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The Art of Repertoire Practice: 8 Key Steps to Success

Tuxedo cat sitting in front a piano with a thought bubble reading "I have no idea what I'm doing..."

Repertoire is a collection of songs a musician prepares to perform. It applies not only to music but to theatre and dance as well. The word is borrowed from the French language. The word's core comes from the late Latin parere - to produce or bring into being. So, while the dictionary defines it as the songs a performer already knows, the word’s etymology and its everyday use also refer to the songs a performer is preparing. All that to say is it’s now time for your child to practice the songs they have been assigned.

The Repertoire Practice

There is a common misconception that this part of practice should be the majority of practice time. While this can be true for an intermediate or advanced performer (in some, but not all, cases), that is different for beginners. Song practice should be about one-quarter to one-third of the time spent at the instrument. The warmup (see here), technical practice (here), and “noodling” time (coming next week) are all equally important, and practice time should be divided between these areas.

How should a performer practice a song? Play through it, start to finish a couple of times, and call it good? Well, given how often this is how practice goes, you’d think this was the best way, but NO. NO. NO. First, practice is not performance and shouldn’t sound like a performance. Practice should be messy. Let’s go through the steps of practicing a new song. They can also be applied to a piece a student has already been working on. You skip to the appropriate step when you return to the music each time.

8 Steps for Practicing a Song

1. Study the Score

New vocabulary word time! We aren’t going to the ballpark here. Score is another word for the copy of a musical composition written on paper (or digitally). Before your child touches their instrument to play the song, they must look over their score. They need to read the music before they play the music. Ensure their practice nest is well-stocked with highlighters, pencils, and tape flags. Here are some things to look for before playing.

• Time Signature: How many beats per measure? Have your beginner student clap out a few bars of the time signature to get a feel for the beats of a song. 3/4 time feels different than 4/4 time.

• Key Signature: Beginners won’t need to worry about this. All beginning music is written in the key of C Major (or A minor). That means the music has no sharps or flats unless “by accident.” For later beginners playing in different key signatures, missing the key signature and failing to play the sharps and flats of a song is a very common practice mistake (I even do it occasionally!). Help your child get in the habit of checking the key signature before they play. Ask them what notes will be sharp or flat, and have them look through the music to see where those notes are. If playing in a new key signature for the first time, have them highlight all the notes affected by the key.

Note: Your child should have their own copy of their method book so they can mark it as they need. It is beneficial to be able to highlight or otherwise mark a score.

• Read Through: Read the score like a book. Left to right, top to bottom. Observe how the hands play together or when they switch back and forth. Look for anything noteworthy, like accidentals - sharps and flats added that are outside the key signature of the piece - or hand position changes - usually indicated by a circled finger number. Highlight these potential trip-ups.

• Hand Position: Find the starting hand position. For all beginner method books, this will be notated clearly. Some books use a graphic showing exactly what finger number should go on what key, string, or valve. Others will have something like “1 on C”. Not checking the hand position and playing from the wrong hand position is a common beginning student mistake.

2. Listen

Listen to a recording of the music. The practice app I use for my studio allows me to attach a recording of each assigned piece. If you don’t have this from your child’s teacher, look up the song online. Search for the song title and the method book's name and level. Chances are, you’ll find a video of someone playing the piece your child is learning. Hearing the song at the start of learning helps your child feel confident as they start playing a new song. Listening to the song as they continue to work on it also helps them spot-check the rhythm and melody and correct an error in playing before it becomes ingrained.

3. Break the song into pieces

Breaking the piece into sections to learn is more applicable to intermediate and advanced students. Still, regardless of the level, it is useful for any longer song. Lyrics can be helpful for this. Break a song into verse, chorus, or even a sentence or phrase. If there aren’t lyrics, other ways to break a song into pieces are repeated sections, changes in dynamics, phrase marks or slurs, or even playing the music line by line. Talk to your child's teacher if you aren’t sure how to break a piece into smaller sections.

4. Practice each hand individually

Practice each hand separately first. Your child should be able to fluently play the right-hand and left-hand parts before putting them together.

Note: This does not apply to early beginner music, where both hands play the melody. If one rests while the other plays and vice versa, your child will want to play hands together from the start.

5. Practice SLOW

I tell my students, “Practice slow to play fast.” There is a tendency for students to play the parts they are confident with really fast and then hit the brakes on the challenging parts. Encourage a steady tempo throughout and playing slowly. Only once a piece can be played through relatively mistake-free should the student work on playing it up to tempo.

6. Challenging sections

Identify the trouble spots and give them extra focused practice. Playing a piece from start to finish multiple times without breaking out the challenging bits will not make the tricky bits better. If your child struggles with math, you will review the concepts they struggle with, not ALL math. The idea here is similar. Concentrate on the tricky section until it is no longer tricky, then play the whole song again. No section is too small, either. If the transition from one chord to another is continually tripping them up, have them practice that transition several times in a row, add a larger phrase, and then play the whole song.

7. Play through

So many steps to get here, but now it’s time to put it all together. If you aren’t sitting with your child while they practice, now is an excellent time to pop in for a mini-concert. When they are done playing, ask your child how they thought they played. If there was a section they obviously struggled with, suggest they practice that section again. If it sounded pretty good overall, you can still ask them what they think they could do to make it better next time. Don’t let them off the hook if they answer “Nothing.” Challenge them to come up with at least one way to improve. It’s important for your child to learn to critique their own playing. And you can help them do that even if you aren’t a musician and don’t know the musical terms to ask about by asking them how they think they can do it better.

8. Leave on a good note!

Yep. One final step. Even if your child is still far from mastering a song, they should leave each practice on a good note. Don’t end on a section where they played it wrong. End on a section they can play so the correct music will stick in their mind, making it easier to play next time.

It may seem like this is a lot of work to learn Hot Cross Buns in the beginning days of piano lessons. In reality, your child isn’t going to need all these steps for every song they learn. If they practice consistently and build good practice habits from the start, most songs will come to them quickly. Through consistent application, these steps will become second nature.

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