Where did the 40 Piece Challenge begin?

Where did the 40 Piece Challenge begin?

40 Piece Challenge

I honestly didn’t expect the 40 Piece Challenge to go global the way it has quite as rapidly as it has. This backstory post was supposed to get written in plenty of time for anyone interested, and I know I’ve already missed that window.

Here’s the deal…

Once upon a time I was a teacher in Australia teaching my students the way teachers in exam-oriented and competition-oriented culture have always taught – spending between 4 and 9 months working with students on their exam/competition repertoire (the 4 month kids were doing two exams/competitions each year rather than one) and then having a few months per year for “fun” pieces that weren’t “for” anything.

Students working this way would be learning between 6 and 10 pieces a year total, as a rule. The more students progressed in degrees of difficulty the more their sight-reading skills lagged behind. And at the end of about 10 years of serious study throughout their childhood the students would cease lessons with a slew of certificates and awards and probably never really play very much again.

The students who could play quite well by ear tended to be the ones who kept on playing after formal lessons stopped. And that struck me as signalling that there was something very wrong, possibly even unethical, with the way I was teaching. Shouldn’t 10 years of serious study equip you for a lifetime of engagement with your instrument?

In the year 2001 I was doing a series of workshops around Australia on technique for beginners. I was asked to give this series of presentations and I felt as if I really wasn’t the most qualified on the subject, so I began reading all kinds of treatises and manuals and histories and pamphlets. One three page article at the front of an etudes collection really struck a chord with me. It said something along the lines of “how on earth can students be expected to gain a wide variety of skills, let alone an understanding of musical thinking and pianistic style, if they only ever learn 6 pieces each year? Our students should be learning many times this number, 40 or so at least each year, if they are to have any hope of truly mastering the instrument”.

Gosh, I thought, this guy could be talking about me! This is MY students he’s referring to! He really knows what it’s like to be a teacher in Australia at the start of the new millennium.

Now I have no idea where I read this – it’s somewhere in my vast library – but the salient element here is that when I got to the end of the article I realised this guy wasn’t talking about me at all, or musical life in Australia. The article was written in the mid-1800s, in the middle of Europe.

Right, I thought. So this has been going for literally ages. Time to take this guy seriously.

So in my tour that year (2001) when I spoke about teaching technique to beginners I also talked about this revolutionary idea from the mid-1800s, that piano students would develop better skills and deeper understanding if they learned more music. Uh-huh, nodded the encouraging but sceptical piano teachers. “Tell you what”, I said, “I’ve just started getting my students working on more pieces and in a couple of years I’ll be able to report back.”

“You do that”, replied the encouraging but sceptical teachers.

Well, it wasn’t easy, I can tell you that. My students weren’t overly impressed that I was asking them to learn double, triple, quadruple the number of pieces they learned the year before. Why?, they would implore. I’d explain the logic and they’d smile and nod, and they liked me, most of them, so they did their best.

Part of the trouble was where to find the vast quantities of repertoire the students were going to need. Christopher Norton’s Microjazz books seemed like an instant no-brainer inclusion – the kids loved so many of his pieces, and the collections were amply laden with repertoire. Learning extra pieces from exam books was equally obvious – so long as there were sufficient pieces the students would want to learn.

In 2002 I pitched an idea to Hal Leonard Australia. How about we produce a repertoire series that matched up with the Australian Music Examination Board and the Trinity College exams and the ABRSM exams and the other local exam boards operating in Australia (ANZCA, for example), and presented 30 graded pieces at each grade level in a logical learning sequence, including plenty of works written in the 20th century. Teachers have so much trouble sourcing these pieces – and it’s vital for students to play the music of their own time.

It took about a year to get the green light, and in 2003 we launched the Getting to series – Preliminary, Grade One and Grade Two. And that’s all we ever thought we were going to make. So many students drop out after Grade Two…

By the time I was presenting the professional development seminars that launched this repertoire series I had about 30 months experience implementing my new repertoire-rich teaching regime, and so I could report from the trenches just how it was working out.

