Guitar Repertoire Sets: How to Group Your Tunes for Better Listening (and Playing)
When you practice regularly, and continue to learn new pieces, you eventually find yourself in the enviable position of having an actual classical guitar repertoire!
One way to make this repertoire more enjoyable to play and share is to create small groups of pieces that work well together. Eventually, when you get enough of these little groups, you have yourself an actual program.
(note: This is true even if you are still a beginner. When you learn a piece, continue to play it after you move on to other music. This is how we create a repertoire. Over time some tunes fall away, but you can always have multiple tunes in your hands at any given time, especially if you make a point of maintaining your repertoire.)
So the question follows: How do you decide which pieces go together, and in what order?
Create a Gallery Show
When sharing your music, there are infinite ways you could present your pieces.
You could just start playing, and play whichever tune comes to mind or whichever tune seems to fit the moment. This is valid, and a favorite method when playing “background” music.
However, if you take the time beforehand, you can create more of a “gallery experience” for your listeners.
One piece connects to the next. You can sculpt the order of tunes so that you guide your listeners through the music via a path that you’ve consciously thought about.
Curating: Connecting Threads and Common Ideas
Just as a gallery owner curates a show of various artists, YOU are a curator of a show of various composers.
- How do you arrange your pieces?
- What order?
- Which pieces belong together?
- How many in each little group?
- How do you choose?
There are no official rules for this, so it’s an avenue to explore, experiment and get creative.
Grouping by Similarity
One option of curating your music is to collect tunes together that share certain similarities.
These similarities could be music based, or story based.
A few musical similarities are:
- Key Signature (3 Pieces in the Key of A minor)
- Musical style (baroque, tango, etc)
- Primary Emotion (joyful, melancholy, regal, etc)
- Rhythmic patterns (“2 Irish Jigs!”)
- Phrases that sound similar
- Or any other similarity of the music itself.
A few story-based similarities are:
- Songs composed during war
- Political statements
- Love songs
- Pieces by young composers
- Pieces by female composers
- Pieces from the same country/region
- Pieces written in prisons
- Pieces adapted from folk songs
- Pieces transcribed from other instruments
- Pieces inspired by the jungle
- Pieces for children
The sky’s the limit when grouping by story. And story makes the music more poignant for the listeners. You can tell them all about it, which gives you something useful and interesting to talk about between sets. And the story provides a framework for them to “enter” and experience the music.
Story is especially useful and effective if your listeners are not familiar with the style or type of music you’re playing. Story can help the listener stay comfortable, especially with challenging music.
Grouping by Contrast
Likewise, you can contrast pieces. This is a wonderful way to juxtapose different emotions or viewpoints.
Here, you may play two modern pieces, separated by a baroque piece. Or you may choose two joyful pieces with a darker, more mournful piece between them.
The contrast makes the character of each piece stand out more.
More on contrasting pieces later.
How Many Tunes Should be in Each Group?
You can group as many or as few as you like.
For starters, 3 is a good number. This allows you to create a small “journey” for the listener, with a beginning, middle, and end.
However, depending on the length and style, you may have four or more.
And you can also have just a single tune, or just two tunes together.
Tip: If you’re playing an entire program, comprised of several smaller groups of tunes, it’s nice to mix up the number of pieces in each set, to create variety.
Common (if not very exciting) Groupings
Some of the most common grouping scenarios are to group music by musical period, composer or musical style.
Grouping by Year or Musical Period.
You have a group of renaissance pieces. You have a group of baroque pieces. It works, but it’s not very inventive. That said, if the pieces are well chosen, you can create a very effective “world in miniature”.
The danger here is that your listeners are then given a rather large dose of that period. If they like it, wonderful! If not, they have to squirm through a lot of it. Know your audience, and try to anticipate their attention and sophistication levels.
(By way of an example, in a proper concert setting for a group of classical music lovers, I could get away with a 15 or 20 minute set of Bach. But if I’m playing for my family, one 2 1/2 minute Bach tune is about all I can get away with.)
Grouping by Composer
Likewise, you could group 3 pieces by the same composer.
This is most effective if all the pieces work well together regardless of the fact that they were written by the same person.
This criteria is not a strong reason to group pieces together, but if it works, it works.
Grouping by Musical Style
Just as you can play “3 Pieces by Bach”, or “3 Medieval Tunes”, you can also group by musical style.
In this way, you could play “3 Ragtime Favorites”, “3 Argentine Tangos”, or “3 Broadway Arrangements”.
Again, this can be highly effective, provided the pieces you play work well as a set (more on this later). If all three are too similar, or in the same key, it may be a better option to keep experimenting with other groupings.
Learn the Art of Pacing
Of course, the main reason to create sets or groups of your tunes is to give listeners a more compelling (enjoyable/profound/thought-provoking/etc.) experience.
For this reason, the order we choose is important. We need to draw the listener in and keep them captivated. We need to surprise them, but not to the extent that they get confused and tune out.
So we need to pace the music so that the listener’s energy and attention is managed. If you play 10 fast tunes in a row, they probably won’t care about or remember any one in particular.
Likewise, if the pacing is too predictable (such as “fast, slow, fast, slow, etc), you could lose them as well.
Option One: Stark Contrasts
The most common 3-piece structure is this:
Moderately fast > Slow > Fastest
A couple of variations on this is are
Regal > Contemplative > Joyful
In each of these, the pieces have a definite contrast (in tempo or mood). They could also contrast in harmonic complexity:
Classical > Blues Ballad> Modern Atonal
We could also reverse any of these. The point is that there is contrast within the grouping.
