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!

Classical Music Futures Summit: Quick Points

I spent today (July 12) at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music at an event importantly titled the Classical Music Futures Summit, having scored a lucky last-minute invitation to be part of the talkfest.

So lately invited was I (somewhere between 6 and 2 weeks ago, depending on how you interpret the invitation) that the sheet listing the participants, explaining who they worked with/for, what they did/had done, along with their email addresses, didn’t include me. Which was fine – I’m very well-accustomed to people asking me who on earth I am.

This was my first experience at an event run by a professional facilitator, and I’ve come away from the day with a sense of awe at the quick-witted skillfulness displayed throughout the event, quickly sifting ideas into themes, managing the time-ego tug-of-war, and working to deliver both forward momentum and a sense of ownership to the participants. Truly inspiring work.

I’ve also come away from the day thrilled to have met some fabulous people in the flesh – people I’ve been tweeting with, like Yvonne Frindle who works with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, or blogging about, like Julian Day who works with Classic FM, or reading the blog of, like Gregory Sandow who works as a critic and writer and teaches at Julliard and the University of Maryland, or who were completely new to me [and I'm so glad I got to meet them] like Euan Murdoch of Chamber Music New Zealand.

And of course, it was equally fabulous to see familiar faces too – Rita Crews, John Colwill, Rachel Hocking and Sonny Chua from my experiences in educational piano music, John Davis from the Australian Music Centre and Matthew Hindson (probably only just recovered from the marathon that was the ISCM World New Music Days held in early May here in Sydney) who shares a publisher with me, amongst many others.

Greg Sandow was the keynote speaker, and there’s not a thing he said that didn’t make me nod and murmur with appreciation. His ideas are deceptively revolutionary, and it was interesting to see how warmly he was received, how rapt was the attention during his presentation, how enthusiastic the applause after, and yet the fundamental observations he made were routinely ignored in the remainder of the day. If this was a keynote speech the form of the day was atonal variations; most of Greg’s themes were inverted in further discussion and many of the comments from the floor were clear efforts at retrograde.

A statistical overview was then given, with what felt to me like too much detail at times along with some interesting philosophical perspectives emerging from some data. I’m just not convinced that statistics are best delivered aurally – I would have preferred an A4 page with numbers, graphs and conclusions that could have been taken into any and all discussions throughout the rest of the day. By now all I can remember thinking is that the statistics from Japan and China and other Asian nations simply couldn’t be lined up against European data without a broader economic and policy background, so I wiped that information immediately; I also recall most countries reported roughly a decline of 3 percentage points in concert attendance, so it depends where you started as to how truly appalling a statistic that is, and that education was attributed to the success of numbers increasing for concert attendance in some countries. Now this last issue struck me as a confusion of causal and casual links, but there was no time to query methodology before we moved on.

We then were facilitated into producing a vision of what success might look like in 2013, and it was at this point that I realised what a very difficult task the day would prove to be: instead of addressing the task immediately at hand (envision and describe a new world where our dreams for classical music have been realised) discussion easily devolved into anecdote or soapbox. And this is where a better preparation of participants would have been ideal, maybe with every participant needing to email in ideas addressing this question in advance, so that the small group discussion would be starting from somewhere beyond personal bugbears and old chestnuts. But even small advance preparations take considerable man-hours to marshall: this was the best we were going to manage today.

After a bit of synthesis we were let loose to collect our lunches and find our break-out discussion groups. I was in a group discussing audiences, and this is such a large issue I’ll leave the ideas emerging from this discussion for a separate blog post.

After 30 minutes we had a break to listen to Peter Garrett, the Minister for the Arts and Politically Damaging Stimulus Programs and former Midnight Oil front man, reveal that he’d been a chorister, could read music (although he phrased it ‘learned the difference between the black notes and the notes with white in the middle’) and had had a thoroughly decent music education that had laid a solid foundation for his work in the rock circuit and political life. When Peter left his prepared speech he was passionate and articulate and connected with his audience; left to follow the script he seemed destined to an unsatisfying end as yet another not-so-well-thought-through-Labour-recruit. He recited the dollar figures granted in subsidies to various music organisations, and this really was funny – some numbers were so low that they were in the ballpark of a politician’s annual salary – hardly impressive largesse. But he could name three Australian composers right off the bat, and even if his idea about the importance of classical music to the history of Australia was wildly exaggerated, his heart was clearly in the more-or-less right place.

The groups had another hour to work through their area of focus and then nearly two hours was spent reporting back.

This was again a time where I reflected with some degree of sorrow on the value that might have been achieved through a more thorough preparation of summit participants; some reports met the designated criteria (highlight 4 key points) while others didn’t even try (4 pages of densely scripted A2 sheets of butcher paper, with extra notes on the back of the final page), and this formal discrepancy created a lack of balance in this reporting process. This could have been minimised if everyone present had developed basic skills in following instructions at any point in their tertiary, secondary or primary school education. The personality of the designated reporter also made for wild differences in the dissemination of the ideas and insights from each group.

But the facilitator was worth her pay: she quickly found useful correlations between the discrepant reports, and rapidly shaped something workable with which to move into the future. Simply achieving an acknowledgement from the floor that an overarching strategic directions committee was needed to drive the next few months was a substantial feat, for this is where territory begins to be staked! Who is to be on this committee?, and who appoints them? dominated debate in a somewhat tiresome way, but then I don’t feel as if I have territory to protect, so that’s an easy observation for me to make.

So a real outcome, with measurable milestones: a good achievement for the Music Council of Australia.

Now for an update in three months to actually measure those milestones, and a new blog post from me in a day or two unpacking the ideologies and narratives in play throughout the summit.