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Five Steps to Build Your Repertoire

performing practicing Oct 08, 2018

“A repertoire of 60 minutes begins with a single piece.” – Anne Sullivan

Okay, so I’m not Lao Tzu and my paraphrase of his famous saying about a journey of a thousand miles is not nearly as profound. But it is just as true.

The truth is that if you have just one piece that you can play, a piece that you enjoy playing and play fairly well, you can develop a repertoire of the scope and size that you want.

It is also true that it will be a gradual process and not an overnight one. Your repertoire will develop as your musical skills strengthen and grow. But if you have ever wanted to have 15 minutes or 45 minutes or an hour of music at your fingertips, it is completely possible, as long as you have one piece to start with.

You may wonder how I can be so sure that this is possible. You may even have tried to learn a repertoire and keep it in your fingers and met with less than resounding success. I invite you to try the process I outline below. It is likely there is simply a step you have been missing or a growth stage you didn’t recognize. 

Possibly you have decided that having a repertoire isn’t necessary for you, thinking that you never play anywhere other than your living room. I would encourage you to have a small, rotating repertoire of pieces you can play whenever you like, simply because playing those pieces gives you pleasure. Playing music is the reward for your practicing, and you deserve to enjoy that reward.

Your first step is easy: identify the one piece that will be the seed of your repertoire. It should be one that is easy for you, possibly even one of the first pieces you ever learned. It should also be a piece that you love playing and enjoy sharing with others. Blow the dust off that piece, figuratively or literally, and begin playing it once a day, just for fun.

This first piece may be a “keeper,” meaning that it may stay in your repertoire forever. It may rotate out of your repertoire as you bring in more pieces. Keep in mind that your repertoire will be always changing, adapting to suit your evolving musical interests and strengthening skills.

Now that your first piece is ready, where do you go from here?

STEP 1: Plan

Consider what you want your repertoire to look like, both as an ideal and as a starter. Starting small is a good idea; a 15 minute set is a great place to begin.

What purpose will your repertoire serve? Who will be your audience? What kind of music do you want to play? When do you want to have it ready?

STEP 2: Choose

Next, using the answers you gave to the questions above, create a list of music for your repertoire. This may seem like an easy step, but I find many people make their biggest misstep here.

You should choose music slightly below your current level of playing. Why? Simply because the music you play for yourself or anyone else should feel comfortable. You want to play with relative ease and confidence, and you can’t do that if you’re struggling with a piece of music. Your repertoire shouldn’t consist of the most difficult pieces you know, just ones you know and play well.

STEP 3: Learn One

Select one piece from your list and learn it. Simple. Just be sure not to neglect your starter “seed” piece. Play that piece regularly, whether it’s once a day or once a week, just to keep it fresh.

STEP 4: Put It on Your Play List

When your new piece is about 85% “learned,” move it from your practice list to your play list. At an 85% stage of readiness, a piece needs more playing than practicing to push it to a flowing and polished stage. You will now begin to play your new piece through every day several times, practicing spots only as necessary. Add it to your starter piece and play through both of them together every day or every other day.

You now have two pieces in your repertoire. Congratulations!

STEP 5: Review and New

This is the step many musicians find difficult. The pieces in your repertoire need regular review to keep them in a state of readiness. “Readiness” is what a repertoire is all about, having music ready to play. Review your new piece daily if need be, and your starter piece at least once a week. The longer those pieces stay in your repertoire, the less frequent your reviews will need to be, but some review is essential to keep any rust from forming on them.

Important: your new piece doesn’t have to have achieved polished perfection before you add a new piece. The comfort, security and flow will continue to develop as you play the piece over time. Don’t wait until it’s “done” to move on. No piece is ever done; it just matures and ripens.

Now bring in another piece from your list and begin to learn it, following the same steps.

Presto – you have a repertoire!

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