Repertoire: beyond exams

Instrumental teachers know how easy it is to become trapped on the exam treadmill, learning a few pieces, sitting an exam, then moving to the next grade. Encouraging pupils to play repertoire beyond the exam syllabus can be challenging. I think there are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, I’ve inherited a good number of pupils from other teachers. They’ve prepared three or four pieces for an exam, sat the exam, then started on three or four pieces for the next grade. They know no different. I’ve inherited two pupils in the last year who’d been working on the same three graded exam pieces for 18 months: one at Grade 3, one at Grade 6. The idea that they should play anything else is totally alien to them. Both were flummoxed by being asked what they’d like to play.

Secondly, some pupils (and indeed, parents) are surprisingly unwilling to invest in new music. This is despite the relatively low cost of sheet music (and I’d say it’s come down in price quite a lot over the last 10 years). In that sense, it’s easy for the teacher to become trapped in the same pieces for too long.

With that in mind, I’ve consciously, over the past year, been trying to make sure my own pupils play as many pieces as possible between exams (and indeed, if they’re not working towards exams too). Here’s an example:

This pupil sat the LCM Step 2 exam in December last year. Following the Christmas break, I’ve logged 13 pieces which we’ve worked on, in addition to continuing work on developing a wide range of other musical skills including improvisation. We’ve also worked on previous pieces in preparation for school performances. Last week we began to look at Grade 1 pieces. One of these has been learnt almost note-perfect within the space of a week:

You might say that 13 pieces in the space of six months is not many, but I’d say that’s a pretty good number in addition to the development of other skills.

One huge advantage has been using the MyMusicStaff software to track repertoire. As well as tracking pieces ‘completed’ and ‘in progress’, we can record what level the pieces are if they appear on an exam syllabus. Again, being able to see your repertoire list build up is hugely motivating. Pupils are also finding it useful when considering Andrew’s idea of ‘Active Repertoire’.

Of course, it’s not all about exams. It’s also interesting to see the repertoire building up for more advanced pupils. Although I’ve indicated the level of the pieces learnt, the pupil has no intention, at this stage, of sitting an exam:

I think this also illustrates the wide range of styles and genres being covered.

These days, fewer pupils are interested in sitting exams, and I think this makes it even more important to give them a sense of achievement in terms of building up their repertoire.