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9 minutes reading time (1807 words)

How Do You Choose Repertoire for Your Adult Students?

"I'm too old to play pieces I don't like," said Heather at one of our first lessons. Heather is a retired Professor in Romance Languages and Literatures, as well as an expert on the composer Schubert. It's no surprise that her repertoire is steeped in Schubert's music. She loves it that way, and so do I.

It's not always this easy picking repertoire for adult students. One of my students wanted hymns that were familiar to him. We ordered a book by a reputable arranger, only to find the arrangements harsh, with the wonderful tunes unrecognizable.

On a Facebook group, "The Art of Piano Pedagogy," one participant laments,"I enjoy teaching, but struggle with my adult students. I assign a piece for them and the following week the student walks in and says 'Well, I played the piece for a few days and didn't like it.' When I let them choose the music, they don't complete that either!"

The wrong choice of music can make or break your time with your adult student.The following authors offer suggestions in helping you and your students choose appropriate repertoire before you make expensive mistakes or, worse yet, discourage a budding pianist.

My suggestion? Look at the music at a music store or online before you buy it. Two websites, Amazon.com and sheetmusicplus.com, have "look inside" tabs so you can see what you are buying. You might even print out one page to see if the student likes the arrangement. IMSLP.org has public domain music by standard composers. Some of the selections have a "preview" feature before you download the composition.

It isn't MY choice

by Pete Jutras

Adult students have already made a number of important choices when they study piano. Unlike typical children, adults are already choosing, sometimes at great sacrifice, to invest their own money, time, and effort into piano study. They have specific reasons for being there—dreams and goals that they have carefully considered.

Your choice

With this in mind, I think it is important to involve adult students in the process of choosing pieces that they genuinely want to play. When selecting repertoire for adults, I need to continually remind myself that this isn't about what I want, it is about what the students want. This may mean working on pieces that aren't my favorite, or even genres of music I don't personally enjoy. But, if that music motivates and students fulfill important goals, I'm all for it. I encourage my students to tell me what songs they want to play, and to bring me music and recordings that interest them. This isn't just good for the students' motivation; it also reflects some prominent adult learning theories.1

Manage difficulty

We have to remember, however, that giving adults carte blanche in repertoire choice is not always productive. Adult students often have trouble determining what is at an appropriate technical level. Many adult piano students are sophisticated music consumers—they listen to quality recordings and attend live concerts, often aspiring to play pieces that are far above their current level. While these goals are admirable, choosing a piece that is unrealistic can lead to a lot of frustration and discouragement. In these cases, the teacher must step in with alternate suggestions, which can include tasteful and meaningful simplifications, or pieces "in the style" of masterworks that give a satisfying sound with less technical effort. Examples of some works that emulate the sound of masterworks with less demand include William Gillock's Lyric Preludes in Romantic Style2 and Robert Vandall's preludes.3

Encourage musicality

In my experience, the most satisfaction comes when adults can play something musically, when they can really have command of a piece and give a convincing performance that has something to say. The quest for many students is for the ability to feel like a real pianist. They often don't find it in difficult pieces, where they struggle just to play the right notes at the right time. I try to work with my students to temper the level of difficulty and select pieces they can truly master. This is often a tough sell at first, but one beautiful performance is usually all it takes for adult students to realize how much fun it is to play with artistry.

Broaden horizons

Letting adults choose their own repertoire is great for motivation, and it helps them fulfill their dreams. But many adults aren't really aware of the broad spectrum of music that exists, and they may just default to a style that they know. Over time, they will appreciate your efforts to introduce new sounds, composers, and repertoire into their experience. One effective technique is to build familiarity before it is time to choose a new piece. If you think you've got some good ideas for repertoire that your students might enjoy, have them listen to recordings a few weeks before you want them to select a new piece. This will place the new repertoire in the student's frame of reference. For example, if a student has only "chosen" popular pieces, encourage her to listen to some Schumann or Chopin for a while. Offer a choice of pieces from that listening. The student will feel like she is choosing familiar repertoire, but you will have succeeded in introducing something new.


1Most notable are the work of Malcolm Knowles in the field of Andragogy and the work of Allan Tough on self-directed learning in adults.

