Strategies for Choosing Concerto Repertoire

June 13, 2019, 3:18 PM · As my oldest is heading off for camp for the first time, we are being introduced to lots of kids from different teachers and different programs, and I find it fascinating how much variability there is in how teachers choose a progression of repertoire. Even teachers who purport to follow the Dorothy DeLay concerto sequence seem to employ different strategies.

I was wondering the criteria you (or your teacher) used in choosing concerto repertoire. Did you always just play the next hardest piece? Did you learn pieces just for "completeness"? Did your teacher give you pieces that were a stretch or only at/around your level? Does it depend on your goals? Does it sometimes come down to other factors, like picking a more/less common piece or the same/different piece from your best friend?

I think my son's teacher is spot on in her choices for my son, who has professional aspirations and is just finishing 8th grade. Her strategy this year with him has been to learn a ton of the pieces in Group I of the list for completeness, with a focus on the ones that are likely to be needed as a professional (i.e. no to Conus; yes to Mozart 3). None of the pieces was a stretch for him this year, though he did improve lots of general techniques. He played in full Lalo, Wieniawski 2, Mozart 3, and now Saint Saens 3. It typically only took him 2-4 weeks on each movement, though he spent some more time on movements he used in competitions and invited performances. He also learned the rest of Bach Partita 3 and all of Bach Sonata 1, and 4 Paganini caprices (13, 14, 16, 20).

The kids in his program tend to wait a little longer than most to play the Group 2/3 pieces, but they tend to play them really well once they do play them. For example, virtually none of them play anything in Group 2 until they are in high school.

I know we get a ton of "what should I play next?" questions here and that's not what I am interested in. I want to know people's thoughts on why you (or your teacher) make the choices you do.

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Edited: June 13, 2019, 3:59 PM · For me, I don't think there was a single reason, once I was into the "professional" repertoire as a teenager. My teacher then was a Dorothy DeLay pupil.

We did Mendelssohn because I really wanted to play it, and it was an appropriate gateway to the concerto repertoire.

We did Saint-Saens 3 because it was a good competition concerto, stylistic change from anything I'd previously played, and one of the logical post-Mendelssohn concertos.

We did Mozart 4 because my teacher felt that it would be a vital lifelong audition concerto.

We did Barber because my teacher wanted me to play a 20th century work and let me pick it. He wasn't thrilled with my choice (he felt it was too easy) but we did do it.

Then he wanted me to choose a more "modern" 20th century work. I wanted to do Shostakovich 1. He decided on Prokofiev 1, intended to be an audition concerto for college, and a smorgasbord of technique.

My next teacher chose Tchaikovsky, with the notion that it'd be good for me pedagogically, would be a good competition work, and would be a lifelong audition concerto.

When I came back to the violin for the first time as an adult, we did a series of the less-difficult Romantic concertos that I hadn't done previously -- the remainder of Mendelssohn (which I hadn't learned previously), Bruch, Khachaturian, Lalo Symphonie Espagnol. I would consider that to have been more "for fun" than pedagogically structured. Then we did more difficult works -- Paganini 1 (too difficult), followed by Brahms (which my teacher loved teaching, but I moved cross-country and stopped playing before we finished it).

When I came back to the violin for the second time as an adult, I learned the first movement of Mozart 5 as a warm-up exercise (to help me deal with unstable intonation as my ears were re-acclimating). And we did Glazunov, because a week after I started playing again, I had the opportunity to get to perform it with orchestra later that year. (My teacher hadn't taught it before, and underestimated the difficulty.)

After that each concerto has generally had specific pedagogical purpose -- we've done Prokofiev 2, Beethoven, Wieniawski 2 (slow movement only), Tchaikovsky (I wanted to get the first movement back into my fingers for audition purposes, and I'd quit as a kid before learning the 3rd movement), Paganini 1 (just the really difficult parts of the first movement), and Dvorak. And next will be Shostakovich 1 -- so it's taken 30+ years to finally get my wish!

I've learned quite a lot other repertoire as well, during all three periods of my "advanced" violin-playing life. In childhood it was pedagogical. In my first adult return, we focused on things I wanted to play. With my second return (and current teacher), it's a combination of situational requirements and pedagogical intent. Other than things that I am specifically learning to perform with orchestra, the concertos are less emphasized now (i.e. more pedagogical), since the performance opportunities are otherwise for recital repertoire.

June 13, 2019, 9:02 PM · I can offer the plan that my son has been through with his teacher. He is a rising senior and plans to audition for some very well-known teachers next year.

His teacher (Miss Delay’s last full-time student) loosely followed the concerto sequence. He often learned two concerti at the same time along with unaccompanied Bach. Sonata work has come later, but he has now found a collaborative partner and loves learning the sonatas. He has also been working his way through the Paganini caprices and has about 7 to go.

He has a great love for Shostakovich 1 and his teacher used this as a motivator for him to learn some of the repertoire that he had not yet learned. So, he had to learn Vieuxtemps 4 and 5, Wieniawski 1, Prokofiev 1 and Dvorak Concerto before starting Shostakovich. He just finished learning Shosty and it was a great idea to wait. Musically and technically he needed a few more pieces in his fingers.

The concerti in group 2 are constantly being revived and reviewed. These pieces end up being the competition and camp audition repertoire.

He has always wanted to learn Walton Concerto and that may be next after audition season is over. There are many different paths to repertoire. However, the overriding philosophy was to learn all movements, play from memory with piano and perform as much as possible.

June 13, 2019, 9:16 PM · @Lydia just wondering, why do you say that Sain-Saens 3 is a good competition concerto?
June 13, 2019, 10:05 PM · For me at the time, in my early teens, SS3 was a good fit for my technical strengths, and for the local competition scene.
June 14, 2019, 1:04 PM · It seems like Shostakovich is the official "dangle in front of your student to keep him/her motivated" piece! My son can't wait to play it -- likely next year!

Thanks for talking me through your concerto pathways. I am guessing it's an ever-changing landscape for each kid and teacher.

June 14, 2019, 1:48 PM · I would add that there's a significant difference between my repertoire from childhood and adulthood. In childhood, a lot of pieces were chosen with an eye to competition. Yes, they were all building blocks, but they were generally picked to play to my strengths, as I would generally be amongst each competition's winners. But we never really worked on my weaknesses. My adult repertoire has often been chosen to target weaknesses, because there aren't any competitions.

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