Do pianists really need to play the entire piano repertoire?

This is a topic relevant to performers of all standards and abilities. How can we build an effective and enjoyable recital programme which is varied, interesting and more importantly, will compliment a pianist’s abilities and talents? For younger, inexperienced performers, teachers are paramount here, hopefully suggesting works beyond the scope of those found in various exam syllabuses. Not that there is anything wrong with examination set pieces, quite the contrary in fact, but if students only stick to them, they will develop a very limited set of skills. Learning three pieces (or four depending on the exam board), a few scales, minimal sight-reading and aural tests, does not constitute an all-round musical or piano education, and parents would do well to bear this in mind. It is a subject hotly contested by many instrumental teachers; the main complaint always appears to be the almost inevitable parental ‘pushing’ towards the next exam or grade which will not help overall improvement in a student’s playing in the long run, as all good teachers know.

Beyond exams, it can be beneficial to start compiling programmes or collections of works you particularly enjoy playing and crucially, those you play well. A common misconception amongst students playing classical music is that they must demonstrate many different pianistic styles and historical periods. Whilst this may be true for examinations and competitions where set works must be adhered to, concert programmes do not need to be devised with this in mind. Surely a much better plan is to highlight those composers and works which show case a pianist’s personality in the most complimentary way?

Music colleges and conservatoires tend to perpetuate this; it’s mandatory (or certainly was when I was student) to include a Prelude and Fugue (by J S Bach or similar), several Etudes or concert studies (usually by Liszt, Chopin or Rachmaninov), a Twentieth Century work and a Classical or Romantic sonata at the end of year exam. This may be great for working at technical skills and obtaining thorough knowledge of the piano repertoire, but in the saturated world of the concert platform, how often will young players really need these works after graduation? We’ve all heard pianists, whatever their ability, play mediocre and random cross sections of the repertoire, only to leave the concert thinking that we loved their Mozart, but what a pity they didn’t play more of it.  Pianists should always play to their strengths.

Those who specialise in particular composers or areas of music most certainly attract attention and are often viewed as more interesting propositions to concert organisers and promoters because they offer something different. As many world-class classical pianists will attest, their specialisms have become their trademarks. So with this in mind, is it prudent to encourage ‘specialising’ in younger students and pupils?

Most of us gravitate to works we really enjoy and those we play well anyway, but these may not necessarily be the most demanding or virtuosic show pieces, on the contrary, they may only demonstrate certain aspects of musicianship, but if that is your métier then so be it. Luckily the piano repertoire is so vast it’s relatively easy to do this. A handful of pianists are associated with the works of J S Bach for example, (think Glenn Gould) but have performed this demanding repertoire with such panache and élan; they have become revered for their specialism. Not that Gould didn’t or couldn’t play anything else, but rather he became synonymous with J S Bach’s music.

So when developing short recital programmes, or even pieces to play to family members and friends, choose works you love and can play with total conviction as opposed to offering the obvious show pieces or works with which you have little affinity. At a recent music festival, several competitors chose to play a couple of pieces by Einaudi. Not everyone’s favourite composer and only on the fringes of ‘classical’ music at most, but these pupils played with such joy producing beautiful colours from the instrument that they waltzed off with first and second prize. Their playing convinced me of their love for the music and the instrument.

Another moot point is the need for a ‘varied’ programme. Certainly playing the same type of music for an hour would be dull, but it is possible to perform works by the same composer (or genre) which are both complimentary and completely captivating. It’s more important to ensure variety of colour, tempo and character than selecting multiple composers or periods of music. So if Minimalism is your love, find a few pieces illustrating different emotions and sonorities within that genre. Perform these exquisitely and you may just have found a winning combination. However, it does take a brave pianist, at whatever level, to feel so comfortable with a particular composer or musical genre, that they are confident enough to ‘champion’ that, and only that, music. It also takes a brave teacher to recognise the strengths of their students and ‘allow’ the student to specialise.

It’s really not about abandoning those works which must be studied to ensure a well-formed musical education, but rather finding music beyond this, in order to inspire and encourage improvement and personal growth. By delving into the depths of the piano repertoire you may find exciting new musical paths and hopefully it will be a happy voyage of discovery too.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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