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Topic: What level of repertoire should I really be playing?  (Read 552 times)

Offline doubleconcerto

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Recently I have come to the realization that I might need to seriously reconsider how I learn piano if I want to continue making progress when I start college and will have less time to practice.

Over the past couple of years, I have started to learn more advanced repertoire, which I believe has done some good for my technique and made me a lot more motivated, but also exposed how weak my fundamentals are. The issue is that I have pretty much been working exclusively on pieces that are above my skill level. I will have one or two pieces (long-term projects) that I am working on and little to nothing else. No scales, shorter pieces, pieces that are challenging but still within my grasp, etc. I have tried technical exercises a few times but never stayed consistent with them.

My first "advanced" piece was the 3rd movement of Moonlight Sonata. I think it took me around 8-9 months to really get a good grasp on it. I went on to learn two more pieces that were a little bit more advanced (both Henle 8s, on the lower end of 8s). For the first one, I spent maybe 4-5 months to have a pretty good overview of it. I then started on the second one, which I learned in a little less than 2 months, only because it was for a competition (I was putting in several hours a day and very much cramming it). That was this past March. I had a few weeks where I wasn't practicing super seriously, but since then I have started working on Chopin's Revolutionary Etude and brought back the first piece to play for a judge. Right now with the etude, I can more or less play through all the notes slowly but have not started putting everything together and speeding it up. This more or less encompasses all that I have worked on in the past year and a half.

A few problems with my approach that I have noticed: my sightreading abilities are almost nonexistent. I don't read through these pieces but rather go through them in small sections, usually with the metronome until I can play it at a decent speed (anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2 tempo), and then move on to the next section, then put a few together, until I have all the notes learned, after which I will work on upping the tempo and refining various elements of the piece. Actually, I don't think this method is the problem, but rather the time it takes me to execute it. For example, I might spend upwards of an hour on two measures. I used to have the classic problem of being able to play through a whole piece but having no idea what to do if asked to start in the middle of it. This isn't so bad anymore because of the way I divide pieces into sections, but I still rely very heavily on muscle memory (I also have extremely rudimentary theory knowledge). Now I am not concerned with being able to sightread everything, but I feel like my general sense of music is lacking because I have been more or less memorizing my way through everything.

For some background, I started piano later than most (in middle school), progressed very quickly and "graduated" from my first teacher after 2 years. I started with a new teacher when I started high school, who was more traditional in terms of her teaching approach (i.e. having one easier piece to be completed each week along with other projects). However, I had a lot going on at the time and didn't really follow what she prescribed. I would go days without practicing and I think was honestly getting a bit disillusioned with the piano (which was my fault, looking back). I switched to my current teacher roughly a year and a half ago, who I have nothing but praise for, but is relatively flexible with what I work on.

During the remaining ~two months before I start college, I have a lot of time on my hands and will practice several hours a day (my goal is 5). My goal during this time is to eliminate all of my bad habits and really try to develop a framework for practicing that allows me to progress as efficiently as possible so that I can adapt to shorter windows of practice time while in college (I will still have a teacher but will be very busy with engineering coursework). This week I have been trying to make some changes, starting by dropping two pieces I have started that I wasn't really getting anywhere with because I am really not ready for them, as well as starting a piece I think I can complete within the next week. I also have been doing scales and started relearning some Hannon exercises. Yesterday my practice breakdown was something like this: 2 hrs Revolutionary Etude, 1 hr short piece, 30 minutes Hanon, 10 minutes scales (and a little bit of a 4-hands piece I am working on, but that is more of a side project).

All that being said, I'm mainly looking for some suggestions as to repertoire that could be a good fit for me, or even how to figure out where my skill level is actually at. I'm also wondering what the best way is for me to structure the time that I have allotted for myself this summer so that I can really get the most out of it before I start college. I have heard the recommendation (and I think my old teacher preached something similar) that you should always be working on a piece you can learn relatively quickly, a piece at the upper bounds of your skill level, and a more long-term project that is a little out of your reach, but at this point, I'm not too sure where those boundaries would fall for me.

I'm definitely going to bring this up with my teacher, but I wanted to try getting some input here in the meantime. Thank you for reading, and any advice would be greatly appreciated!

Offline ego0720

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Re: What level of repertoire should I really be playing?
Reply #1 on: June 04, 2023, 11:35:35 AM
If you havenít started effort on sight reading.. it will be humbling but a good area to start. Watch a few videos on Tom Brier. His friends gave him a some sheets .. he took a look .. and then just played it as if he practiced those songs for some time.

