Choosing Piano Repertoire

The Never Ending “I Can’t Find a Piece I Like” Continuum

Have you ever heard something like this while choosing piano repertoire?

“Sarah doesn’t practice much because she really doesn’t like classical music.
Maybe if you find some music she likes, it will motivate her to practice more.”

Or this:

“I just want to play that song that goes… E, D#, E, D#, E, D#…”

Maybe you’ve tried to give a persnickety student a choice and after three pieces you hear “Hmmm not sure, can you play another one?”


How about the student that starts a piece and after a couple of weeks, he decides it’s not for him and he wants another one?

I call this the never ending “I can’t

find a piece I like” continuum. This is why I put a stop to it and
how I handle repertoire choice in my studio.

Early in my career as a piano teacher,
I really wanted to make my students and their parents happy. I also
saw that students would work harder on pieces they liked. So, I
thought, if I find music the kids like, they will be happy and
practice. If the kids are happy and practicing, their parents will be
happy. If the students are all working hard and practicing and their
parents are happy I’ll have a great studio! So I thought.

It actually turned out quite the
opposite. I found that giving my students too many choices of pieces
turned into a nightmare. Instead of happy students, I ended up with
students that never seemed to be satisfied with anything they were
playing. Instead of motivated students, I had frustrated students
and not so happy parents.

In his book “The Paradox of Choice –
Why More is Less” American Psychologist Barry Schwartz talks about
how having choices is a good thing, but having too many choices can
actually cause anxiety and even cripple the decision making process.
I believe this is especially true for children, and the younger they
are the more difficult choices can be for them. Now, I handle
repertoire selection differently. I still let my students have some
choices about what they are playing but I am much more careful to
guide them so that they can make good choices.

I believe my goal as a teacher is,
first and foremost, to help my students reach their goals. To do
this, I need to establish myself as the teacher. I believe it is
important for my students and their parents to understand that:
number one, I that know what I am doing and two, I that have their
best interest at heart. My students need to know that there is a
method to the madness when it comes to choosing what music they will
learn. I want to help them become the best pianists possible.

Beginning Students

Beginning students have very little
choice about what they will be learning. Basically these students
work through method books. Whether they are younger children, teens
or adults I want them to learn to read music and have good technique
before I will allow them to begin selecting their own music. The
exception to this would be holiday music or something for a special
When it comes to intermediate students,
I allow them some choices while I still more or less guide them in
what they are learning. Once they are finished with piano method
books all of my students start on classical repertoire. I like to use
a collection called “Music by the Masters” compiled by Russell E.
Lanning. This book has a very nice variety of baroque through
romantic repertoire for the early to late intermediate student. At
this stage, I either assign pieces based on what I think they should
be learning or I may let my student choose between two similar
pieces. Students may also decide to learn some popular music at this
time (if they are keeping up with their classical repertoire). I let
them choose what songs they might like to play and teach them at an
appropriate level. I either use arrangements of popular pieces or
teach my students to play using chords.

Advanced students get the most choice
of all depending upon their goals. I consider advanced students those
who can play pieces at level 7 or above. At this point, many of my
students have reached their piano goals and wish to branch out into
different genres of playing. Some of these students will move on to
other teachers such as Jazz specialists, etc. For those who choose to
stick with me and want to continue to study classical popular and church music, I guide them through a discovery of the piano repertoire including pieces by
well-known and lesser known composers in various periods. I always
encourage my students to play popular music and improvise because I
think it makes them more well-rounded musicians.

What do I do when one of my students
really doesn’t like a certain piece or brings me something they would
really like to learn? It all depends on the situation and the
individual student’s needs. Most of the time, I will make my student
finish a piece once it is started. I point out that as a working
accompanist, I never get to choose the music I play. I tell them that
once in a while I also have to play music I don’t like and that
whether I like the piece or not, learning it makes me a better
pianist. If a student brings in extra music I will let them give it
a try if it’s something I think they can handle.

The main thing that I want my students

to embrace is that we are pianists; It is the piano we love, not
whether or not they love a particular piece. I let them know that
it’s important to learn many different types of music in order to
become well-rounded musicians and good pianists. And you can’t do
that on the Never Ending I Can’t Find a Piece I like Continuum.

The Paradox of Choice and Music by the Masters are both available on>


3 thoughts on “Choosing Piano Repertoire”

  1. Great advise! Music by the Masters is the book I was given by my piano teacher back in the mid sixties. …waaaay back. It’s a great collection. Hey, if it ain’t broke…Thanks for your thoughts. They really confirmed what I’ve done as a teacher myself.

  2. Hello. I remember reading one of your newsletters that featured a list of piano pieces for teens. These looked really good but I cannot locate your email.
    I would love to see your list again.
    Is there any way you could send this to me?
    Thanks so much

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