The Hal Leonard Australia 40 Piece Challenge 2013: suggestions for getting started

In 2013 Hal Leonard Australia is running a 40 Piece Challenge. And I’m very excited by this news.

The challenge is to teachers primarily – can your students each learn at least 40 new pieces in 2013?!

This challenge is not a random, out-of-the-blue event. There’s a massive back-story to the development of this 40-Piece Challenge, which you can read about here (when I get around to writing it). But the point of the whole exercise is to encourage students to learn, perform and experience far more music than our exam-focussed culture usually allows. And to do so in order for students to develop much better reading skills and much broader musicianship, which will lead our students to be more likely to play the piano for the rest of their lives (no matter what grade exam they make it to before they stop taking piano lessons).

This post isn’t about convincing you that this challenge is a good idea – there are plenty of posts I’ve written that already argue the case, and plenty written by other people as well, for that matter.

What I want to do is give some suggestions for how you can prepare for the 40 Piece Challenge, bearing in mind lessons in Term 1, 2013 are at most 9 weeks away (depending on when you read this!). There are three principles you need to keep in mind when planning repertoire selections for this challenge.

#1: Mix up the degree of difficulty of the pieces you assign.

If your Grade 5 student learned 7 pieces last year when they were a Grade 4 student there is no way in the world that they are capable of learning 40 Grade 5 pieces this year. Assign 1 or 2 Grade 5 pieces at the start of the year, but also assign repertoire that is Grade 3 standard, Grade 2 standard, Grade 1 standard! 40 pieces a year means in practice just over 1 new piece every single teaching week of 2013, and that means students need to be completing a piece every single week. This won’t be possible unless you have an appropriate mix of degrees of difficulty in the repertoire.

#2: Give the student less choice than you usually would.

You are assigning an average of one new piece a week, every week. You just don’t have the luxury of taking all of February to play through the exam lists and come up with a program for the year. A good rule of thumb: the easier the piece the less choice the student has. You are the teacher – you plan out an appropriate course of study for the year. The good news is that when students know they only need a week or two to master a piece they don’t really mind so much if they love, love, love it, or not.

#3: Encourage students to make their own suggestions for repertoire.

This can be a tricky path to follow – students can suggest music that is far too hard, poorly arranged, with limited pedagogical interest! But students will understand that the plan is to succeed in meeting the 40 piece challenge, and this is an opportunity for them to learn a lot about how to select their own repertoire: they will want to master the music within a reasonable time-frame and they will want to share with you their musical inclinations. This also becomes your chance to learn a lot about your students, and you’ll probably get to know music you’ve never heard of before, as well!

In addition to these three principles for selecting repertoire, I suggest there three principles for implementing the challenge once pieces are assigned:

1. Expect a high level of achievement with each piece. Near enough is good enough, but near enough means at tempo and with flow and with communicative intent, not a bald reading-through without any sense of what the music means. So performances need dynamics, articulation, voicing and balance, used of pedal and so forth! If this seems too big an ask you need to be looking at easier material, not at lowering your standards.

2. Start with a slew of material. Let’s stick with our hypothetical Grade 5 student. Week One of 2013, assign two Grade 5 standard pieces (meeting your student’s expectations) but also give a couple of pieces from Grade 1 or Preliminary or even P Plate Piano 3 standard, along with another at Grade 2 or 3 standard. You’ll be assigning another two pieces the next week (probably both at the Grade 1 end of the spectrum), and you need things to be moving right from the start.

3. Explain directly and clearly what your expectations are regarding each piece, particularly in regard to time frames. For a piece of music 4 or more grades below their current exam-standard, tell students they have one week to learn the piece, two weeks if there’s some catastrophe like a house fire. Make it understood that these pieces are not supposed to take a whole term to master, that the whole point is learn these easier pieces as quickly as possible and move on.

And finally: how do you structure your selections? Where on earth do you find 40 pieces for each and every one of your students?!

Suggestion 1: Use the Getting to… books or some other repertoire collection as the staple from which you draw repertoire selections. The Getting to… books have 30 pieces in each (maybe 29 in some cases?), so having one of these volumes a few grades below your student’s current exam-standard will give you a wealth of repertoire choices with only one book purchase. And the New Mix collections are now available up to Grade 3 standard – these collections can be particularly useful for higher grade students who need a break from their ‘serious’ higher grade repertoire!

Suggestion 2: Old exam books also provide many potential options for easily-mastered pieces. (Either your own, that you want to sell second-hand, or to loan, or the student’s own exam books from previous years!)

Suggestion 3: Have your student purchase one or two books by contemporary composers of jazz and popular music influenced compositions. Kerin Bailey, Christopher Norton, Sonny Chua, Mike Cornick, Manfred Schmitz, John Kember, Matyas Seiber, Gerard Hengeveld, Alan Houghton, to name just a few, are composers whose works will appeal to many of your students. Pick collections that are on the easy side for your students. My own Little Peppers books are very easy pieces in this style, particularly if you choose the Very Easy Little Peppers collection!

Suggestion 4: Don’t forget to consider arrangements! There are hundreds of books with arrangements of anything you care to ask for, from orchestral themes through to film music through to Elvis hits through to One Direction through to Glee and back again to jazz standards and folk tunes and musical theatre songs and… well, the list really does go on.

