Let’s begin this subject with some definitions and concepts:
Your repertoire is your collection of pieces that you know well enough to play in performance, or at least well enough to enjoy playing for yourself. It’s not necessarily what you carry around in your music bag, unless you know all the music in it really well. My repertoire, for instance, consists of pieces I’ve played over the years well enough to play in public, and though many of them need a little refreshment practice before they are formally performable, I can play them with confidence.
Skill is how well you play in general. It has nothing to do with the size of your repertoire.
Many people are more focused on building a bigger repertoire than they are on building skill. It seems that everyone wants to go home from a workshop or a lesson with a new tune or two. Of course, playing music should be entertaining for all of us, so new tunes can be exciting and fun. Building repertoire is important. But at the same time, building skill is essential. Otherwise you can end up with a huge repertoire of pieces all at the same skill level instead of advancing to higher levels of proficiency.
For those who are paper trained, there seems to be a focus on collecting music on paper. It’s as though “she who collects the most music books wins,” even if you never learn most of the pieces in the books. As an author of music books, I won’t be saying don’t buy them, but as a teacher I have to ask, what will you do with them? Having lots of music on paper is not the same as having lots of music in your repertoire.
On the other hand, how much music do you need in your repertoire? If you play in a restaurant or a club, you do need a large repertoire, and if you can sight-read, all those music books will serve you well. But if you are a solo or small-ensemble player doing concerts or shorter gigs, you don’t need a huge repertoire; it’s far more important to keep building skill, and just learning more tunes won’t help with that unless each new tune is at a higher skill level than the previous ones.
Those who play in sessions or circles tend to focus on building repertoire. After all, in sessions they play a lot of tunes! And in circles you want to present a new tune each time the circle meets. This is good. But don’t let it prevent you from also taking the time to build skill.
It’s easy to assume that there’s one definition for musical skill, but in fact there are different skills for different musical situations, and each needs to be defined separately. Some people shine in one skill, some in another, and some are adept at more than one.
In any genre there are subsets of skills, such as improvisation, sight-reading, ear-playing, memorizing, etc. I’ve written about those in past articles, so I’ll focus here just session skills and performance skills.
Sessions are also called jams, depending on the genre. (There is a slight difference in the two terms, however, because jamming often implies some degree of improvisation, while in a session it’s OK to just play the tune straight.) For both jamming and sessions, you need a large repertoire, and whether you play the tunes well is of less importance than being able to keep up with the other musicians.
Playing on the beat, and being able to play either the chords or the melody (or both) to a recognizable degree and at tempo, are what one must focus on for sessions and jams. Usually no one really knows how accurately you’re playing because there are many instruments playing at the same time, and imperfections are therefore fairly well hidden, as long as you’re not the loudest instrument in the group. (That doesn’t mean you should play too softly – if you can’t be heard well enough to blend in, what’s the point? The purpose of a jam is to create a group sound.)
Session playing is good practice for ensemble playing, and can also increase your performance skills, since you’re forced to play at the accepted tempo for each piece, to keep it consistent, and to keep playing when you make a mistake, without pausing or repeating. It can also be excellent experience for alleviating stage fright issues.
A performer, on the other hand, needs to play concert repertoire in a clean, accurate and polished way. Some professional performers don’t do jam sessions because they’ve spent all their time perfecting their concert repertoire instead, which often does not contain many of the commonly heard session pieces. (But of course they can usually chord along with just about any tune.) On the other side of the coin, some jammers don’t do well in performance because they’ve spent their time learning as much repertoire as possible without having to pay attention to how well they actually play it (generally speaking) – but some are very good at both. Aiming to be that kind of musician is a great goal.
Concerts of folk or traditional music usually only require about 90 minutes of material – maybe 15 pieces, or fewer if some are very long. But the focus and the time it takes to keep those few pieces concert-ready is significant. For each touring season, a professional folk or traditional musician may work up one concert-worth of material and use it all season.
If you’re uncertain how to develop concert level skills, please see my previous articles on practice.
Whatever your focus, choose with awareness of whether it’s the right focus for your intended purpose, and enjoy what you play!