The Repertoire Pyramid: Motivating Students with the Right Mix of Music

By Chrissy Ricker, NCTM

Assigning and pacing the repertoire we use with our students is one of the most challenging tasks we face as music teachers. The music we assign not only shapes the development of our students’ technical skills--it can also play a huge role in maintaining our students’ motivation to practice.

Some of the difficulties we might encounter in assigning student repertoire include:

Scaffolding of skills. Repertoire should reinforce the current technical skills of students while preparing them for future pieces.

Providing variety. Repertoire should expose students to a variety of styles, take into account each student’s individual musical preferences, and provide enough diversity to maintain each student’s interest.

Providing achievable challenges. Repertoire should provide enough of a challenge to keep students engaged and motivated, but not so much that they are overwhelmed.

So, with all of these criteria to consider, how can we be sure that we are providing our students with the right repertoire at the right time? My solution to this problem has been to think in terms of what I like to call the “repertoire pyramid.” The repertoire pyramid consists of three different types of repertoire, each with its own pedagogical purpose:

Easy wins: these are pieces that are just beyond sight-reading level and can be learned and polished in one or two weeks of practice. Often these pieces can be assigned as independent study pieces, giving students the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to practice new material independently.

Short-term goals: these are pieces that are at the student's current playing level and can be learned and polished in three to four weeks.

Long-term goals: these are pieces that are above a student’s current playing level and may take two months or more to learn and polish. Examples of long-term goals may include pieces being learned for a recital or a competition.

Each of these three types of repertoire plays an important role in a student’s overall musical growth. Easy wins give students the opportunity to read new music at every lesson and help students to feel successful by learning a wide variety of repertoire quickly. Short-term goals give students the opportunity to develop their technical skills with small musical challenges and prepare students for more advanced works. Long-term goals provide students with larger challenges--encouraging students to put their practice skills to the test and fueling their sense of accomplishment as these goals are met.

As I assign repertoire to my students, I think in terms of a pyramid, with the bulk of our assignments being easy wins and the smallest percentage being long-term goals. A sample breakdown of this formula for a semester of study (around 16 weeks) would be:

Long-term goals: 1-2 per semester

Short-term goals: 4-6 per semester

Easy wins: 10-12 per semester

Throughout the semester, I assess each student’s progress by looking at their assignments for the past month. Has the student been stuck on the same two or three pieces for a few weeks? It is probably time for a couple of easy wins. Has the student completed their last several assignments very quickly? It might be time to add in a new long-term goal for an extra challenge.

By following the repertoire pyramid formula, students can comfortably learn around 30-40 different pieces of music over the course of a two-semester school year. This provides ample opportunity for students to study a wide variety of music. Since students are learning new pieces each week, teachers can more easily incorporate pieces of each student’s own choosing into their assignments.

Of course, the repertoire pyramid can be flexible, too! There may be times that students are best served by focusing on more easy wins--for example, when they first begin music lessons, or when they are particularly overwhelmed with other activities and have less time to practice than they would like. Often, our advanced students are working on more long-term goals out of necessity as they prepare for competitions, festivals, or auditions.

However, in general, I have found that using the repertoire pyramid as a guide has helped me to assign the right mix of music at the right time for each of my students. My students are more motivated, more engaged, and playing lots of fun music--and that makes their teacher very happy!