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 who 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, that I know what I am doing, and two, that I 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 occasion.

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 is available on,

Music by the Masters is out of print but occasionally may be found on Amazon or eBay.

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