If I had one golden rule for playing for class, this would be it: you can get people to listen to anything if you set them up the right way. It’s similar to the role of comic relief in tragedy: you can immerse yourself more willingly in tragic scenes if you’ve had a chance to let go in a comic one. Equally, comedy is all the funnier if you’ve just immersed yourself in tragedy.
Take Schubert, for example. I’m fairly certain that if you played a dancer a bit of Schubert (like the theme from the Trout Quintet, for example) they’d groan, and say ‘Oh no! It’s so dull. It sounds just like ‘class’ music.’ But that’s because they wouldn’t want a whole class to Schubert (and nor would I). But if, in a class, you set this up by pairing it on the other side of the exercise with something absurd like Big Spender, you set up a situation where one piece is a relief from the other.
I’ve found that I can slip in all kinds of pieces that people think they don’t like this way. It’s what you might call a ‘relational’ approach: it’s not about finding a particular style of music for class, but about setting deliberately differentiated styles off against each other. The differentiation can be on any plane – loud/soft, low/high, early/romantic, lush/thin, popular/classical, happy/sad, modal/tonal and so on.
This keeps people listening, which is what you want. But it’s also more gratifying for you as a musician: it gives you the energy to pay attention to the detail in contrasting styles rather than drifting along in the same mode all the time.