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40 Piece Challenge Updates…

The story of more just keeps getting bigger…

The latest unexpected development in the 40 Piece Challenge saga is the suggestion by some teachers in the largest Facebook piano teachers’ discussion group, The Art of Piano Pedagogy (10,000 members and counting), that they could also participate in a challenge – learning 40 new pieces over the course of the year at the same time as students are doing so.

I’m already gasping at the news that one member will be learning all the Hindemith sonatas (and I’m wildly jealous!), and equally astonished at the idea of another teacher setting themselves the goal of learning a sonata a week! I know other teachers will be using the challenge to flesh out their familiarity with composers they’ve never taken the time to explore, or to focus on a specific aspect of the pedagogical repertoire – and I could certainly complete about 3 challenges simply by learning the music I don’t yet know from the various exam board publications that have been issued this year (AMEB Series 17, ABRSM 2015-16, Trinity College London 2015-17, RCM Celebration Series 2015).

This Art of Piano Pedagogy 40 Piece Challenge follows on from the news earlier this year that adult learners in the Piano World Forums were setting themselves the goal of learning 40 pieces or more in the calendar year. This is an incredibly heart-warming thing to witness – so much encouragement and support from adult piano students extended to each other! It’s so hard as an adult to make time for learning, and it’s an inspiration seeing these pianists finding the time every week and every month to master new music (and to discuss their processes and perspectives on learning).

And news from a different angle: a few months ago I learned that the organisers of the MTNA Conference being held in San Antonio next year wanted me to give a presentation (only a short one, mind you!) about the repertoire-rich teaching philosophy at the heart of this challenge. [see you in Texas, in April?!]

And these are only the tip of the iceberg – studios all over the world trying out the 40 Piece Challenge in some form or other this year (either 2015 academic year or 2015-16 academic year).

The beauty of a Challenge To Learn More Repertoire is its inherent malleability.

My students, for example, don’t do an annual challenge, but we track their learning and they receive a trophy for every 100 pieces they learn. Most beginners manage 100 pieces in their first year quite easily (so long as they remember to practice), and more advanced students are encouraged to engage in learning beyond the demands of an ABRSM or AMEB examination program. Wins all round.

And I know of teachers who have created semester-based challenges – say, a 15 Piece Challenge that ends at Christmas, for example. And that’s on top of the hundreds of teachers who have implemented 30 or 40 or even 50 Piece Challenges for their students over the course of a full academic year.

There really are no rules. It’s just about having a way of creating a sense of commitment in the imaginations of our students to learning more.

“What counts?”, I’m often asked, and I often see teachers asking each other. Earlier this year my good friend Samantha Coates and I had a big discussion about this in the Australasian Piano Teachers Facebook group, with Samantha expressing dismay at the idea that advanced students might just announce that  they would learn 40 or 50 method book pieces and feel as if it meant something substantial (even though in their heart they knew it didn’t!).

The prompt to nail down “what counts” was a good one, and in a challenge with no rules we all agreed we needed just this one: it must be a learning experience. Doesn’t matter if the piece is easy or hard – is it a learning experience?

If a student has never played in 7 time before, well, what does it matter that the piece is something they can master, memorise and move on from in a week? It’s a learning experience that sets the student on a path to faster mastery of works that are more challenging.

If a student has never played with a swing groove before – well, you’d better start with something reasonably uncomplicated! There’s a whole lot of learning going on.

If the student has no experience with sonata form – well, start with an early intermediate sonatina, not a late Beethoven…!

And so it goes, technique by technique, key signature by key signature, period by period, and tempo by tempo.

But I don’t think we need to stop there. My students are often asked to take a learned piece and learn it in a transposition – and the transposition counts as a new learning experience. My piece, Little Mouse*, for instance (see a performance by Beth Alcock {tinymozarts} here), is a revelation to transpose – completely different black-key/white-key alignment with the hand, and the student learns to see ascending melodic minor scale patterns in different geographical iterations – massive learning experience going on there.

And recomposing a piece into a new composition/arrangement is definitely a learning experience, particularly when the focus is on awareness of language – how does one compositional structure communicate a different message to another presentation of the same musical materials? The student is developing historical awareness, expressive insight, confidence in making choices about how they want to shape the music in their (metaphoric and literal) hands, and a repertoire of not just “pieces” but of “experiences”. And how much more interesting when a student’s performance communicates their well-informed musical experience, rather than simply giving an honest account of the score?

The other big question that gets asked all the time: is the piece learned if it is not memorised? Absolutely! The goal is not to have a performing repertoire of 40+ pieces, but rather to have had the experience of engaging seriously with new repertoire every single week (pretty much).

Getting to the end of the year and knowing so much more as a result of all these new experiences that we can’t ever be content with working on four or five pieces a year ever again? Now that’s definitely a goal worth working toward!
*”Little Mouse” is published in Getting to Preliminary, 2nd edition, and can also be found in the Getting to Preliminary Teachers’ Guide.

4 thoughts on “40 Piece Challenge Updates…

  1. Thanks for the inspiration! I first read Wendy Stevens ’30 piece challenge’ and then your ’40 piece challenge’ and thought they were wonderful. I realised, that if I wanted my students to do this, I’d first have to take it up myself…. I got quiet terrified at the thought of learning so much music, so I started a personal sight-reading challenge – 5 minutes a day, 20 days a month. It was so easy to keep to, that I went on from there and am now wondering whether I can actually do 30 pieces in a year. It looks like I’ll get the learning done, but am not sure just how well I’ll be able to get everything that the piece needs ‘done’ Here’s how its going so far https://anitaelise.wordpress.com/2015/09/18/month-6-of-my-personal-sightreading-challenge/
    I’m a little behind on my recordings…cos I need uninterrupted time for them.

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