It was working out just like the guy in the mid-1800s had said it would. Students were sight-reading ridiculously well. Their initiative to source new pieces to learn had gone through the roof. The volume of pieces wasn’t slowly down their capacity to progress onto more difficult work. And when they did progress onto more difficult work they had this growing stylistic awareness that is the fruit of much experience. It was amazing!

On the other hand, I’d had some dodgy moments along the way as well. Students who resisted the repertoire I was assigning. Repertoire that was getting bogged down over time. But I was paying attention and learning from my mistakes. One of the big lessons I had learned was that I needed to compete with the external assessment values of the exam systems. The students needed to feel as if learning each and every piece was actually important, the same way they felt about their examination repertoire.

I began the 100 Piece Medal. When students had learned 100 pieces they received a medal at the end of year recital. Beginners could manage this in their very first year if they worked really hard! Older students became motivated to learn easier pieces so they could reach the arbitrary target of 100 pieces sooner – and best of all, every time I assigned a new piece students would be excited and leave their lessons telling parents “I got three new pieces today!!!” all aglow because they were getting closer to the medal.

In 2004 we took the 100 Piece Medal studio-wide. I’d been teaching with my mother, Anita, and my sister, Suzanne, through the 1990s, and we had a massive studio when taken as a whole. By 2004 Suzanne was in London, so we were back to a studio of about 70-80 students (still plenty) who by this stage had had at least a year of two of learning in a repertoire-rich fashion.

In the professional development seminars I was giving around Australia and New Zealand (and in Malaysia in 2006) I kept talking about teaching roughly a piece a week (the origin of the 40 Piece Challenge number – there being roughly 40 teaching weeks in the Australian school year) in order for students to be developing all-round keyboard musicianship and knowledge.

In 2009 I started this blog, and very soon began writing about the principles involved in teaching students to be learning a wide variety of repertoire right from the beginning, and discussing the benefits this approach brings.

In January 2010 I did a tour with Samantha Coates of Blitzbooks fame and with Abe Cytrynowski, of ScaleCards fame (both Sam and Abe are the brains behind the amazing ScaleBlitzer app), and my part of the day long seminar was to talk about this idea of a repertoire-rich approach to teaching. By this stage there were teachers present who could testify to the impact of teaching LOTS of pieces each year to their students, and by this stage I couldn’t ever imagine going back to the way I’d taught before and the repertoire-rich teachers agreed: how tedious that would be!

In January 2011 I did a tour with Gayle Kowalchyk and Dan Coates, a series of day-long seminars organised by Alfred. My job was to be the MC and – you guessed it – to talk about repertoire-rich teaching and learning. A whole new teaching crowd came along to these seminars. Teachers who’d never heard me talk about this approach before. One of them quizzed me hard on the day he attended in Melbourne, and a year later he wrote this blog post.

I was writing some articles for Piano Teacher Magazine, and the editor, Gina Wake, and I discussed the magazine backing this repertoire-rich approach, and next thing the 40 Piece Challenge was born. And that’s all it was – a challenge to teachers to change their teaching, to commit to not being limited to one set of exam pieces and a couple of Christmas carols each year. No rewards or prizes. Just a challenge.

Then I was at NCKP in July 2013, and had a fabulous dinner with some of North America’s most fabulous piano pedagogy writers: Diane Hidy, Forrest Kinney and Wendy Stevens. I told my dinner companions about the 40 Piece Challenge. Cool idea, they all said, and Wendy said, hmm, I’d like to do a 30 Piece Challenge with my students this year… She blogged about it and instantly the 40 Piece Challenge had gone global, albeit with a numeral change.

By the time September 2014 rolled around the Northern Hemisphere was gearing up for its second year of 40/30 Piece Challenges, and teachers were blogging about their experiences over the previous academic year. This mid-19th century idea had gone full 21st century.

So here we are. February 2015. There are now students who began learning this way, who have no idea what it might be like to only learn 10, 8, 5 pieces a year,  who are old enough and advanced enough to begin teaching students of their own.

It’s global, and it’s now generational.

And this is the story of how the 40 Piece Challenge began.