Imo this is where the pros separate from the joes. Lostinidlewonder put it best (I forgot topic but it was like 5+ years ago).. itís the end game on the platform. You can memorize a few songs or play any songs.

Offline anacrusis

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Re: What level of repertoire should I really be playing?
Reply #2 on: June 04, 2023, 12:11:18 PM
Sight reading is very important. Get started on that now if you can, it can be frustrating at first but also a lot of fun. Pick whatever you can read without issues and start from there, even if you have to begin with Bartok mikrokosmos or even simpler material.

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All that being said, I'm mainly looking for some suggestions as to repertoire that could be a good fit for me, or even how to figure out where my skill level is actually at.

I think whatever you can learn to play the notes well in tempo in maybe a week or two is a decent gauge of where you are at, with the exception of exceptionally difficult music.

Offline doubleconcerto

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Re: What level of repertoire should I really be playing?
Reply #3 on: June 04, 2023, 04:27:14 PM
Thank you for the recommendation. I briefly looked through Mikrokosmos and it looks like I could start out with the earlier exercises and work my way up. How long would you recommend spending on sight reading at the beginning?

Offline ego0720

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Re: What level of repertoire should I really be playing?
Reply #4 on: June 04, 2023, 07:55:54 PM
Thank you for the recommendation. I briefly looked through Mikrokosmos and it looks like I could start out with the earlier exercises and work my way up. How long would you recommend spending on sight reading at the beginning?

Sight reading is unfortunately an unexciting chore. I try to do 15-30 minutes 3-4 times weekly if that. You want to keep at it without boring yourself out. The right ratio that works for me is 50-50Ö 50% chores and 50% fun. I put sight reading with the chores. I try to summarize what I got out of the lesson thatís more than just ďI spent x minutes doing thisĒ. I use to do it by counting the time but I have found it more efficient to ask what I get out of each lesson when Iím in the mood. If you can say what you learned itís a quality session.

I also want to point out that this should be internalized slowly. The slowness is not because I canít read the notes any faster but itís bc i have to do that AND bake in other conceptual arrays like time signature, rhythm count, articulations.. etc. in parallel fashion. It can be frustratingly slow but hopefully that helps you out when you find yourself discouraged or speeding up too fast (itís not you but the elusiveness of music mastery).

Offline ranjit

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Re: What level of repertoire should I really be playing?
Reply #5 on: June 04, 2023, 08:35:30 PM
Thank you for the recommendation. I briefly looked through Mikrokosmos and it looks like I could start out with the earlier exercises and work my way up. How long would you recommend spending on sight reading at the beginning?
I've been struggling with this exact question. I think more is better, as long as you do it purposefully. I think what's important is to do as much as you can manage comfortably without burning yourself out. For me, I find that the biggest limiting factor is that sight reading takes time away from developing technique and learning pieces of music (repertoire/quick studies). That said, I find that learning music in constant rotation also improves your sight reading skill somewhat naturally.

If you aren't doing anything else when it comes to piano practice, you could spend several hours sight reading. It depends on your level. Hannah Smith books and the like are good for absolute beginners. I would recommend using a phone app which time tests your skill at note recognition: after a couple of months of that, I could recognize most notes within a second, which I think is a good benchmark to aim for. Then, you need to create automatic reflexes so that you immediately see/imagine patterns of notes, chords etc. and their topography on the keyboard. You could then practice with a wide variety of very easy repertoire until those patterns are internalized, which will likely take a few months, and will keep improving with time. After you reach a specific point when you can sight read some basic pieces like Anna Magdalena Bach or whatever, I think it's a good idea to both sight read easy and hard music. I find people who swear by both. The underlying point, however, is that the same patterns largely underlie easy and hard music, so both will train your pattern recognition. Easier music is better for speed training.

Finding a teacher who specifically teaches sight reading can also help, and I think an online teacher can also work fine for this. If you dig deep enough, there is also a lot of good advice on the internet.

Offline lostinidlewonder

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Re: What level of repertoire should I really be playing?
Reply #6 on: June 08, 2023, 05:16:44 PM
Imo this is where the pros separate from the joes. Lostinidlewonder put it best (I forgot topic but it was like 5+ years ago).. itís the end game on the platform. You can memorize a few songs or play any songs.
Yes I feel strong sight reading skills are the endgame of piano education. To get to a point where you can sight read anything at tempo would be a aiming for the stars, it is a dream more than something achievable by the vast majority (myself included!) but we aim for the stars and we will hit the moon. Strong reading should lead to memorisation, so the hybrid of both in my mind represents the most efficient way to memorise your music, in many cases though when your reading skills are strong, playing without the sheets becomes irrelevant to the quality of the playing

The great strength of reading skills is that as it improves your repertoire expands logarithmically. I think it is not necessary to play everything at tempo but at least with even tempo is fine, from multiple reads doing this speed and memorisation will predominantly naturally follow. As your reading skills become stronger it becomes more and more interesting to study reading, naturally at the lower levels it can feel boring especially if you expose yourself to unimaginative repertoire.

