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Doniell Cushman loves to use her teaching experiences to inspire ways to improve music, teaching, and learning.
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How to Build Your Piano Music Library
As a teacher, it is critical that you have a wealth of music at your fingertips from classics to contemporary. When you are a pianist (student or recreational player), having music that stimulates you, challenges you, and defines you is also important. Seasoned educator or beginning pianist, it is essential to first work within your budget, but then also to maintain a high-quality library. But where does one start?
In 1995, Dr. Jane Magrath of the University of Oklahoma compiled a relatively exhaustive list of standard teaching and performance literature. The Pianist’s Guide to Standard Teaching and Performance Literature primarily encompasses Baroque through 20th Century composers. Many educators are sent to this annotated bibliography tome – and I do mean TOME!
As of 2013, Maurice Hinson’s Guide to Pianist’s Repertoire was in its fourth printing before he passed away shortly after in 2015.
Piano Repertoire Guide by Albergo and Alexander is another text published in 2011 but is limited to intermediate and advanced literature.
Borrowing or purchasing one of these books could be extremely helpful in starting off your library right. They will have the best suggestions for epic Beethoven books, Chopin’s myriad of educational escapades, and will have a variety of headings, commentary, and a general rating.
But you can also be practical! Imagine this: A well organized library full of style, periods, genres, and sheets all curated by YOU! Yes, YOU! Now, I have done this personally. My entire library is focused on my teaching goals and playing goals.
I started out with a small library of music I had collected from my lesson and college days. Most of the music was encouraged by my parents, teachers, professors, and home church. In 2008, when I was ready to start teaching, I did the most outrageous thing ever: I consulted the internet. Yep, you read that right! Back in the good old’ days of MySpace and Facebook’s infancy (and very blatant Farmville addiction) I read online all about running and operating a home studio. Next thing you know, I requisitioned our “military closet” room and turned it into my new piano space, complete with a small bookshelf, my Yamaha digital grand, and an overstuffed loveseat, the first piece of grownup furniture my husband and I bought together.
Now, I am sorry to say that what I am about to tell you is no longer possible, but next I utilized the promotions that Amazon was offering at the time. It was a program where almost every book available on the website was in a “4 for 3” program. I ordered a pile of the most popular method series out there in the piano world: Alfred’s Basic Piano Library.
Next, I did research – something I used to enjoy doing back when I was finishing my college degree online. I found the most loved and used books by piano teachers around the world, and slowly began acquiring them. I would scour lists of the top 10 or top 100 books, composers, etc. until I was satisfied, and then I would use the promotional program to order my copies.
I started with the great teachers like Czerny, Burgmüller, Hanon, Bartók, Haydn, and Berens. Then, I would branch out and purchase educational literature like compendiums with games and reproducible worksheets. Finally, I would sprinkle in a little of my own interests to make a robust purchase each month. I spent hours on publishers’ websites gleaning information, finding repertoire, and filling out holes in my library.
At the time I budgeted around $50-$60 per month for literature only. In today’s world and increased prices, you may need to increase this amount to about $75-$90 to adjust for the change in economy and inflation.
In the 2010s, I started shopping at local secondhand stores like Half-Price Books, Value Village, The Salvation Army, and Goodwill, as well as attending yard sales and estate sales. This allowed me the opportunity to look at the texts people owned and learned from. I purchased quite a lot of what I encountered. In fact, just earlier this year I went to our local secondhand bookshop and found two cartons full of old sheet music from an estate sale. I bought close to 30lbs of music, for just a fraction of the cost… a whopping $60.
In the last few years, I have been more selective. I have found publishers I love, and publishers I am not terribly fond of. For example, I’d rather purchase a Schirmer edition of compiled Beethoven music than a Hal Leonard version. The quality of paper and binding is an important concern. Schirmer has space on the page to make notes and is extremely simplistic. Hal Leonard is modern, not as concise, and has odd layouts for classic pieces.
As you gather more material, you will be able to select pieces for students much easier. You will also be able to store and organize them into a cohesive collection. When building your library, you will also notice that you must have a system in place to keep track of all that you have. I highly recommend using a software database to assist with this, even if it is just a simple Excel sheet. When you know what you have, you will not accidentally double buy (like I have done!) and you’ll be able to appropriately fill holes.
Things to watch out for as you are building your library are huge collections. These are sometimes unavoidable because let us say your student is totally into John Williams music. You are stuck with these unwieldy books that have no specific location in your library other than to be included in a stack of other big fat books. Take for instance my 80s and 90s sheet music. I do not have a spot for “Decades” music. Plus, there are a myriad of genres in the 20th century, so what do I do? It will be tempting to get them too because you’ll get say, 100 songs for only $32.99, whereas a beautiful copy of just one sheet would be at least $3.99 or more.
Also, if you do not like an edition or a publisher – sell your books and replace them. There’s no sense in keeping copies you can’t read easily, or that don’t include measure numbers, etc. Be conscientious about the editing and engraving you prefer. Use trusted and time-tested companies like G. Schirmer, Kalmus, Willis, Dover, Urtext, Alfred, Hal Leonard, Oxford University, etc. If you cannot find students that would buy your unwanted copies at a reduced price, you could check out a secondhand shop for a credit, or sites like Ebay, Amazon, Pango, Offerup, and Craigslist to name a few.
Finally, be sure to actually use all the music you purchase. If you are not able to use it with a student or yourself, then you probably should lose it quickly so you can get something you have your eye on. Do not just rely on some guy you met down at the piano bar or in Nordstrom for a review. Make a wish list and prioritize your students and teaching needs first, then yourself. In example, for every order you make, buy something just for you.
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