A Piano Teacher’s Manifesto

A Piano Teacher’s Manifesto

A Piano Teacher's Manifesto 2

Originally published some years ago as What Are Piano Lessons For? this is my manifesto on the purpose of piano lessons.  This is a manifesto that emerges from my experience, that reflects my values, and that frames everything about my piano teaching, about my writing for piano teachers, and about my composing for piano students.

1. Piano lessons are for learning how to do cool stuff on the piano.

Cool stuff starts with things like

  • playing familiar melodies,
  • creating glissandi,
  • using the sustain pedal,

and moves on to more sophisticated cool stuff like

  • creating a balance between the melody and accompaniment,
  • voicing two parts within one hand,
  • being able to control tonal variation,
  • learning to recognise and perform any number of patterns (both by sight and by ear),
  • knowing how to make different chords and chord sequences,
  • being able to play a chromatic scale – fast,
  • being able to play scales in contrary motion, or thirds apart, or sixths apart,
  • creating different effects through a range of articulations

and in terms of repertoire includes

  • playing pieces your friends and family enjoy
  • being able to play music that is new to you easily
  • playing music with other musicians
  • playing music with your friends
  • playing music to accompany singers (solo, group, social, amateur, professional)

2. Piano lessons are for learning what the piano can do so you can do whatever you want on it.

This might sound like a repetition of the ‘cool stuff’ idea in point 1, but while ‘cool stuff’ teaches you what you can do on the piano, this second point has a completely different focus – it’s not about performance per se, but about the ability of the student to express themselves freely through the piano. This might manifest as a student composing new music, or as the student creating variations on the music they are learning, or as the student finding their own new music to learn, or as the student playing familiar music without requiring a score. ‘Learning what the piano can do so you can do whatever you want on it’ means a developing autonomy, an increasing sense of ownership of the instrument and its role in [your] life.

3. Piano lessons are for understanding other people better.

Playing the music composed by others allows students (and performers) to inhabit someone else’s emotional and ideational world, and learning to play the music of others is an even more intimate encounter with the way other people think and feel. Playing music with other people gives an insight into the way they approach interacting with others, how they express themselves, how patient or impatient they are(!), how curious they are, how their minds work in all kinds of ways. Each of these ways of interacting with others can result in deep connection with others, whether they are peers, mentors, or people the student has never met.

4. Piano lessons are for understanding yourself better.

This happens in many ways, but I want to highlight two.

Music connects directly through to your emotions (even if you are just wandering through a shopping centre, and certainly in a scary movie). But that emotional access is multiplied many times over when you are playing a musical instrument; the music is in your body – your body is making the experience you are hearing, your fingers are finding ways to excite, soothe, enrage or engage. When you take piano lessons you learn about what kinds of emotions you want to express, you learn about the ways you can change your emotional reality, you learn about how your choices impact on the emotional states of others.

The process of learning to perform music (especially on the piano where the performer needs no accompaniment) is a particular kind of discipline that requires a deep acceptance of imperfection while still striving for excellence: no performance is flawless, there will always be new ideas for improvements and change. No one else is to blame for less than wonderful performances, no one else can take credit for performances that shine. The student learns much about themselves in terms of  how they relate to perfection/imperfection, how they face challenges in an emotional sense, how they face challenges in a practical sense, how they work toward long-term/medium-term/short-term goals, and a myriad of other truths about their natural proclivities regarding how to define success and failure. Parents sometimes think thisaspect of piano lessons is so important it alone makes taking piano lessons an imperative.

5. Piano lessons are for understanding the world better.

Music is a genuinely direct way of connecting students with other times and other places. It’s quite extraordinary how effective music is in this regard. And while listening to music provides a passive, touristic understanding of the world, actually playing that music means that you are complicit in this wider world – you’ve participated in history, you are experiencing the cultures of other continents and communities.

6. Piano lessons are for exercising your body, your intellect and your emotions all at the same time.

It has been demonstrated that playing the piano will raise your IQ by around 7 points for as long as you play the instrument (you’ll lose those points if you stop playing for months/years), and the reason for this is that nothing else in this world engages so much of your brain at the same time as playing a musical instrument. We didn’t know this in the past, but advances in neuro-imaging mean that we now do know which parts of the brain are at work when a musician is playing an instrument and, while in many activities in life there is a dedicated region of the brain that processes that activity, it is evident that the whole brain is involved in music. In short, the brain is musical – all of it. And when you play an instrument you are using that whole brain.

