teacher and young student at the piano“Only accessible material enables students to acquire the habits of mastery that beget secure, artistic performances.”

Time and again, when I hear students audition, some will attempt to perform music that’s beyond their capacities.

“This’ll be impressive,” they surmise, as they struggle through one phrase after another.

Such students seldom realize that their misguided choices of repertoire don’t just fail to impress but also hamper their progress. Here are three reasons why:

Why Overly Difficult Music Hampers Progress

  1. If students are habitually overwhelmed by technical challenges, they ingrain habits of tension that limit their fluency and increase the likelihood of injury.
  2. When musicians tackle compositions that are beyond their reach, they rely on rote, mindless learning strategies that lead to frustration and performance anxiety.
  3. Students who fumble through unattainable music acquire imprecise habits – their timing, intonation, tone, and so forth perpetually sound ragged. In the end, they miss out on learning how to shape exquisite phrases and present compelling performances.

Appropriate Challenges

Some of you might be thinking, “Doesn’t challenging repertoire motivate students and extend their skills? Isn’t it essential to musical development?”

Let me be clear: appropriate challenges inspire and educate; excessive ones don’t.

As I explain in The Musician’s Way, challenging exercises and etudes are ideal for stretching students’ technical skills.

But when it comes to choosing repertoire for auditions and concerts, only accessible material enables students to acquire the habits of mastery that beget secure, artistic performances.

Difficult vs. Accessible Music

As an illustration, let’s consider the differing demands that hard versus accessible music place on musicians’ artistic, technical, and higher thinking abilities (we use higher thinking skills to direct and evaluate our execution).

When students take on overly difficult music, they toil to get the notes. Then, the overload on their technical and higher thinking powers obstructs their ability to express themselves:

Pie chart showing how overly difficult music obstructs artistic expression

Overly difficult music obstructs artistic expression

With accessible repertoire – i.e., music that can be mastered in a day to a week – the technical and higher thinking requirements fall well within students’ grasp, so they have ample capacity to perform artistically:

Pie chart showing how accessible music promotes artistic expression

Accessible music promotes artistic expression

Accessible Repertoire & Artistic Development

Accessible repertoire makes it possible for rising musicians to become true performing artists. It leaves them with the mental and physical space they need to build performance skills and develop their interpretive voices.The Musician's Way book cover

What’s more, by assembling large caches of accessible pieces, students are able to perform without needing to practice at length, allowing them to appear in public frequently and steadily improve their performance skills.

At that point, with the fundamentals in place needed to successfully practice, interpret and perform music, students can confidently tackle tougher repertoire.

Topics of practice and performance are discussed at length in The Musician’s Way; matters of repertoire choice are explored in “Choosing New Material” (p. 14-16).

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© 2009 Gerald Klickstein
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