Build Your Repertoire without Having a Breakdown

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Fotolia_63987262_XSThe scene: A visitor comes to your home and sees your beautiful harp in its special place in your living room. “Play something for me,” she says. You gracefully take your place at the harp and play a piece of music that enchants and delights.

Or does your scenario run this way: When your visitor says, “Play something for me, ” you respond, “Well, I don’t really know anything, that is, it’s not finished yet and you probably wouldn’t like it anyhow…”

It’s a shame not to be able to play something for friends who ask (or for an audience, for that matter), especially if you’ve been playing for some time, but that isn’t the worst part. The worst part is the embarrassment at having to admit it. It’s hard to feel like you’ve accomplished anything if you have nothing you can show for it.

That’s perhaps the most powerful reason to always have ready repertoire, nothing fancy, but music that you can play and feel confident about whenever anyone asks. And it’s not hard to develop a repertoire. It doesn’t take years or hours of extra practice, and it doesn’t have to be scary. All you need to start is three pieces.

The first piece you need in your repertoire should be very easy, short and pretty, a piece you like, perhaps even one of your very first harp pieces. Those are the pieces that tend to take root deep within us and always feel good when we play them. My first repertoire piece was “Purple Bamboo” from Fun from the First, by Sam Milligan. Trust me – nothing is too easy for this selection. Choose a piece that you love and preferably one that you can play without music. Imagine yourself just sitting down and playing. It should be that kind of a piece.

Now that you have something you can play if anyone asks, you need a second piece. I like the second piece to be something familiar. People always love to hear something they know. Once again, though, the piece has to be one that you like yourself, and one that is easy enough that you can play it fairly well without extra practice. Perhaps you have a favorite arrangement of Greensleeves or Amazing Grace or Stairway to Heaven. Your repertoire – your choice.

And the third piece you should use to build your repertoire is something flashy. Remember that “flashy” doesn’t have to mean “difficult.” Even Purple Bamboo has a kind of flashy ending. Sometimes “flashy” is in how you play it. C. P. E. Bach’s Solfeggietto doesn’t sound like much until it’s really fast. A tango could be flashy; Alfredo Ortiz writes lots of flashy harp music that isn’t difficult.

Or instead of flashy, you could think “fun.” Maybe some children’s music – variations on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star are always fun. My “flashy” piano piece used to be one called “Doggone Boogie,” which was a boogie woogie version of “Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?”

So something easy, something familiar, and something flashy or fun. These three pieces will be your starter repertoire set. Then, keep them fresh by playing them once a week. And most of all, remember to enjoy them when you play them. A future harpist may be listening…

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  • BJ

    Oh 3 pieces, I’d choose:-

    “Charlotte in Spring” – my first Grade one piece, love it, did that one the other day for my husband’s friend.

    “The Water is Wide” or as I hear it “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” – left hand replies to right so quite easy arrangement for me.

    “Ode to Joy” – the first piece I managed with both hands together, most people know this one.

    That’s me sorted then, Thanks.


  • Kathi L.

    I noticed you wrote Twinkle, “Tinkle”, Little Star. I don’t think you meant to, but it sure is funny!

    I am a flutist not a harpist, but I really enjoy some of the points you make and the tips you give, of value to all musicians. Thank you!


  • Christine

    This post really hits home for me! I have used the excuse that the harp isn’t in tune before to get out of playing something but you’re exactly right, I always come away feeling disappointed in myself and feeling I have nothing to show for all of it. That’s pretty sad considering that the reason I want to play harp is to share it!

    I get hung up on thinking that the pieces that I could play are just too simple but I will dust off some of those old pieces and get them ready for when those times come that someone wants to hear something.

    I have some pieces from my old Suzuki for Harp books that I think I still have partially memorized. Haydn’s Allegro, the first section to Salzedo’s Seguidilla is a little showy and maybe Greensleeves as it was the first piece I ever learned on the harp. I always feel it’s just far too simple though but I guess that’s the point!

    Thanks for the great post!


    • Anne Post author

      You are exactly right, Christine. Nobody but us cares if the piece is easy. That just want to hear us play something. We make this whole thing way more complicated than it should be!


  • Julia

    This is great! I hope everyone shares as it is so helpful. My go to piece that I start my gigs ( I have only had 4) is Moonlight from Harp Solos: Graded Recital Pieces by Susann McDonald and Linda Wood. This was quite by accident. I had a few lessons and played/goofed around on a lever harp for two years but they suggested I should get a pedal harp. I did and two weeks later was called for a funeral. They knew my skill level. I had my first lesson on the pedal harp on Tuesday and did the funeral on Thursday. Talk about stress! I played 15 min prelude and postlude. All from Sylvia Woods Hymns with right hand only both A and B version. one song for the family to enter (El Shadai the only one I could play well that was appropriate, it had a pedal change and I had to put sticky tabs on each pedal because I did not know them yet. LOL). I needed a piece for the family to leave on. I found Moonlight. It is very easy and it gets me all over the harp which calms my nerves down. I used it again for my second funeral a month later. Played my first wedding last year. I started the prelude with Moonlight, beginning the piece with some semblance of the last two measures (just gliss). When observing I find people really listen to the first song and then the harp becomes background. I then had a Christmas gig with two 30 minute sessions. I began with Moonlight and then played Christmas. It worked for funerals, weddings and Christmas.


    • Anne Post author

      What a great story, Julia! And kudos for being so intrepid! The reason everything worked for you, of course, is because you were so smart about the music you picked and the expectations you had for yourself. That’s the way to heart happiness!


  • AC

    Thanks for posting this. It is very, very helpful. As an adult, beginner harpist I have struggled with being able to play something “on demand”. I know I have spent many hours practicing and in my lessons… But when even my own family want to hear something it somewhat catches me off-guard – because I still see myself as a total beginner. I will be using the three categories you described as a way to build my playlist/repertoire. Those categories are the perfect way for me to approach having a few harp pieces in my back pocket!


  • Cindy

    The harp is such a beautiful instrument and I find people like pretty much anything you play. I agree with Julia, that Moonlight is a great opening piece when doing gigs. It is not difficult, and calms me down as I play it. Inisheer is definitely a go to piece for me, along with Kejadenn by Gwenael Kerleo, and Brian Boru`s March. None of these are too familiar though, or flashy…


    • Anne Post author

      I like your choices. Also, I think Brian Boru, even though people may not be able to name it, sounds familiar enough to most people. The point of a “familiar” piece is to give listeners an easy way to connect to the music, and I think Brian Boru does that nicely. Besides, it’s so much fun to play!


  • Mary-Ellen Thomas

    What solo book is this “moonlight” piece in, please? I think I Amy have it but don’t know where to look.


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