7. Piano lessons are for changing who you are. All the points listed above add up to an experience that allows you to express yourself [increasingly] freely, learn about yourself and others as well as about both the world around you and the world beyond your horizons. This will change you. Further, with each new goal that you attain and each new challenge that you conquer, you will find yourself looking at other, non-musical goals and challenges in a different way. This goes far beyond believing in yourself, this goes to knowing that you can achieve what you set out to do.

8. And finally, piano lessons are for joy.

The joy you feel playing the piano, the joy you feel playing better and better each week/month/year, the joy others feel hearing you play, the joy you and others experience playing together. The joy of discovery, the joy of achievement, the joy of the raucous, the joy of the sublime. If piano lessons aren’t for at least some of these joys, then what on earth are they for?

Has Parenthood Changed My Teaching?

Has Parenthood Changed My Teaching?

Back in second half of 2006, when I was 14-16 weeks pregnant, Gina Wake (from Hal Leonard Australia) and I did a two or three week tour launching Getting to Grade Four. And then, between weeks 28-31 of my pregnancy (and when Gina was 15-18 weeks along in her pregnancy!), we toured the nation again launching Getting to Preliminary New Mix and Getting to Grade One New Mix. In retrospect we don’t know what we were thinking.

But talking to piano teachers at this cusp moment in my life, this about-to-be-parent phase, meant that teachers who had known me through my seminars since as early as 2000 were sharing this transition with me, celebrating the arrival of motherhood on my resumé and giving me some great advice along the way.

One teacher said to me with quite a twinkle in her eye “I wonder how becoming a parent is going to change your piano teaching…”

“So do I!”, I exclaimed back. I’d always said that people who think that having a baby isn’t going to change their lives are dangerously delusional and/or completely failing to appreciate that the whole point of having a baby is to have your life changed. So the idea that my piano teaching would change as a result of raising a child of my own seemed obvious.

And yet – I’d been teaching since I was 14 years old. I’d already seen my teaching change simply because I’d gained maturity. I’d seen my teaching change because of new ideas I’d been exposed to when undertaking studies in non-musical disciplines (linguistics, semiotics, anthropology, sociology, French, film studies, and so on). I’d seen my teaching change because I’d taught classroom music and experienced first-hand the calibre and conditions of New South Wales high school music education. I’d seen my teaching change because I’d started presenting seminars to other piano teachers. And I’d seen my teaching change because I was composing and publishing music for students to play.

Becoming a parent was just going to be another one of these enrichments that changed my teaching.

When I resumed lessons with my much-reduced number of students and an 8 week-old baby, the biggest change was that I needed to schedule breaks between every lesson to facilitate breast-feeding. And as my son grew a bit older I needed to stop teaching earlier in the evening to facilitate his night-time routines, and I had far less time to organise the administration of my teaching practice.

To be honest, as the first few years of my son’s life passed I was quietly surprised at how little my teaching was changing post-parenthood, organisational rather than qualitative changes.

More notable was how my experience as a piano teacher was shaping my approach to being a mother.

After more than 20 years of piano teaching I had experienced all kinds of different parents: parents who were always two minutes early, parents who were always five minutes late, parents who quibbled over money and parents who arrived at the start of each term with their chequebook open. I’d had parents who didn’t realise there’s any benefit to practice between lessons as well as parents who sat with their children to practice every day, for years, for each child in the family. There were parents who told me they just wanted their child to learn ‘for fun’ and parents who discussed how we should shape the next five to ten years to enable their child to gain a music scholarship or earn a diploma before the end of Year 10. Parents who barely spoke English and parents who thought migrants posed an unfair educational challenge to their children. Parents who were keen to sit in on lessons, parents who used piano lessons for a sleep in the car.

Chief amongst the approaches I’d quietly bemoaned along the years was the parent who uses the piano lesson as a kind of baby-siting, an expensive but enriching weekly event which requires no further engagement on the part of the student or the student’s family between sessions. Why invest the money in lessons each week if you can’t be bothered supporting the practice between lessons, even a little bit?, has been my bordering-on-exasperated thought. Don’t you know how much more your child could be achieving?!