Option Two: Subtle Increases
Another option is to arrange pieces so that they become increasingly faster (or more complex, or more emotionally significant). The “energy” increases as you progress.
This can be effective because listeners feel like they are being led somewhere. There is noticeable forward movement.
Slow/Subdued> A Little Quicker/More Energetic> Quickest/Most Energetic
Of course you could also go the other way, with pieces getting progressively more introspective, slower, quieter, sweeter, or otherwise subdued.
While progressively decreasing energy is valid, it’s tricky to pull off well. You have to gear down as an intentional part of an overall plan for the program (it can be very effective towards the middle of a program), with some definite plan of bringing the energy back up, probably in the next group of pieces. Otherwise, your show is a snoozer.
Beware the Program of Encores
One of the biggest mistakes I see guitarists making is to include too many “fluffy” pieces, and not enough “meat”. This is especially common on programs composed mainly of folk-inspired music from any country (Brazilian, South American, flamenco, Appalachian, Filipino, etc).
By “meat” I mean emotionally complex, more serious music.
Light, fluffy pieces are great (and can be wickedly difficult to play), but too many of them together creates a shallow experience for the listener.
Too many “fluffy” tunes in sequence creates a shallow experience for the listener.
I like to call this a “program of encores”, and equate it to eating cookies and cake for dinner. It’s good, but it’s not as satisfying as something a bit richer.
You can still program these types of pieces, just be very intentional in how you put them together and present them.
If these types of pieces are all you know, consider learning one or two more “serious” pieces, or pieces in a different style, to contrast with your existing repertoire.
Just the act of putting these lighter tunes into groups will help to make them more “substantial” as a whole.
Creating a “Fine Dining” Experience
An alternative to the “program of encores” (cake for dinner), would be to create a “fine dining experience”.
A fine meal has structure. Here’s one common example:
- Starch and vegetables
You can also think of arranging your pieces in the same way:
- Start with something light
- Increase the complexity/sophistication/intensity up as you progress
- Climax with your most virtuosic, complex music.
- Then finish (encore perhaps) with something lighter or sweeter. (I like to call this “the kiss goodnight”.)
Never Underestimate the Power of Simple Piece
Simple pieces can be incredibly effective when shared in a larger context.
This is especially true if you’re sharing some intense or challenging (to listen to) music, such as Leo Brouwer or another modern composer, with people unfamiliar with the style.
Simple pieces can be incredibly effective when shared in a larger context.
Inserting something simple and perhaps recognizable is a welcome change, and lets listeners rest for a minute. And if they recognize it, they feel smart and will be more open to listening to your next piece.
You can think of a single-standing simple piece as a “palette-cleanser between courses”.
Programming is an Art
There are many, many different methods and strategies used to create programs. Each player has a unique repertoire, and can present the music in myriad ways.
Even if you’re a beginning and only have 3 pieces, you can play around with the order in which you play them.
This can be great fun, and is not unlike interior decorating, matching clothes in an outfit, or planning a trip or big date.
As time goes on, if you experiment and consider different ways of grouping, you’ll get a good feel for what works best for your music.
Choose New Music Intentionally
You can choose music more intentionally when you know how pieces fit together in larger contexts.
If you have primarily classical music, you may decide to next learn something contrasting, such as a ragtime or jazz-influenced piece.
If you have mainly slow, introspective tunes, something lively and upbeat will round out your repertoire more than another slow piece would.
Tools for Play
While you can mentally combine pieces into groups, or just play around, there are also some tools you can use to make the job easier.
Post-its or Note Cards
On sticky notes or note cards, write the names, tempos, length, key, time signature, and/or any other information you like (one tune per card).
This way you can lay them out on a table and arrange the cards, getting a visual perspective.
You can play around with grouping by different criteria, or creating combinations based on tempo (remember “fast-slow-faster”) .
In this way, you may come up with combinations you never would have considered otherwise.
Ongoing Repertoire List
You can also keep a master repertoire list, with all the pertinent information.
Create a table or spreadsheet including title, composer, tempo, length, key, time signature, style, and/or any other information you like.
This way all your music is there at a glance and you can pick from the list.
You can also consult your master repertoire list in practice to make sure you’re regularly playing through all your pieces. Pieces can easily “fall through the cracks” otherwise.
Play and Test: Beginnings and Endings
Once you have some ideas for small groups, or even for a full program, it’s a good idea to test it out, to make sure it actually works.
One good way to do this is to play through just the beginnings and endings of the pieces, in order.
This way, you can focus how each piece sounds “next to” the other pieces in the group.
You may find that the beginning of one piece doesn’t work so well against the ending of another (for example, if they are too similar, jarring, or just don’t “feel right”).
Playing just beginnings and endings lets you get a bird’s-eye view of the group in a short time, without the distraction of playing entire pieces.
There Are No Wrong Answers
While we can immerse deeply into processes like this, it’s important to remember that there are no wrong answers. Sure, some choices may be more effective than others, but no one gets hurt either way.
If you’re just beginning, and are easily overwhelmed, feel free to completely ignore the idea of grouping, and just keep practicing (and/or exercising).
At the least, try to keep both a local (daily practice, current piece) and a global (all the pieces you’ve ever learned) view of your repertoire.
Remember grouping in your practice so that you stay motivated to maintain past repertoire and keep your music pumped and buff.
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two stellar teachers – one focused on the technical, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully. Click here for a sample formula.
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