We should expand our view as to what sight reading means and involves. Meaning wise it doesn't necessarily mean solely reading a piece for the first time at tempo. It should involve easily one thousand works per year, it can also involve a smaller group that you cycle through periodically, I personally have around 200 works I play through for a few years slowly adding a piece here and there every week. As well I just read through large volumes of doable works every day too mostly because of my work with students inevitably sets that up for me.

It is quite a loaded answer what level one should sight read, it needs to be predomianlty successful reading with good fingers, notes, timing, rhythm, coordination etc. Something with a little challenge here and there is excellent. There is no excuse not to find works, you can search imslp, google or what is nowadays extremely helpful: pick the brains of ChatGPT!

It is never a problem to sight read works that are too easy, when you have things that are difficult you can adjust your approach, maybe read only one hand, or read all of one hand and only a selected few notes in the other,  you might neglect rhythms, you might play at a very slow tempo. Ideally however you always want to be able to feel the pulse of the music as you play and anticipate the correct sounds if this is not happening this is a problem. You want to be able to see the segmentation of the beat while playing and feel confident with how to coordinate the hands.

There are heaps of lesser known books to learn from but difficult to suggest something specifically for you unless we know your exact skill level, ultimately it is much better a self exploration and getting to know yourself what is useful since yiu need to collect thousands of works. Ensure you create a large library of pdfs and start collecting!!
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Online pianissima

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Re: What level of repertoire should I really be playing?
Reply #7 on: June 12, 2023, 03:58:25 AM
@doubleconcerto, I don't have any advice and am writing mostly to share my experience: I have the same problem (even though I'm like 45+ years older than you). I've been playing piano, mostly not very well, since I was 5, though I switched to another instrument and majored in that in college all the way through a DMA. I've come back to the piano over the past 15 years or so, taking lessons and this past year attending community college majoring in piano.

I've almost always felt my piano teachers gave me music that was too hard for me because my reading ability was so good and in latter years because my musical understanding is so advanced. So I have rarely had anything in hand that I could sit down and play on the spot, from memory. I've been trying to fix this. I've seen advice that you should always have three pieces ready to go that you feel completely comfortable with. I've made some progress along these lines, but because I don't have a lot of experience playing music that I feel reasonably competent about (since I've spent most of my time banging my head against pieces way over my ability), my confidence in my playing isn't high and I get very nervous playing in front of people, even though I've had lots of performing experience on my other instrument (including playing concertos with orchestra).

I've heard the advice that any piece that you can't more or less play within a few weeks (at least the notes, polishing of course can take a lot longer) is probably too hard.

Definitely discuss this with your teacher.

As for sight-reading, I recently heard a talk giving this advice (there was more, but these were the core concepts):
1. Never stop
2. Play a piece no more than 2 times
3. Keep your hands close to the keys and eyes on the music
4. Trust your instincts
5. Before starting, check the key signature and the last chord of the piece
6. Improvise if you have to
7. Leave stuff out
Also: spend only about 5 minutes per day on this type of sight-reading.

Good luck! You are ahead of the game because you're thinking about this now, not waiting until you're old like me.

Offline sempre_piano

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Re: What level of repertoire should I really be playing?
Reply #8 on: June 14, 2023, 07:46:45 PM
Learning pieces that take you months may seem like a good strategy for improvement. It's not.

- This learning strategy will stagnate your reading. When the piece is this hard, it's not reading, it's decoding. On the other hand, when you learn a lot of pieces, you are reading a ton of music that will actually boost your sight reading skills (even though it isn't technically sight reading). More pieces also gives you more material for theory analysis. (You can only learn theory by using it)
- It's not as fun as it sounds. If you can play Moonlight 3 at all, then you have the technique to play some quality music that isn't nearly as hard.
- I think you know this, but the only reason you are now memorizing the music is because it is way too hard for you to read. This is not how professional musicians memorize music. Professionals use a combination of theory, ear training, visual memory of the score/piano, and muscle memory in order to memorize.
- Good technique is about two things: moving efficiently and acquiring patterns in intellectual and muscle memory. For movement, I like the book "What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body". The patterns must be acquired by very slowly increasing the difficulty of the pieces you are playing




 

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