But all of a sudden, I get it.

You’re exhausted. Years of parenting a child who doesn’t seem to need to sleep have finally compounded to deplete you of even the tiniest reserves. It’s a miracle if you can make it through the day without losing it between dinner and bedtime. The piano teacher wants your child to have practiced this week? It’s a feat of extraordinary proportions that the child got fed, for goodness sake, that they’ve turned up to their lesson in clean clothes. But you know that your child loves this 30 or 45 minutes each week, or at least you’re pretty sure they do, and you know that your child is getting quality one-on-one attention from a teacher who is invested in building a long-term learning relationship. AND you know that music is super-fantastic for the brain. Whatever is happening in the lesson is absolutely worth it, because it’s more than you can provide on your own.

I get it.

The piano teacher talks to you about your child’s capacities, potential and achievements based on weekly, focussed experience working with your child. You get to tell the teacher what’s been going on in the life of your family, what’s been making practice or organisation tricky, and the teacher makes some suggestions or sympathises or tells a joke. You know that the teacher wants good things for your child, and that they have been spending the past half hour thinking hard about the best way to help your child grow and develop. So what if this week was a disaster in the practice department? The piano teacher is part of your network, your support team. You’re not going to give this up just to save a few bucks.

I get it.

And I also know, from all my years as a piano teacher, that even without practice at home a child can still (miraculously) make something resembling progress, can still play happily at recitals, can still be a joyful musician. Not anything like a professional musician. But still happy. And it makes complete sense to have your child experience this, even if you can’t (for whatever reason) support your child’s at-home practice the way piano teachers might tell you you should.

Piano lessons aren’t always about playing the piano. A successful lesson might not even involve touching a keyboard. A great outcome for a student might not even have anything to do with music.

And that’s totally, completely, and always OK.

I think I really, truly knew this before I became a parent. But these days I think I marvel more – how extraordinary a thing it is that a student finds an hour a day to practice! – how tremendous that the whole family attends the end-of-term recital! – how spectacular is an improvement in posture! – how thrilling is a memorised performance!

Parenthood has underlined to me how the whole enterprise of learning is miraculous. And how it’s a privilege to participate in that miracle every day.

A Teenage Cautionary Tale

A Teenage Cautionary Tale

In her marvellous memoir Piano Lessons, Anna Goldsworthy recounts a turning point in her relationship with her piano teacher. Anna had won an extraordinary string of awards, academic and musical, in her final year at high school, and she was being interviewed for a story in the paper. Anna describes the whole experience as being quite surreal, finding the questions put to her by the reporter as being weirdly disconnected from anything she might have wanted to say.

When the story appeared in the paper then next day Anna was bemused to herself quoted as saying that she owed her success to her kindergarten teacher, and that she planned to move to Sydney to further her career. It’s not that she was misquoted exactly, but that the whole story skewed very far from Anna’s reality.

Next thing Anna received a phone call from her piano teacher, very cold, asking her about her plans to relocate to Sydney. Long story short, Anna had failed to credit her piano teacher with any influence at all in her extraordinary piano performance success. The memoir goes on to detail how Anna and her teacher worked through this: the senses of betrayal and teenage confusion that mingled to create this interpersonal flashpoint.

I read this part of the memoir with looming dread as the story unfolded, and with deep empathy for the teenage Anna. Goodness knows the number of times I got things wrong with my music teachers through no deliberate fault of my own; I just wish someone had been able to steer me clear of false steps in my adolescent musical career. I knew exactly how ashamed Anna felt when she realised the impact the newspaper story must have had on her teacher, and how helpless and foolish she felt when it was all too late.

The worst of my musical crimes was perpetrated at the end of my high schooling, when I was asked to perform at the school’s Prize Giving Night. I had only one piece suitable for public performance at the time: a Bartok Dance in Bulgarian Rhythm from Mikrokosmos VI. It’s a flashy work, short, rhythmic, loud; but it’s Bartok, and the consensus from the staff was that they’d much prefer me to play some Beethoven (maybe they even asked for Chopin, but that was never going to be on the cards).