Arrangements can connect with your students in surprising ways because they already feel the music is part of their lives. Your only issue is making sure the arrangements are pianistic. Fortunately, these days there are plenty of great arrangements available, and I’ll be posting more about my recommendations in the weeks ahead.

And at this time of year it would be remiss of me to not mention the plethora of Christmas carol arrangements available at any standard. [See Anita Milne's article in the recent Piano Teacher Magazine, where various collections are recommended for specific grade levels.]

Suggestion 5: Make sure your student understands the cost of books for the year. For many years now (since 2000!) I’ve been recommending that teachers tell families to budget $150 per student per annum for books. In the past three years the price of print music books has generally fallen by at least 25% (in some cases the prices have fallen to half!) as a result of the strong Australian dollar, so I would think that any student could find 40 pieces without even needing to spend $75, but certainly for $150 there will be an abundance of great material to choose from and to take the student forward into 2014!

I know there are a lot of teachers keen to embark on the 40 Piece Challenge, and I hope these principles and suggestions help a little in transitioning your students into a repertoire-rich year!

The rationale behind the Getting to books

Back in January I had a great time doing a short tour (Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth) with Samantha Coates (of Blitz Books fame) and Abe Cytrynowski (the inventor of the fabulous ScaleCard system). In Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth we just did a long morning session at one of the larger retailers in each city, but in Sydney Samantha hired the Music Workshop at the Sydney Conservatorium and we did a full day event, along with amazing catering and an events team that worked like clockwork.

The day ended with an energetic panel discussion. We took questions from the more than 100 teachers present, and did our best to cover everything in the 45 minutes scheduled for the panel. Despite our best efforts there were still questions left unanswered, and we collectively promised we would address each question at http://www.blitzbooks.com.au but as it turns out many of the questions aren’t really appropriate for Sam’s theory/sight-reading/note-reading/general knowledge oriented website.

So here I am, in my blog, answering one of those questions: what is the rationale behind the Getting to series?

For those reading who hail from outside Australia and New Zealand I will have already lost you: the Getting to series is a repertoire collection that is available for sale in Australia/New Zealand only, and it is a series that was devised specifically to address issues Australian piano teachers have taking students from (mostly American and UK) method books into the Australian Music Examination Board assessment program.

And since it is published by Hal Leonard Australia it is specifically designed to tie in with the Hal Leonard Student Piano Library method.

Getting to Preliminary starts at about the level students are when they are starting Lessons Book 3 and coordinates the techniques and musical concepts of the method book with wonderful repertoire sourced primarily from the syllabuses since the 1950s of examination boards around the world.

So the idea is that as you go from one piece to the next in any Getting to book you are building on the skill set you have already acquired from learning the preceding repertoire. Further, the Getting to books are designed to cover the entire skill set assumed for each grade. This means that if a student learns every single piece in a Getting to book they will almost certainly know how to do any and every thing a student at that grade would ever be expected to do: they will have truly mastered the grade.

Originally it was intended that there would only ever be the Preliminary, Grade One and Grade Two books (with the links to the HLSPL books), but piano teachers quite quickly were asking for the follow up (Grade Three) until the series now runs to Grade Five.

Each book has a range of styles, keys, techniques and so forth, but a notable feature is the amount of material written since 1900. Most repertoire books seem to include a few token 20th/21st century pieces, but are bulked out by music written between 1720 and the turn of the 20th century. This series is committed to encouraging students to learn the music of their own time (or maybe, more properly, the music of their own, their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents time – and that’s a huge leap forward in time for many piano students/teachers!).

But in addition to this series we decided to create a parallel Getting to series called The New Mix. This series has the same rationale and ambitions as the books in the (classically oriented) Getting to series, only this time the repertoire is drawn solely from arrangements (film themes, pop songs, orchestral standards and so forth) and music written in the past 100 years (most of it composed within the past 25 years). This music has a broad appeal to students, and is similar to the music selected for the AMEB Piano for Leisure examinations.

This makes The New Mix a completely unique repertoire book: popular-style repertoire arranged into an intelligent teaching sequence, leading to students gaining wide-ranging pianistic skills.

Now, there was one more rationale driving the series: trying to find a way to make it easy for piano teachers to not photocopy music in copyright. The Getting to books are incredible value – 30 pieces (usually) for less than $1 a piece, much of the music sourced from a variety of hard-to-find sources. So teachers can use the collections, knowing they and their students are doing the right thing, without sacrificing breadth of repertoire. And students can build up a library of excellent piano music – and with research (un)surprisingly showing that literacy is significantly affected by having books within the family home, this is an enormous educational benefit.

Finally, not a rationale, but a feature of the Getting to books: at the back of each book is a section titled “How to Prepare for Your Exam”. This section presupposes that students are intending to sit a piano exam, and of course, there is no reason why they should. But many parents and students feel as if no progress is being made without a certificate to say so, or a deadline to inspire practice, and so we find ourselves in an intensely assessment-oriented educational culture.

“How to Prepare for Your Exam” is intended to make clear to students (and their parents) just how much else, besides learning five or six pieces, is required to be ready for a piano exam. So scales and arpeggios, sight reading, ear tests and general knowledge are all covered in this quite-large section at the end of each Getting to book. It will depend which examination board the student is sitting their exam with as to exactly which requirements they will be tested on, but this section is an excellent summary of the skills variously tested at that particular grade level in Australian-available exams.