The Oxford Reading Tree and 1984
Like many professional instrumental teachers, I have a large proportion of students who transfer to me at various stages in their musical education. Many of these have one glaring omission in their background; a lack of repertoire.
But why is repertoire so important? And what is being taught instead? And crucially, what does a student miss out on when repertoire is neglected?
But perhaps the first question should be, what is repertoire?
The easiest answer is ‘pieces learned’. Repertoire is the musical equivalent of a bookcase of read novels, a half-completed kindle, a stack of non-fiction magazines and newspaper articles. Repertoire is the Oxford Reading Tree and it is 1984, it is a dictionary and a thesaurus, a children’s encyclopaedia, the collected works of Roald Dahl, and A Brief History of Time. If we learn to read by reading, then so we learn to play music through playing more music. Each time our students learn a new piece, they learn something new, whether that’s a technical skill, an interpretation, an understanding of genre, or a practice or collaborative technique.
Without large volumes of new pieces, the number of new skills generated slowly erodes until student progression starts to stagnate.
And so to the second question: what is being taught instead?
The answer to this is usually ‘grade exams’. Don’t get me wrong, grade exams can be fantastic tools if handled well and used sparingly, but in our exam-oriented culture, they are often used as a teaching syllabus rather than as occasional goals to aim towards. And dare I say it, but in the hands of some teachers, they have been known to be used as a sole teaching method, right through from grade 1 to grade 8. Imagine the equivalent in literary circles… a child working through the Oxford Reading Tree, then only being allowed to read 24 books in total before A-levels. That’s not 24 novels in English classes, but 24 books in total.
That’s less books than are currently sitting on a single shelf of my bookcase.
And yet it happens. I continually work with students who have simply not played enough music to be able to cope with the level they are currently trying to play at, and it shows; they are missing general musicianship skills, technical fluency, and understanding of musical context.
But all is not lost…
Time and patience are required, but this missing information can be learned. And the solution is surprisingly simple; to play more repertoire. A student in this position (or, to be honest, any student) should not concern themselves with whether a piece is difficult enough, or whether it is the ‘correct’ grade, only whether it is new, interesting, enjoyable, approachable, and achievable. I have grade 8 students who play grade 5 pieces, and grade 4 students who play grade 1 pieces. After all, when you are choosing a book, do you put it back if the language is not difficult enough?
So next time you’re thinking of learning three pieces for a grade exam, or hedging about buying a new score because it seems like an unnecessary expense, perhaps you might reconsider, and make a start on building a well-read, if somewhat metaphorical, bookcase.