If I could time travel back to 1983 and whisper in my just-turned-16-year-old ear I would yell “It’s the Bartok, or it’s nothing!”. Then I’d advise the high school staff to contact my piano teacher to talk about alternatives, rather than hassling a teenager to do something against her better judgment. I’d explain to myself that performing a work that is not ready to be performed does absolutely no one any favours: not the audience, not the school and certainly not yourself.

But since I didn’t time travel back to 1983 I found myself trying to keep my school teachers happy by agreeing to perform the first movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata. I needed to master it in any case for a piano exam I was sitting in 7 weeks time, so I didn’t sense the degree to which I was letting everyone down when I allowed the staff to influence my performance choices.

The night arrived. My piano teacher wasn’t going to be there, but that hadn’t even been on my mind at all. It hadn’t even occurred to me to let her know about this issue at the school regarding my Prize Giving Performance. I sat down to play, and as those first ponderous bars of the Pathetique began to resound about the school hall so a cicada began its summery task of chirping through the dusk. Once I reached the Allegro the cicada upped the ante, chirping at double speed; I couldn’t reciprocate – Andante was the best I could do.

It took over 10 minutes to play the movement, and I was accompanied throughout by an insect. When I finally played the concluding chords the audience broke into rapturous applause (thank God that’s over, was what I imagined they were thinking), and once the clapping had died away we all realised the cicada had stopped too. And then every human being in that school hall laughed.

The next day a teacher stopped me in the schoolyard to praise my performance. I had this little moment where I considered explaining how truly awful my performance had been, but I could see he was genuine, completely meaning every word he said, and I didn’t have the heart to let him down twice, so I just said “Thank you”.

But at about the same time on this same next day the musicology professor from the university was on the phone to his good friend, my piano teacher, asking her if she had had any idea what I had been up to the previous night. It’s at this point that I realise that deep in my heart I did know I was doing the wrong thing – if I had thought for an instant that any of the university staff were going to be at my school’s Prize Giving I know I would have insisted on playing the Bartok.

But I didn’t (know the musicology professor was attending), and I didn’t (insist on playing Bartok), and my piano teacher didn’t (know about my woeful performance).

The next piano lesson was just one long blush.

I felt terrible about it, and I do to this day. Anyone who was there will remember that cicada.

But more than feeling terrible about giving a terrible performance, I feel terrible about the social betrayals in this story: my high school teachers let me down, encouraging me to give a performance so far from my best; I let my piano teacher down by implying this was also her idea of a good performance; I also let my piano teacher down by not even telling her that I was going to be performing. I really thought I was doing the right thing….

Teenage piano students: your lot is not an easy one. You spend hours each week on your own perfecting your performance skills, and then the world wonders when you’re not up to speed on interpersonal protocol.

Here’s the deal:
1. Never perform in a formal public setting without both the knowledge and the approval of your piano teacher. This saves you making a fool of yourself.
2. Never perform a piece that deep in your heart you know is not ready. This saves you making a fool of the music.
3. Never allow your high school teachers (who may be absolutely brilliant teachers and people) to dissuade you from following rules 1 and 2. This saves you making a fool of them.

And should you happen to be interviewed for a newspaper about your performances and prizes, be sure to give your kindergarten teacher just a little less credit than that you give to your piano teacher!

Piano Lessons for Life: Don’t Correct Mistakes

Piano Lessons for Life: Don’t Correct Mistakes

Don't Correct Mistakes


One of the most profound life lessons I’ve learned as a piano teacher is to not correct mistakes.

Correcting mistakes can take up whole piano lessons, whole terms of piano lessons, whole lifetimes of piano lessons. It’s no fun for the teacher, even less so for the student, and what’s more it simply doesn’t do any good.

Correcting mistakes means that all the attention is drawn to what is being done wrong, rather than to what one should be aiming to do right. This is not a good tactic in improving performance (on the piano, on the tennis court, and keep extrapolating as suits your own activities); the performer’s focus is drawn inward to the mistake rather than outward to communicating clearly.

