What Changes When a Student Selects Their Own Repertoire? (A Case Study)

I loved Alvin and the Chipmunks as a little kid. I thought their voices were awesome, and particularly liked their singing voices – the Christmas song was a favorite.

So when my mom tried to get me to take voice lessons (figuring it’d be good for my overall musical development), I agreed thinking I’d learn how to sing like the chipmunks did. I had visions of performing the Christmas song, and remember being pretty psyched about it all.

Needless to say, voice lessons didn’t last very long once I discovered that my and my voice teachers’ goals weren’t so compatible. My enthusiasm just sort of died when I realized I wouldn’t be singing any chipmunk songs.

My questionable taste in vocal music aside, intuitively, one would think that choice has an impact on motivation. As in, rather than telling students what pieces they will work on, allowing the student some choice would seemingly increase their motivation to practice.

But does it really work this way? What, if anything, changes when a student gets to choose their own repertoire?

Introducing Clarissa

As part of a 3-year study on musical development, Australian researchers followed the practice habits of 157 elementary school-aged students, a small number of which also agreed to videotape some of their practice sessions over the course of the study.

Researchers then meticulously coded and analyzed every practice behavior (a painfully laborious process from the sounds of it – a 10-minute clip of practicing can take up to 5 hours to code).

One of the participants, known as “Clarissa”, became the subject of a case study. This 9 1/2-year old clarinetist who previously studied Suzuki violin for 4 years, picked up the instrument because her best friend played it and “The clarinet teacher looked nice”.

The researchers analyzed two practice sessions in her first year of playing (in months 4 and 5 of her clarinet studies), and two practice sessions from her third year of playing (in month 32 of her studies).


Clarissa was a pretty middle-of-the-road student, in that she wasn’t extremely motivated or driven to practice, but also wasn’t particularly unmotivated, and generally did ok once she got going.

For instance, when interviewed in Year 1, she expressed a clear preference for avoiding challenges (“I don’t like learning hard pieces because I find it annoying.”) in favor of playing through familiar pieces she liked.

Also, according to her mother, she didn’t need much prompting to practice, but also wasn’t particularly thoughtful or mindful when practicing. “She is not really a perfectionist but a little bit of a dreamer so she will sometimes just go through her pieces and not really pay any attention to what she is doing, though generally she is fairly good…”

Over the course of the three years, Clarissa’s thoughts around practice did evolve a bit, and she began to recognize the benefit of practicing smaller sections rather than simply playing through a piece (“I normally play the piece all the way through and then come back to the bits that are bad…I practice one segment at a time.”).

She also seemed to embrace more difficult repertoire by Year 3, noting that she liked learning hard pieces because “It makes the pieces a challenge.”

However, when comparing Clarissa’s actual practice behaviors between Year 1 with Year 3, it didn’t look like much had changed. Almost all of her “practice” still consisted of simply playing through her assigned pieces once, and then moving on to the next.

Except when it came to one particular piece…that she had selected herself.

From practice novice to practice pro

In this particular practice session, Clarissa worked on some scales and band pieces, three classical pieces her teacher gave her (one of which was “La Cinquantaine” by Gabriel-Marie), and lastly, a piece she had asked her teacher if she could play – Woody Herman’s Golden Wedding  (which is essentially a more “jazzy” version of La Cinquantaine).

It looked like a pretty typical practice session up until Clarissa began working on her selected piece. And then things changed.

For one, she spent more time working on the piece she requested than any of the pieces her teacher assigned. About eleven times longer, in fact (specifically, an average of 9.83 seconds per note vs. the .9 seconds per note she averaged on the assigned pieces).

But what’s far more interesting, is that there was a dramatic change in how she practiced this piece relative to the others.

When practicing the teacher-assigned pieces, Clarissa practiced like a novice, essentially just playing through everything like she did as a beginner.

But when she got to her chosen piece, she suddenly began utilizing more advanced practice and learning strategies. Strategies that are typically associated with higher-level players, like:

  • fingering silently (7% of her practice time vs. 2% when working on teacher-assigned rep)
  • pausing to think silently (14% vs. 1%)
  • singing (6% vs. 0%)
  • varying tempo (it was the only time she ever varied the tempo among all the taped practice sessions)
  • repeated run-throughs (this was the only piece Clarissa played through more than once – in fact, she returned to this piece after working on other repertoire, and played it through two more times)

Take action

On one hand, yes, this is just a case study of one student. However, it seems to speak to the importance of having a problem one cares to solve – and how willing we suddenly become to not only put in the time, but to use that time in the most effective way.

Of course a student can’t just pick out their own repertoire all the time. But perhaps a balance of teacher and student-selected repertoire can help to maximize motivation, while still allowing for some structure and exposure to standard rep?

