The Selection: How to Pick Piano Repertoire to Increase Momentum and Avoid Frustration

Teachers are one of the best resources for picking music that challenges you but is within your current abilities to achieve. I could go on for days about how goal-setting (maybe just in America — that’s my only experience, so maybe it’s different elsewhere) has become an activity that burns us out. We choose all of our goals to challenge us in every aspect of who we are.

Challenge is good, but psychologically, we also need goals that we can check off quickly and easily to encourage us and relieve stress.

The human mind has a tendency to fixate on unfinished tasks, called the Zeigarnik Effect, and this tendency creates a tension that builds up in the back of our minds as more and more unfinished tasks pile up. Think about the, albeit brief, sense of relief you feel when you place a check mark next to an item on your to-do list.

Although learning musical repertoire is a longer process than going to the grocery store or mailing a thank-you note to dear Aunt Bertha for the lovely flowers she sent on your birthday, we still experience tension from incomplete tasks that poses difficulty to living in the present. As creating music requires presence, this creates an obstacle to our deepest desires and goals as musicians.

There are a couple of ways to solve this problem, the first of which is what all the pop-psychology blogs say about goal-setting: break the larger goal into single, actionable steps. So for learning a large piece, each day your goal should be a set number of measures, reaching a certain speed, or listening to a number of performances and choosing your approach to certain passages.

Because we can only reduce pieces down so much, however, the point of this post comes into play. The second way to maintain your momentum by learning a lot of repertoire and to avoid frustration and burnout in your studies is to strategically pick your repertoire.

In this video by Dr. Josh Wright, he explains that you should have a few categories of repertoire based upon how long it takes you to learn the pieces: 1 month, 2–3 months, 6 months, and (if you’re an advanced student) a year, and sight reading.

The idea is that you are always learning one piece from each of these categories. For newer students, however, I suggest having a smaller category: pieces you can learn in a week.

Typically, when you first begin lessons at any age, the method books you use will contain smaller pieces that you can easily learn within a week, and it’s a nice feeling when your teacher places that sticker on the page the next week (even if you’re an adult!).

So how do you find repertoire to fit all of these categories?

Determine Your Current Level

The first step to finding appropriate repertoire is to determine your current level. This is one of the trickiest parts, which is ever changing, as there are so many sets of levels: ABRSM, RCM, Henle, Sheet Music Plus, any random composer.

I personally like to stick with the three main categories of Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced, which has a lot of wiggle room, so we get subcategories like Early Beginner or Late Advanced.

Sheet Music Plus provides a description of 11 different levels and fits the into this Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced framework with examples of skills that fit into them. I really appreciate the detail of their descriptions, so I’m embedding it here:1

