One of the best things about being a twenty-first century piano teacher is the abundance of musical choices. Never in the history of music have we had more sheet music or a wider variety of styles and genres at our fingertips. We can browse online from a seemingly endless selection of music for our students and even print on-demand!
However, one of the most difficult things about being a modern piano teacher is--you guessed it--the abundance of choices! It can be tough to balance our desire to find new, exciting repertoire for our students to play with the desire to use high quality materials that will make our students feel successful and sound fabulous. With so much music to choose from, how can we tell if a particular piece is well-written and a good fit for our students?
Today, I’d like to share my own suggestions for how to assess a piece and decide if it is right for your student. Every student has different tastes and abilities--so hopefully these ideas will help you to find the right piece for every student in your studio!
First, know your levels. Choosing a piece at the right level for your student is the first step in making sure that your selection will set your student up for success. You will see a variety of terminology used by different publishing companies to describe the various levels of piano music. However, here is a general guideline that shows the most commonly-used name for each level, along with its corresponding method book levels and the designation publishers use for popular music at that level (in quotation marks):
Elementary (Beginner) - primer, level 1 - “five-finger”
Late Elementary (Late Beginner) - level 2-3 - “big note”
Early Intermediate - level 3-4 - “easy piano”
Intermediate - level 4-5 - "easy piano"
Late Intermediate - level 5-6 - "piano solo" or "piano-vocal-guitar"
Advanced - out of method books - “piano solo” or "piano-vocal-guitar"
Most publishing companies try to make a teacher's job easier by clearly listing the level of a piece of music on the front cover. However, if the level of a piece isn't clearly marked, here are a couple of resources that can help you determine it:
The Pianists Guide to Standard Teaching and Performance Literature by Jane Magrath
This is an excellent resource that covers thousands of the most-taught piano pieces from the beginning to early advanced levels. Although you won't find the most recently composed pieces listed here, it is a must-have for leveling and choosing repertoire written around 1990 and earlier.
Sheet Music Plus Level Guidelines
Sheet Music Plus is a large, online music retailer. They have created a chart that lists characteristics of pieces at each level with examples from the standard piano literature. It will give you a good overview of what musical elements you can expect to find in pieces at each level. You can also click on a level to browse all the music they have available at that level--which is very helpful!
Next, I like to ask myself three important questions to judge whether a piece is well-written and appropriate for the student I have in mind.
1. Is the piece fun to play? A piece that feels good under the hands and matches your student's current technical abilities will be fun to play! You might ask:
- Does this piece fit the hands well, with no awkward maneuvering or excessively tricky fingering?
- Does this piece take into account the hand size, finger dexterity, and technical abilities of your student?
- Does this piece use a tempo that is attainable for your student?
- Does this piece use rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic patterns that your student will recognize?
2. Is it fun to listen to this piece? Students (and parents) enjoy music that sounds good, no matter what level your student is currently at. You might ask:
- Is it catchy? Would your student be excited to play this piece?
- Is it unique? Does it contain elements that would make it interesting to a non-musical listener (i.e., a parent) in a performance setting?
- Does it tell a story, communicate an emotion, or paint a picture for the listener?
3. Does this piece teach the student something? Although we want our students to enjoy the music they are playing, we also want the pieces we choose to contribute to our students' overall musical growth. You might ask:
- What will the student learn by playing this piece? Does this piece reinforce your student’s current piano skills?
- Does this piece stretch your student in some small way, either artistically or technically? (My rule of thumb is that a piece can have one or two new ideas--beyond that and there is potential for a student to be overwhelmed.)
- Does this piece serve as a stepping stone to other works you hope your student will study in the future?
What do you think? How do you assess a new piece and determine if it is a good fit for your students? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!