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Onwards and Upwards...?

I’ve recently been reflecting again on the importance of playing a large amount of piano music, some that stretches and some that is comfortably manageable. These musings have been partly inspired by Mark Tanner’s recent article in Pianist Magazine (No.133 August-September 2023).

For many pianists, the sole focus of learning new music is to play ever-harder repertoire, continually stretching our ability to master new technical challenges. This is the traditional way of ‘making progress’ and, of course, it is a good thing to stretch ourselves beyond our comfort level. However, pushing ever-onwards towards harder music at the exclusion of everything else often results in a very narrow focus - only pieces in the next graded exam book are considered important. All other music is seen as a waste of time.

This is misguided, and terribly sad, as there are so many advantages to mixing up our repertoire - stretching towards higher challenges, whilst consolidating skills at the level we are currently at. As Mark Tanner describes so well in his article, it is confidence-building to have a reasonable number of pieces in our “bank of playable repertoire.” I totally agree with his sentiment that, “The phrase ‘onwards and upwards’ isn’t necessarily about relentlessly keeping one’s foot on the accelerator.”

Some of the many advantages of exploring new music within our current level include:

  1. Pieces are quicker to learn, so we can spend more time exploring creative ways to interpret the music and shape the sound.

  2. We will play more accurately.

  3. We can feel more confident performing to others when the music is at a comfortable level and the technical demands feel manageable. As Mark Tanner describes: “we will likely feel more relaxed, focused and immersed in the experience if we are playing music that lies intuitively under the fingers.”

  4. Our music-making will sound better from the very first play-through.

  5. We improve our sight reading skills.

  6. Many more pieces can be learned. As there is an inexhaustible (and ever-growing) supply of piano music, learning more pieces enables us pianists to explore much more widely and deeply. We can try pieces from a wider range of composers, periods and styles. We can play additional pieces by our favourite composers.

  7. Intrinsic motivation stays high when we feel a sense of achievement and accomplishment from learning more music, and from sounding good when we play.

I have thought for many years that the definition of a ‘grade 1 pianist’ is a person who can, fairly quickly and confidently, learn to play almost any piece of music that is of grade 1 level of difficulty or less. In other words, they have some experience of all the commonly-occurring musical knowledge and pianistic skills that may be present in music of this level, and have consolidated these skills to a reasonable extent. It is reassuring to read that Mark Tanner agrees. Let’s make ‘onwards and upwards’ an intention to widen our focus to encompass all the many wonderful delights of the piano repertoire, whatever level we’re currently at!



Tanner, M. 2023 (Great Expectations: The Pros and Cons of Stretching Ourselves), Pianist Magazine, August-September 2023 No.133, page 14-15.



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