SMP LevelPositions and ScalesChords and RhythmsExamplesOther
Primer
(Early Elementary)
  • Very beginning music
  • Five-finger patterns
  • Almost no hand position movement
  • No chords
  • Quarter, half, and whole notes
  • May be labeled as “5-Finger”
  • Very easy note reading with some letter names written in the notes
Level 1
(Elementary)
  • Five-finger patterns with a little hand movement
  • Simple hands-together playing
  • Some 3-note chords
  • 1 chord per measure
  • Quarter, half, dotted half, and whole notes, some eighth notes
  • Easy note reading.
Level 2
(Late Elementary)
  • Limited hand movement
  • Some hand position changes and finger extensions
  • 3-note chords
  • More than 1 chord per measure
  • Quarter, half, dotted half, and whole notes, and eighth notes
  • May be labeled as “Big Note”
Level 3
(Early Intermediate)
  • Independent movement of the left hand
  • Hands in parallel and contrary motion
  • Multiple chords in a measure
  • More variety of chords
  • Eighth to whole notes, triplets, dotted rhythms
  • Staff size smaller than previous levels
  • Reading notes in most major and minor keys
Level 4
(Intermediate)
  • Scales moving up and down the keyboard at a faster tempo
  • Arpeggios covering 2 octaves
  • Many chords, some 4-note
  • More complex rhythms
  • Sixteenth notes
  • May be labeled “Easy Piano”
Level 5
(Intermediate)
  • Scale passages over several measures
  • Melodies may be in both hands
  • More variety of chords including seventh chords
  • More complex rhythms, including sixteenth notes and dotted rhythms
  • More difficult note reading, with ledger lines above and below the staff
Level 6
(Late Intermediate)
  • Longer scale passages, some in octaves
  • Melodic lines in both hands
  • Full four note chords in both hands, requiring large hand stretches, large leaps
  • Irregular rhythmic groups between the hands
  • More complicated patterns
  • More difficult note reading, with full chords sometimes on opposite ends of the keyboard
Level 7
(Late Intermediate)
  • Scales in octaves in both hands
  • Melody and accompaniment in same hand
  • Full four- to five-note chords in both hands
  • Large leaps and broken octaves
  • Polyrhythms and complex rhythmic patterns
  • Moving melodic lines in both hands requiring greater technical facility
Level 8
(Early Advanced)
  • Scales in 3rds, 10ths and octaves, whole tone scales and modes
  • Intricate melodic lines
  • Four- and five-note chords spanning more than an octave, rolled chords in 10ths
  • Intricate rhythms
  • Difficult music for smaller hands with more melody and accompaniment lines in same hand
Level 9
(Advanced)
  • Extensive scale passages incorporated into pieces with active accompaniment patterns
  • All types of major, minor, diminished and augmented chords spanning more than an octave
  • Intricate rhythms
  • Complex meter
  • Difficult music requiring greater velocity and overall technical facility
Level 10
(Advanced)
  • Intricate melodic lines often requiring extremely fast tempos
  • Complex broken-chord patterns, full chords, and large hand extensions
  • More complicated polyrhythms
  • Complex meter
  • Complicated melodic figures
  • Very advanced level, very difficult note reading, frequent time signatures changes, virtuosic level technical facility needed

Once you’ve determined your current level from this list, you then can choose repertoire to fit your needs.

Choosing Repertoire

To pick pieces that take a week to a month for you to learn should be decidedly at your level. It’s the length that should determine how long it takes you to learn it. So if you’re Level 6 (Late Intermediate), you should have maybe a page-long or 2-page long piece that will take you a week, maybe a 4-page piece to take you a month, and so on.

You’ll have to fine-tune this process based on your experiences, especially if you don’t have a teacher or method book to guide you.

The other part of picking repertoire is actually being able to find repertoire at specific levels. How can you know just by looking at a piece what level it is?

You can map it to the levels described above, but there are still so many pieces in the universe that you may not know about. First,  you can explore Sheet Music Plus by level. Composers and arrangers have to set their pieces at levels when they upload, so when you search, you can filter by these levels, or if you have no idea what to look for, you can just click any of the levels in the table above, and it’ll show you everything in that level for you to browse.

Sheet Music Plus is a great resource for pop music and other copyrighted works; they do an excellent job of making sure the original artists get paid.

For public domain works, definitely check out IMSLP, a classical musician’s favorite website. They divide their works into 11 levels that almost match up with Sheet Music Plus’s with an added level that is basically Super Advanced.

They have a page dedicated to sorting by level, so in the dropdown list, you can choose whichever level you are and find tons of free sheet music. I love to pick entire books as my sight reading from this resource.

Good sight reading options are usually one level below your current level, so picking entire books to just read through from IMSLP is a great, cheap option, especially if you have a tablet to read them from, so you don’t have to print them out.

Choose Repertoire To Challenge and Entertain You

Overall, one of the most important ways to keep having fun at the piano is to pick repertoire that you enjoy and that doesn’t frustrate you too much. This requires limiting yourself to 3–4 pieces at once that are all around your level. You should vary the length of pieces as well, so that you get to revel in the feeling of success when you complete shorter pieces often and so that you can feel truly accomplished when you’ve learned a longer, more difficult piece.

Picking books to sight read from is an excellent way to sharpen your reading skills as well as let yourself be exposed to a large amount of new music, which is also encouraging and keeps you from getting tired of the same pieces you’ve been working on for days.

I hope this guide is helpful! If you have any questions, please comment below or shoot me an email at amy@girlinbluemusic.com.

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Happy practicing, and stay safe!

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