But correcting mistakes is an easy habit to fall into. A what-not-to-do list looks like ‘instruction’, and is much simpler to compile than a strategy for success, and that’s because at the piano (as in life) it’s often easier to articulate what we don’t want than what we do. And it’s easier to articulate what we don’t want because what we do want can change from one day or moment to the next. The right thing to do changes according to context: much easier to list forbidden behaviours than to inculcate the wisdom to select judicious courses of action.

For those of you unfamiliar with piano lessons, or for those of you whose piano lessons days are far behind you, here’s the rundown of a lesson where correcting mistakes is the means of ‘teaching’. Let’s say the student plays a scale, and stumbles on a particular note. The teacher usually has two options: one is to name the note the student should be playing, the other is to name the finger the student should be using. This results in piano lessons where the teacher wearily calls out “F sharp” whenever the student reaches that part of the scale, or where the teacher forcefully suggests “4” when the student goes to use a third finger.

The same kind of thing happens with students presenting repertoire they’ve been practising during the week: a wrong note, muffled articulation, or inappropriate dynamic expression. A teacher focussed on correcting mistakes will say things like “it’s a G“, “play staccato!”, “LOUD!!“. All piano teachers reading this: I know you will agree that you have certainly engaged in this kind of in-lesson communication at some point in your careers, maybe even this afternoon. And while each of these exhortations does focus on the preferred activity of the student (play a G instead of whatever fool note you are playing/those dots really do mean a short and detached sound so do it/play loudly because that’s what forte means, hello), they are responsive to a ‘mistake’, not to a vision of what the performance should or could be.

One of the best lines I’ve ever come across about piano teaching is this: Don’t correct mistakes, instead find the source of the error.

It doesn’t take too many years of teaching before you realise that a huge percentage of ‘mistakes’ come down to fingering. A student keeps hitting a wrong note? Check the fingering. A student struggles to play a passage legato? Check the fingering. And by check the fingering I don’t mean that the teacher should check that the student is playing the fingering as written in the book; I mean that the teacher should check that the fingering being used by the student actually facilitates the performance of the correct notes, articulations, rhythms, and so forth.

Of the many other possible sources of error there are two that account for nearly everything else that goes ‘wrong': a failure to notice and a failure to imagine. Rather than, for instance, inserting micromanaged dynamic instructions throughout a piece (and then rote-teaching these dynamics to students) a teacher can create learning experiences that strengthen a student’s interest in and ability to notice and to imagine, thus developing a performer who finds logical and emotionally engaging ways to present performances.

But the lesson for life here is both simple and profound: don’t correct mistakes, locate the source of the error.

Say you have a bill from your telco where you are being charged the wrong amount. You can call the company every month to dispute the bill and hopefully have it corrected, or you can find out why you are being charged the wrong amount and resolve the fundamental error that is leading to the mistaken total being billed to you. Finding (and resolving) the cause of the error will save you time (and probably money), not just in your piano practice but in your whole life.

Say you are setting your alarm for 7am but you are still running late for work/class/the bus each day. Rather than just trying to get ready faster, find out what the cause of the delay actually is: is your clock running five minute late? are you allowing 2 minutes for 4 minute walk to the bus stop? have you not factored time in for breakfast? Taking time to find the cause of the error (in piano practice as in life) allows you to make a good decision as to how to create effective change.

Say someone gossips about you, telling untruths in the process; in 21st century terms it could be talking about you on a facebook page or some other kind of (social or other) media. Protesting that things said about you are not true would be exactly like a piano teacher calling out “Don’t play quietly!” – all you are doing is drawing attention to the thing that is wrong! If you take the time to locate the source of the error in these social aspects of your life you’ll avoid making mistakes of your own, just as you will in your piano practice, but until the source of the error is discovered you will find new mistakes cropping up time and time again (in life as in piano). Deal with the source of the error and it is unlikely that mistakes will reappear.

To be continued.


The Letter Chelsea White Received From Me

The Letter Chelsea White Received From Me

For anyone following the so-called ‘radio wives war’ as reported by Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, here’s what I really said. If you want to check my tweets you need to look at December 13. I tweet as @elissamilne, and be warned – I tweet mostly about music education, piano teaching and classical music, the same topics I cover in this blog.

