Method books might provide a useful backbone to your teaching at the beginning, but as your students progress, they’re going to need to branch out. You’ll need to explore pieces outside of the method books, find great music and decide which ones are appropriate for your student’s level.

Diagnosing Repertoire Level

One of the hardest things as a new teacher is to decide how difficult a particular piece really is. Even pieces which come with a level can be inconsistent and the levelling systems are so varied that it can be confusing. (Elementary? Pre-grade 1? Easy piano? Who can say which of these is easier or harder?!)

I recommend choosing one system of levelling so you can use it as a central reference point for all the others. If you grew up in an exam system, you might like to use that. Otherwise I recommend the 10-level system Jane Magrath uses in her book ‘The Pianist’s Guide to Standard Teaching & Performance Literature’.

It will take you a while to become really good at matching a piece to a student’s level, so be patient with yourself. You will have some missteps in the beginning with pieces which are too hard or too easy, but keep analysing pieces and working at this skill and eventually it will become second nature.

Here are a few things to consider when you’re diagnosing a piece’s difficulty:

  • Length: Longer pieces tend to be more suitable for more experienced students.
  • Repetition: If there is a lot of it, the piece will be easier.
  • Coordination: Melody only is the easiest, then contrary and similar motion, then single note or chord accompaniments, etc. 
  • Intervals: As we discussed in the Reading lesson, the variety of intervals used is a big factor to reading difficulty.
  • Movement around the keyboard: A piece which moves around a lot is more challenging.
  • Catchiness: The more memorable the melody is, the easier it will be.
  • Accidentals and key signatures: More sharps/flats and pieces which break out of the key will be more difficult.
  • Speed: If it needs to be fast to sound good, this will be more technically challenging.
  • Rhythm: Complex or difficult-to-read rhythms can add to the difficulty.
  • Articulation: Combining different articulations in each hand is more technically challenging.
  • Pedalling: A little direct pedal at the end is easier than legato, which is far easier than flutter pedalling.

Start studying pieces during your professional development time. Consider these factors as well as others which come up during your playing and try to estimate the level. If you get the Jane Magrath book you could even make a game of it! Analyse standard teaching pieces and try to guess which level she would put them in, then look it up to see if you’re right. 

Remember that the missteps are natural. Every time you work on a piece with a student and it isn’t quite right, just own your mistake and move on. Then try to use it as an opportunity to ask what you missed so you get better and better over time.

Finding Great Music

While I can provide a few specific recommendations to get you started, you’ll also need some places to look for new ideas down-the-track. There are 2 places I recommend you look whenever you need fresh inspiration:

  1. Teacher groups & communities
  2. Exam syllabi

The first one is a no-brainer. In our beautifully connected online world, you can glean enormous benefit from hanging out with a global community of teachers. You can ask for suggestions right here within the VMT forums, and watch out for interesting suggestions in Facebook groups too.

Looking in exam syllabi might seem like an odd suggestion to you, especially if piano exams are not common practice where you are. But exam syllabi are actually rich in piece ideas and many are available for free online. Whether your students do exams or not, I suggest looking up exam piece lists from some of the major exam boards to get new ideas for pieces and composers. 

Providing Choice

The further along your student is in their studies, and the older they are, the more choice they should have over the pieces they learn. Students will be much more motivated to learn a piece if they have picked it out themselves.

Supplemental Books

Your students do not have to choose every single piece they learn and I don’t recommend you have them pick out individual pieces, one at a time. Providing choice is much more manageable if you give them a choice between supplemental books rather than single pieces. You may end up having them select a single piece for a specific event, but doing this for each and every piece will be too time consuming for both of you. 

When it’s time for your student to choose a new book or piece, simply email them or their parents a list of links so they can listen to samples and choose for themselves. You can find most books on YouTube, if the publisher does not have music previews on their web site.

Special Requests

Make sure your student also knows they can come to you with special requests for songs or pieces they want to learn. Make a habit of asking them regularly (even if they shrug at first) so they know you’re open to input from them. This is their musical journey, after all, and we want them to take ownership of it.

More to Explore

You can also find videos about some of my favourite supplemental books in the Video Library by selecting “Reviews” in the “Type” menu.

Lesson Content