What better way to start a new year at the piano with some new repertoire? But where to start? Perhaps the greatest joy – and frustration – of being a pianist is the vast and wonderful repertoire available to us, from Baroque arabesques to über-contemporary fancies. One could spend a lifetime exploring the piano music of Beethoven or Chopin and still only scratch the surface. For many of us, our tastes are shaped from our earliest days at the piano, usually by our teachers, and they continue to form and develop as we learn and expand our musical horizons.
With such a vast repertoire available, it can be difficult to know where to start when selecting new music. For me, a constant source of inspiration is concerts. You hear it live, which gives a wonderful sense of the music – and don’t think that just because the pros are playing it, it must be impossible. Many concert pieces are not nearly as complicated as they may sound. The radio is also a useful source of ideas, as are music streaming services such as Spotify and LastFM, which offer recommendations based on your listening habits. Spotify has a particularly large archive of classical music, with some wonderful rarities, including recordings of both Rachmaninoff and Ravel (and others) playing their own piano music – wonderfully inspiring. YouTube is another good resource.
Recommendations from friends and colleagues can be very useful too. For example, a pianist friend of mine flagged up the recordings from the annual Rarities of Piano Music festival, which have proved a rich source of potential new repertoire for me. It is also interesting to explore lesser-known repertoire.
It’s important to keep variety and spice in what we choose to play, whether we are studying for exams and diplomas, preparing for a concert or competition, or simply playing for pleasure. If we grow bored of our repertoire, we can get lazy about it and silly errors and hard-to-erase mistakes can creep in. I always have quite a broad range of music “on the go” at any given time, and lately I have tended to focus on one or two quite challenging works (LRSM/FRSM standard), music that lies easily within my playing “comfort zone”, and some easy pieces (for example, Elgar’s Dream Children, which I enjoyed playing during the autumn and which found its way into a couple of concert programmes). I like to have wide chronological sweep too, and at the moment I am working on music by Bach, Mozart, Liszt, Bartok, Messiaen, Britten and Cage. I am also looking forward to tackling some piano music which has only just been written (Portraits for A Study by Jim Aitchison).
Even if you are busy with repertoire for an exam or Diploma, I think it is important to supplement your main learning with other pieces to guard against boredom (it is also a good idea to “rest” pieces on which you have been working for some time). Maybe consider some “lateral repertoire” – by which I mean, if you like the music of Chopin, for example, why not explore the piano music of fellow countryman, Karol Szymanowski? And if you like Debussy, and would like to try some later French piano music, how about Olivier Messiaen? His ‘Preludes’ (1929) show Debussyan influences and also look forward, in their harmonies and idioms, to his greatest piano work, the Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus. These kind of musical explorations can often throw an interesting new light on existing repertoire and offer useful food for thought.
There is plenty of copyright-free music available on the internet, which can be downloaded and printed out, or saved on a tablet device. Always remain open to new ideas and inspirations, and you will enjoy a wealth of fabulous piano music.
Happy new year, and happy practising!
Copyright-free music online: