Many excellent piano teachers and pedagogues extoll the benefits of a repertoire-rich approach to learning the piano. Names that instantly come to mind include Elissa Milne, Paul Harris, Andrew Eales, Wendy Stevens and more. Repertoire-rich meaning that the student learns far more than the average 6-10 pieces that most students piano students around the world seem to learn each year. As Elissa Milne describes:
"The idea seems to be that by investing all their energies into a smaller number of works the quality of the students’ performances will be enhanced."
However, this doesn't tend to work very well in practice. Students lose intrinsic motivation when they are stuck on the same few pieces for months on end, and usually the focus on a small number of (usually exam-assessed) pieces is at the exclusion of sight reading, aural skills or musical understanding - fundamental musicianship skills. Just imagine if children at school were only allowed to read 6 books a year! How would their reading and comprehension skills develop then?
My view is that quality and quantity are not mutually exclusive concepts. Piano students need to hear, read and learn a wide range of music, and the best way to do that is to learn a lot of pieces each year. If there is a good mix of harder and easier pieces, then the level of challenge can be tailored by the student week by week. Obviously the more pieces a student is set, the more time they are likely to spend at the piano. This has a direct bearing on their progress. It's very motivating for students to reflect on how much music they can play, and there is always something that is polished and ready for performance.
Quality comes from quantity too. As Elissa Milne states:
"Students gain a wide, practical, lived experience of many distinct musical idioms and forms."
If they play a number of Baroque period pieces rather than one, they have a much deeper understanding of the sound world of this music, and the playing technique and interpretation decisions that come with it. This informs and enhances their performances.
Aural and theory skills are developed as students compare style, keys, tonality, accompaniment patterns, common chord progressions etc. They can start to see patterns, spot similarities and make connections between the pieces they play. This helps students become musical readers. As Elissa Milne explains:
"When you are learning a new piece every week or so you simply don’t have time to learn the music line by line, or playing separate hands for a couple of weeks. And if you can basically sight read your new piece of music, then about 95% of your practice time can be devoted to exploring performance possibilities and finessing your interpretation of the work."
I have observed through a number of years of teaching in a repertoire-rich way, that those students who embrace learning a piece a week progress more quickly, have a stronger sense of themselves as pianists and musicians, are more intrinsically motivated to practice and have much more fun along the way.
Let's make 2024 the year of Quantity AND Quality in our piano-playing journeys!
Milne, Elissa "The Surprising Power of Quantity", www.elissamilne.com, 14 November 2009