Additional reading

For more details of the study, read a version of it here: Case study of a novice’s clarinet practice

photo credit: JanetandPhil via photopin cc

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10 Responses

  1. When it comes to picking a contest solo, I have always picked three pieces I’d be comfortable with a student learning. I want her/him to be challenged but not overwhelmed. I have the student read parts of each piece, listen to a performance on YouTube and then decide which to learn. I believe I see a better work ethic when they’ve helped choose. I’ve even had students who came from elsewhere comment that they think it’s ‘cool’ that they get to choose.

    1. I do a very similar thing, Anna! I always give my voice students a choice of about 3 pieces, all of which I feel would benefit them technically and musically, and then they get to choose. And if they don’t like any of them? Back to the drawing board we go. I agree that it helps their work ethic so much, and it keeps them coming back year after year. I even notice the same thing in myself. When I choose my own recital rep versus what I’m asked to sing I end up more motivated and more excited to take it to that next level. Here’s to taking ownership of learning!

  2. I completely agree with the concept of this study. I began learning how to play music on the saxophone in a very academic manner, and I’m forever grateful in how this created a foundation of knowledge that helped me grow as a musician and understand the hard work and discipline that is required to grow. HOWEVER, it wasn’t until I started taking bass lessons from a guitar teacher that encouraged me to choose my own repertoire and taught me pentatonic scales through music that I had a personal connection that I felt like I could self-discover and create my own voice in music. This dramatically changed how I approached music and the vigor and passion that I brought to practicing and performing grew exponentially. This was my journey, and now as a practicing music therapist and performer always encourage budding musicians to create their own path. Learn and play music you love to get hooked and cultivate your passion, and learn the theory, technique, and academic aspects to develop the discipline.

  3. In the piano world, this is called a “hook” piece. One of the most notorious is Fuer Elise, of course, whether in an easy version or in the “real” version. Most of us do what we can to feed in pieces that students like. However, I always remember the words of my public school choral teacher, “If you only work on pieces you already know, you will never learn anything new.” There are also technical challenges to keep in mind when it isn’t feasible to water down a chosen piece. Sometimes that can be a motivator – if you practice more, you will have the skills to learn _____. Keeping another thought in mind, this one from my college piano prof: “Every lesson is a session in psychology.” Some students try to work their psychology on the teacher by ignoring assigned pieces while working only half-heartedly on their own choices. Others will make large strides when given a hook piece that is a little beyond them, whether it is pop or classical. Consider the student, and balance the options.
    One more thought: those of us who have done a lot of collaborative playing would have loved to ditch pieces we didn’t like. 🙂

    1. ‘Hook piece’ is a very appropriate name and I find them everywhere in piano playing. I have the distinct feeling that Beethoven’s Hammerklavier is my hook piece at the moment! ..which is not very great since it’ll be ages before it’ll be within my reach. I find it oddly motivating to listen to music that is significantly more difficult than what I’m playing today. It gives me goals to work for and perspective on my music as well.

  4. I guess this shouldn’t really come as a surprise, people like what they like. 🙂
    When kids are taught to read, they usually have a bunch of “readers” at their level to pick from, based on the pictures usually, but for music the poor darlings have to make their way through the method, piece by piece.
    Once they’re through the first, say, three method books, they should be able to have some input into their repertoire. Spotify could act as the box of readers. Most kids in this country adhere in some fashion or other to the AMEB syllabus. Recordngs of almost everything on the syllabus is available on Spotify.
    Elissa Milne, piano teacher, composer and blogger says that kids should have no input into their repertoire until they are 12, because they will choose pieces based on something as spurious as the pictures that go with it, but after 15 when they are forming their own identity, they should have almost complete input into their repertoire, with the teacher acting as a guide.
    My daughter is anxiously waiting for the day when she can start choosing her own pieces. At the moment though, she prefers the ones with pictures. 🙂

  5. Couldn’t agree more with this article. As a teacher I’m wary of even taking on a student if he or she doesn’t have song requests. Song requests show that the student is actively listening to music and is impacted by music the way a real musician is impacted (whether it’s chipmunks themed or not). I don’t care what they want to learn, just as long as they’re thinking about what it would be like to play some of their favorite songs. If they demonstrate a desire to learn the song, I am more than happy to write out the song. And once they get that experience of playing through a song they’ve always loved, they’re hooked for life and much more willing to learn the things they need to know over future lessons 🙂

  6. Fascinating! It is logical to assume that a student would practice a piece they like more, but it never occurred to me that they would also practice better! You mentioned that the piece she selected was more “jazzy”, which leads me to wonder if the selection of musical styles amongst teachers, especially with young students, is too limited. Many schools and teachers seem to focus on classical music, with the occasional concession to pop. Yet there may be many students out there attracted to other styles and genres without even knowing it. It would be wonderful to hear your thoughts on how musical exploration can create more positive practice and performance habits.

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