels that have no place in the learning environment. Negativity and related baggage that have mainstream cultural overlays must be quickly eradicated to make room for a healthy relationship to pieces high up on the ladder of challenges. These aspirational pieces can be compatible with others that might be more readily assimilated.

In conclusion, I am looking back some years to a student who introduced herself with an email that detailed her musical background, and included a thoughtful wish list of what she wanted to study. She was one of the students who nudged me over to some delightful Scottish pieces that had tricky fingering escapades requiring revision, but had nonetheless expanded my own repertoire universe.

This pupil, who navigated through most of the selections on her list, and is soaring ever upward in her studies, has brought home the value of a partnered musical journey that has no bounds!

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