Hi Chelsea

My apologies for being impossible to access yesterday – I’m in the middle of a tour around the country presenting seminars to piano teachers in this last week before school goes back, and my flight back to Sydney last night was one of the last of the day.

I suspect it’s too late for phone calls now, seeing as your plans were to go forward with the story already. But I’m assuming you are referring to the news that Lisa Oldfield made remarks about me on her private facebook account. I wouldn’t even know about it except for someone alerting my husband to this, and my view is that Lisa is entitled to say whatever she likes in her facebook status, and her friends are equally entitled to respond to her status in the way they see fit.

I understand Lisa’s comments were in response to a twitter conversation I had had on December 13, where I was discussing the lack of apostrophes in written journalism, and my surprise and horror at the misuse of subordinate clauses. Yes, this was a grammar-nazi tweeting-session, replete with hashtags decrying the illiteracy of the media and my despair that an ability to use words correctly was dwindling in the fourth estate.

In the midst of this twitter conversation/rant someone tweeted that David Oldfield had read a list of ‘racially based surnames’ in a recent broadcast, and I tweeted that ‘illiteracy was better than that shite’, a reflection of my belief that comments that superficially dwell on ethnicity or that attempt to sensationalise and deride the racial diversity of Australia are a poor use of the broadcast spectrum. And I can only assume that this is what upset Lisa.

It’s possible that Lisa mistook the entire rant about apostrophes and so forth as being about David, but since he works in an audio format where apostrophes are not visible it’s hard to see how this conclusion would have been reached. Further, David has a wonderful voice for radio and really is a natural in this medium. He also has a perfectly functional vocabulary (not true of everyone in the trade). The only thing one can criticise about him is the questionable content of his broadcasts, and I can only imagine that David’s content will continue to be oriented toward decrying ways of living that are foreign to him (halal food being served in KFCs being a recent example) and therefore open to criticism from people like myself who find this attitude to parts of the Australian population to be distasteful.

I hope this sheds some light on the ‘dispute’. I firmly believe Lisa should be allowed to say whatever she likes about me or anyone/anything else – it’s her facebook page for goodness sake. And I wouldn’t have even known about it except for someone phoning John.

On the other hand, I have no idea how on earth Lisa was alerted to my tweet. I am mostly followed by people interested in music education, classical music and arts marketing. I tweet as myself, Elissa Milne, and my profile does not mention my relationship with my husband. As I have never met Lisa in person I am amazed that she even knows who I am.

At least now introductions won’t be required.

All the best

Elissa Milne

Resuming Normal Transmission

Resuming Normal Transmission

It’s been exactly a month since my last post to this blog, and in the intervening time my journalist husband has been working overtime making commentary on the unique electoral result Australia achieved (and on the final makeup of the minority government) while I’ve had a fairly full schedule myself, with a weekend in Wagga Wagga participating in a composing festival (premieres of specially commissioned works at night followed by workshops for aspiring composers during the day) and many pages of proofing for some new books coming out over the next few months. Oh, and my sister has just had her first baby, so the whole family (yes, that includes me!) has been enjoying this newborn phase with the delighted parents.

But transmission is about to be reset to ‘Normal’, with a backlog of issues, ideas and music to discuss.

I’ve been playing through the new ABRSM (2011-12) piano exam books, and revisiting the AMEB Series 16 selections as well. I’m fascinated by the way ABRSM Grade 6 is getting easier (pieces that were in ABRSM Grade 5 collections in the late 70s and early 80s are now in Grade 6) while AMEB Grade 6 seems to be headed toward something like what Grade 8 AMEB used to be back in the late 70s! I’m not sure what either exam board is hoping will come of the repertoire drift, but I’ll be blogging about specific examples of this in the weeks ahead.

And I’m still working my way through how not to teach the way you were taught (!) and this issue of how many hours practice it should take for a student to successfully improve one whole grade standard.

There are new children’s books I want to talk about, and there are still a swag of issues coming out of the Classical Music Futures Summit I’d still like to explore.

So it’s definitely time to resume normal transmission….