Thursday, November 27, 2008

Repertoire and the After-Work Musician

Professional musicians often list their repertoire on their websites. Sometimes I look at these lists and think: how can you have 100 pieces up to performance level? Well, I guess if you practice 8 hours a day you could run through that repertoire beginning-to-end once a week and still have 5 days to really practice.

But what about us working shlubs? Is it possible to build (and maintain) a decent repertoire with 8 hours of practice a week?

Last November I was struggling just to get two pieces up to performance level. When I finally got them, others started to come more easily. I now have 13 pieces at performance level. But I certainly can't run through all of them every day, or even every two days and still hope to work on rough spots or new stuff.

But I'm finding that while some pieces need constant attention, others can go several days without playing. And when I do play them, the trouble spots are immediately obvious, because they're the spots that don't survive several days' neglect. So in a way, my practice is more focused.

To make this work, I keep a one-page chart with all the pieces I know (and new ones I'm learning) listed down the left, and the days of the month along the top. Every day I put codes in the grid for the pieces I worked on. If I simply played through a performance of the piece from memory, I put a "P" in the grid. If I worked on the piece, it gets a "W". If I played through with the music it gets an "M". So when I sit down to practice, I can look at the chart and see which pieces have gone the longest without attention.

Anyway, it seems to be working really well. I'm pretty confident that I could pull a full recital program together with about a week's notice. And I can certainly sit down and play a piece or two if people ask... and probably something different from the last time I played for them. I'm also making progress on 3 or 4 new pieces.

I'm curious to see how far this routine will take me. Will it continue to work with 20 pieces? 25? Or am I already at the limit for the number of hours I put in?


  1. Hi Kenneth,

    I'll be very interested in the conclusions you reach. The brain is such a complicated thing. I suspect that it will allow for the growth of the repertoire as you want it to. I'm looking forward to the new works.


  2. Dear Kenneth
    I was so interested to read about how a musician builds a repertoire through regular practice. Those of us who do not play an instrument have no idea of the work that goes into providing the pleasure that we get from listening to you.

    However, the chart that you describe makes a lot of sense even to a non-musician. It is methodical and clear and it sure seems to be working well for you. I hope the routine produces results beyond even your own expectations.

    In reading your comment, I began to wonder if a musician (for whatever reason) ever decides to discard a piece that is part of his repertoire. It seems to me that the pieces available to you must number in the thousands, yet as an "after-work musician" you would be surprised to master 20 to 25. You'd have to like them a lot to stick with them through the constant attention they need.

    Anyway, Kenneth, keep up the good work. Someday I hope to be able to ask you in person to "sit down and play a piece or two" for me. In the meantime, I continue to listen to you on line. Thanks for that!