2Alfred Publishing Company, 2008.

3Alfred Publishing Company, 2006.


Slow, accessible, and mature

by Diane Hidy

My first consideration is whether the piece will sound good played slowly. Most adults practice at a slow tempo for quite a while. If the piece is full of passing dissonances which could sound like wrong notes, adults often become confused and aren't sure whether they're playing it correctly.

The next thing I look for in a piece for an adult student is emotional depth. Does this piece say something complex enough to sustain an adult's interest through the sometimes-lengthy learning process? One of my students, Sandy, a successful microbiologist, explained, "I don't want to play pieces that I can imagine a little kid playing. I don't want anything playful. I want something with real emotional depth. I'm attracted to pieces in minor keys because they stir up more turbulent emotions." Adult students look for something that reflects their own emotional maturity. I search for pieces that appeal to my own emotions. I screen for details like melodies with unusual intervals and harmonies that use suspensions and rich chords.

Many students have no idea that accessible pieces that will satisfy their longing for a deep musical experience even exist. This is where the expertise of the teacher comes in. There are many volumes of music now available that have sensitive, well-composed pieces that are leveled appropriately. Keith Snell's collections called Essential Piano Repertoire4 are the books I choose most often. Because the pieces are so carefully graded, I can send a student home with the book and CD and let them make their own choice. Sometimes I pick for them if they need more guidance.

My favorite is the Level Five book. I find two of the pieces in this collection, Streabbog's The Orphan and Rebikov's Waltz in F-sharp Minor,are particularly successful choices for adults.

Streabbog: The Orphan

The continuous left-hand eighth notes support the melody in the right hand. The melody is soulful without being sentimental. The left hand is written so that blocking the chords is quite easy. It has enough emotional content and interest to keep an adult satisfied throughout the learning process (see Excerpt 1).

Rebikov: Waltz in F-sharp Minor

This piece is filled with longing. I find the left-hand waltz bass easier to teach than more typical ones. The rhythmic interest actually makes it more memorable for the hand and mind. This piece takes advantage of the ability of an adult hand to open to four note chords, but never asks for those four notes to be played at once. It's the best of both worlds! The harmonies are sophisticated and the melody is filled with emotion. Though short, it feels substantial (see Excerpt 2).

4Kjos Music Company, 2007.


Purposeful piano study

by Kristin Yost

Think back to when you were enjoying your lessons most as a child. If you were anything like me, the music I enjoyed playing the most was anything that occupied sound to avoid doing dishes after dinner. Adults probably are taking lessons not to avoid doing the dishes, but rather for added value and enrichment to their lives.

Ranjit Lanzapalli is an engineer by trade and is learning how to play piano for the first time. He says, "Playing different tunes of music in my free time, depending upon my mood, has been my dream for a very long time, and my teacher's school has made that dream of mine come true." Another forty-year-old mom of three, who had piano lessons when she was a child, said she wanted to play because, "My intent is to keep a young, healthy brain. It has been proven that people need to continue to learn and challenge their brain. If you don't use it, you lose it!"

Purposeful pieces

Adult beginning students can be a challenge. Method books aimed at children are not sufficient in terms of substance and musicality. The highest success rate I have is with Hal Leonard's Adult Piano Methodbooks, with which I use the CDs regularly to ensure steady speeds and an aural (versus simple science) reference of note duration.

When choosing music for adult students who are just learning how to play, much like choosing music for school-aged students, finding solid "performance pieces" that sound bigger than they really are is imperative. Mix them in with basic teaching pieces and exercises.

The directed democracy

I offer my students a choice "pool" of pieces. The students pick from this pool. I find this directed democracy works well with my adult students. I also ask what types of music my adult students enjoy listening to, or what music brings them the greatest fulfillment. Most often this means familiar classical music and hymns, but also popular music and jazz standards.

Intermediate and advanced students most likely have an idea of what they enjoy playing, at least in terms of styles and genres, but may need help in the selection process. It's important to understand the level of playing and attention to detail does not have to be that of the latest contest winners from your local association. The important lesson to remember is to adopt the "sit back and enjoy it" mentality and let music be played for music's sake, rather than focusing so much on the discipline.


5 Hal Leonard Publishing Company, 2005.

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