Maintaining Repertoire

November 8, 2010, 6:07 AM ·

“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 titles that you’d like to maintain.

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

Here are strategies that my students and I find helpful in keeping lots of music performance-ready.

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 then mark each day that they practice a piece.

If you’d like to try out a checklist, there’s a free practice log check sheet posted on the downloads page at

Document your practice goals
Writing down goals simplifies and motivates our practice.

For instance, if your repertoire list encompasses hours of music, and many of the compositions contain tricky passages, jotting down specific goals unburdens you from having to remember numerous details.

As an illustration, a string player might write the following about problematic passages in one piece: “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. In that way, we don’t feel overwhelmed, and our expectations of success and drive to practice stay high.

For example, a violinist might opt to work on three of the above five goals one day and then tackle the remaining two the next.

One possible documenting format: using 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 collaborative workspace.

Establish a review cycle
There’s no set formula regarding how often well-learned pieces should be reviewed – it varies depending on the musician, repertoire, and situation. But most of us have insight into how much review we need.

Nonetheless, as a starting point, here are some general guidelines for rising music students:

  • With easy material, you might only need to review the music once or twice a month.
  • Straightforward memorized titles might require bi-weekly review; somewhat more challenging repertoire could demand weekly attention.
  • Complex or lengthy pieces that you expect to perform often might need targeted reviewing several times a week; thorny excerpts could call for additional intense practice.
  • Music from genres in which you’re less proficient will benefit from regular review - perhaps weekly over many months – so that you can steadily mature your interpretive or improvisational abilities.
  • As a concert date approaches, the music on your program will merit more practice, and other titles might need to be set aside temporarily.

Perform often
It’s far easier for us to maintain repertoire when we present it regularly in public.

So consider booking casual gigs and practice performances at which you can try out new repertoire, run through old favorites, and experiment with performing different styles. Line up various sorts of concerts, too.

For example, if a jazz violinist who mainly plays in combos wants to maintain a cache of solo classical pieces, then, for starters, she and her accompanist might commit to a weekly two or three-hour gig at a coffee shop or supper club.

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

*  *  *

For additional strategies that optimize practice and performance along with guidelines for planning concert programs, see Parts I & II of my book The Musician’s Way (Oxford, 2009).

A version of this article first appeared on The Musician's Way Blog.

© 2010 Gerald Klickstein


November 10, 2010 at 07:36 PM ·

This is terrific advice - I've been thinking about keeping a record recently and will have a look at your sheets to see if they work for me (amateur with limited practise time).  It will also be a good way to keep track of the nice pieces I try out that I need to go back to.


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