Maintaining Repertoire

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them,
and pretty soon you have a dozen.”

–John Steinbeck, author

If you’re a musician who brims with ideas, you’ve probably learned piles of repertoire that you’d like to maintain.

Still, it’s no easy task to plan a practice schedule that incorporates dozens of compositions.

Here are strategies for keeping lots of titles performance-ready.

1. Create a Repertoire List
A repertoire list enables us to determine practice objectives at a glance.

You might write the list by hand or on a computer. Some musicians use checklists and mark each day that they practice particular pieces.

If you’d like to try out a check sheet, there’s one freely available on the downloads page at

2. Document Your Practice Goals
Writing down goals simplifies and motivates our practice. For instance, if our repertoire list encompasses hours of music, and many of the compositions contain tricky passages, jotting down specific goals unburdens us from having to remember which bits need the most work.

As an illustration, a string player might keep track of problematic passages in a piece by writing, “measures 32-34: intonation; m. 46: clean shift; m. 60-62: more legato; m. 71: make fast passage easier; m. 90-93: sweeter tone.”

Documenting multiple small goals also helps us set achievable aims for each practice session, supporting our motivation. One documenting format would be to use a notebook or Word file: write a title at the top of a page, and then list practice objectives beneath. Ensemble members might employ an online workspace to do so.

3. Establish a Review Cycle
There’s no set formula for how often well-learned pieces should be reviewed – it varies depending on the musician, repertoire, and situation. But most of us sense how much review we need. As a starting point, here are some general guidelines:

•  With easy material, we might only need to review the music once or twice a month.
•  Memorized titles might require weekly or biweekly review.
•  Complex or lengthy pieces that we’ll perform often might need targeted reviewing several times a week.
•  Music from genres in which we’re less proficient will benefit from at least twice-weekly review so that we can steadily mature our abilities.
•  As a concert date approaches, the music on the program will merit daily practice and other titles might need to be set aside temporarily.

4. Perform Often
It’s far easier for us to maintain repertoire when we present it regularly. So consider booking casual gigs to try out new repertoire, run through old favorites, and experiment with performing different styles. Line up various sorts of concerts too.

For example, if an aspiring pianist who mainly plays in jazz combos wants to maintain a cache of solo classical pieces, she might commit to a weekly solo gig at a coffee shop or supper club.

In that way, she’ll not only fuel her development but also boost her income, build her audience, and contribute to the cultural life in her town. Over time, she could also play concerts at community venues and thereby expand her solo career.

For additional strategies that optimize practice and performance, see Parts I & II of The Musician’s Way.

Related posts
The art-career tango
The benefits of accessible music
Mental imaging
Optimizing practice time
Performance-oriented practice

© 2010 Gerald Klickstein

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One Response to “Maintaining Repertoire”

  1. Zhang said:

    Nov 29, 10 at 22:15

    One of the most important things about being a collaborative pianist is developing depth of repertoire, whether you choose to specialize in one area or play a wide variety of genres. When you’re applying for graduate school, a young artist program, or your first staff accompanist position, it’s important to be able to present a complete repertoire list so those who are interested in you can get a better sense of the works, styles and genres that you’ve played so far.

    The problem is that very few of us actively maintain a rep list and are able to keep track of what we’ve played over time. It takes a lot of time and regular updating to be able to offer a complete rep list (especially one as jaw-droppingly awesome as Amanda Johnston’s) and this post will tell you how you can start, update, and offer one that will impress at hiring time.

    Getting Started

    Back in the old days, those of us diligent enough to be updating our rep lists did so on a weekly or monthly basis, when we would frantically search our books and photocopies, find out what was new, and add it to our list, most often a word document that lived on our home computer.

    Fortunately, things have changed and the process of rep list-building can benefit greatly from the advances made with cloud computing technology. I recommend using a Google Docs spreadsheet for keeping the data in your rep list, and have created a template that you can use for this purpose:

    You’ll need to create and be signed into a Google account to save the template and start adding your own rep to the spreadsheet. The advantage of a Google Docs spreadsheet is that since it’s stored on Google’s servers, you can update it from any internet-enabled computer or smartphone. This is much more efficient than the old practice of having a word document on your hard drive that you only added to once in a blue moon.

    Updating Your Rep List

    Once you’ve saved the template to your Google account, you can start putting your repertoire on it. I’ve listed columns for composer, title of work, title of larger work (if applicable), genre, and sub-genre and added a few commonly known works to give you an idea of how the setup works. Here are some things to keep in mind when adding data to the fields:

    * There is no need to insert rows. Simply add the latest data to the bottom of the spreadsheet, click on the arrows on the lettered columns, and choose “Sort Sheet A —> Z” in order to alphabetize, ie. by composer.
    * When listing composers, it’s a good idea to put the last name first for the purpose of alphabetization.
    * I’ve used the genre field for dividing between Instrumental and Vocal repertoire. You can also add Solo to this field.
    * You can use the Sub-Genre field to even further segment your rep, ie. sonata vs. concerto, aria vs. art song.

    Presenting Your Rep List
    The time will come when you need to present your list in various elegant guises. Here are some ways that you can segment your full repertoire list in order to present it when the time comes:

    * Select and copy any groups of fields and then paste and format them into a word document for official presentation. You can also paste them into WYSIWYG editors if you’re building a website.
    * For a complete alphabetical listing, sort the entire list alphabetically by composer.
    * To divide into instrumental and vocal groups, sort the genre field, then the composer field, then copy and paste into a word document.
    * To list a specialization such as violin concertos or lieder, sort the sub-genre field, then sort the composer field, then copy and paste the alphabetized contents of the chosen sub-genre field.
    * For even more input, sorting, and presentation options, you can download the spreadsheet and then import it into a database program such as Microsoft Access or Base.

    A couple of caveats

    1. Update your list regularly. Doing a mass update the night before you send out your DMA application is not a good idea. Setting up your list early as a Google spreadsheet and adding to it via smartphone or internet whenever you learn a work takes less time over the long term and results in a much better, flexible, and marketable product when you need it.
    2. Don’t falsify the contents of your repertoire list. Only list the works that you actually can play. You’re going to get burned if you pad your list. I recall a “cello specialist” I once worked with who only knew a few sonatas and no concertos. The best rep list in the world cannot mask a pianist with repertoire deficiencies. On the other hand, every single one of us has a slightly different specialization, the nuances of which can rise to the surface with a consistently revised list.