Concertos vs concert pieces

Edited: March 21, 2020, 8:15 PM · I'm curious about the merits of working through the standard concerti vs. preparing shorter concert works.

My daughter is 11 and should wrap up her work on the Mozart No. 4 in the next few months. In our part of the world, the musical calendar is dominated by a large youth music festival in which the typical entry is two contrasting shorter pieces and a concerto movement. My growing sense is that she would be better served by using her time to work through a logical concerto sequence and unaccompanied Bach in lieu of spending so much time on the smaller works. (Mind you, most are lovely works themselves. I'm thinking in a utilitarian sense here.)

Much has been written here and elsewhere about the concerto sequence. Rather, my question is about the relative merits (and opportunity costs) of putting the student's energies into larger works, along with unaccompanied Bach vs. short show pieces. She had the chance to solo with orchestra last year, had an enjoyable experience and is itching for more opportunities.

Replies (11)

March 21, 2020, 9:26 PM · It's not an either-or, but rather a both-and. You need to do both. At 11 that that may be a little tricky, but by 12 my son was definitely doing it. At that age he had a concerto movement, some sort of other piece, and at least one movement of Bach. Now as a freshman, he usually has 2 concerto movements, a Paganini caprice, a short piece, and 1-2 movements of Bach. It varies a bit depending on what is on his schedule, but in general it always ~5 pieces/mvmts at any given time. Some of the pieces he has done the past few years have included Zigeunerweisen, Intro and Rondo Capriccioso, La Campanella, Introduction and Tarantella, Navarra, Tzigane, and a bunch of Kreisler pieces. They are great to learn to use as encores, recital pieces, and to build skills that you might not encounter in your concerto repertoire, like specialized bowstrokes.

My daughter (not competitive, casual player, age 10) does a concerto movement and a short piece, as she hasn't started unaccompanied Bach yet and doesn't practice that much.

March 21, 2020, 10:15 PM · Susan is correct. A student who does a moderate amount of practice should be able to handle a concerto, a short work, and solo Bach, on top of two etudes and other technical excises.

Serious students need to build recital repertoire. Virtuosic works have a different set of challenges than concertos, and are often important for competitions. Other works (sonatas, lyrical short works, other chamber works) will be used for competitions later on, and are a staple of the professional performer's life. (This is what pros who are performing in the community typically play during their adult lives, and what adult hobbyists will be performing as well.)

March 22, 2020, 3:53 AM · Lydia and Susan thank you for your perspectives. What you describe is what we do now, more or less. In the past year, she's had to nudge the planning in one direction or another depending on audition requirements for summer programs.
March 22, 2020, 8:59 PM · Our string education system seems to be designed for the 1 % who will go on to do contests, audition for 1st tier conservatories and become professional players. Nothing wrong with that, but, most of us would be better off learning the shorter violin-piano pieces that are within our technical limits and might actually perform someday.
March 22, 2020, 9:12 PM · Joel has a good point also
March 22, 2020, 9:24 PM · Short pieces seem to be used pedagogically by many teachers, before the major concertos are started. ABRSM's repertoire lists are much heavier on short pieces and sonata works than what is typical in the US, I've noticed.

I think the assumption is that students who are capable of playing major concertos also then have the technique to begin learning recital repertoire quite rapidly. But short virtuosic works tend to have the technical challenges pretty intensely concentrated.

March 23, 2020, 2:14 AM · So sort of like a concert étude
March 23, 2020, 5:32 PM · To choose what pieces to learn, first answer this question: what is your ultimate aim for your daughter?

If she is hoping to follow the music school track, she will need to learn the major concerto repertoire. Music schools give little to no attention to short pieces or sonatas. To be ready for competitions and auditions, players are expected to be well-versed in a rather narrowly focused scope of pieces. The competition is so intense that being less familiar with any major concerto than with other works can be a considerable stumbling block.

On the other hand, if the goal is for your daughter to play music that will be edifying and will be appealing and accessible to an audience, playing short pieces and sonatas may be a better choice. Choosing to focus on that repertoire will make it harder to compete in an academic setting, but that’s only an issue if your aim is to follow the performance track. The “non-standard” literature is full of wonderful gems that can help one learn excellent technique and musicianship. If you are more concerned with plain enjoyment of music than competitiveness, this might be a more realistic option.

It seems a little ridiculous to be faced with such a momentous decision when your child is still at a young age, but the increased pressure on young players to fit such a specific mold necessitates some hard choices. If you’re unsure, having a serious conversation with your daughter’s teacher or another teacher who has a good track record can give you some food for thought.

March 23, 2020, 5:50 PM · After Wieniawski 2 and before Mendelssohn, my teacher had me play a Beethoven Romance, Debussy's La Plus Que Lente, and two of Brahms' Hungarian Dances. It's good to mix it up, and there are certainly short pieces from which one can learn a lot.

They are fun too!

March 23, 2020, 6:49 PM · Many major competitions also require short works, and short works are typically the staple of local competitions. For serious students, there's no serious choice between short works and concertos. It has to be both.

Playing short works teaches techniques and interpretative necessities that are not necessarily covered by the big concertos. For example, for Viennese style and a certain type of bowstroke, there's nothing in the concerto repertoire that I can think of that will readily substitute for Kreisler's "Schon Rosmarin". Playing violin-piano sonatas teaches you a lot about how to do more with a simple line, and how you can be compelling without virtuoso flash to distract your audience.

March 31, 2020, 1:43 PM · Consider is your daughter is ready for performing on big stages, I'd say. Maybe try Scherzo Tarantelle or Introduction and Tarantella as beginner show pieces...?

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