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.

 

The Night Before Christmas

The Night Before Christmas

 

This year my piano students have been absolutely mad keen on learning Christmas carols. Not so much keen to work on them in the lesson, but enthusiastic to the extreme about having sheet music they can easily read to produce a performance of some of their favourite Christmas songs. I’ve been under serious pressure to get the right books in for each of these students – in time for them to be able to play at least one or two Christmas tunes with family and friends in the lead-up to Christmas.

Jingle Bells is the clear winner in the popularity stakes, but We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Silent Night and Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer have also been excitedly greeted by students flicking through their new Christmas collections.

Now, I have no idea whether my students really did end up playing these songs for their families at Christmas. My own family has a tradition of hosting a back-yard carols-by-candlelight each year, with forty to fifty friends and family in attendance, my brother-in-law leading the singing, me on the piano, and the kids (my own, my sister’s, the children of our friends and family) each having a role to play in the evening’s proceedings, either singing a verse of a Christmas carol as a solo, or playing an instrument, or reciting a poem or telling a story. Every child gets to be a part of it.

Santa Claus visits each year, and the faces of the children are always lit up with the wonder that is a whitely-bearded man, unseasonably dressed (we’re always worried he’ll pass out from heat-stroke), handing out presents and pretending reindeer are parked down the road waiting to take him back to the North Pole.

That’s what Christmas is, to me: magic, music, and children. It’s about family and about community, sharing, nurturing and celebrating, through food (so much food!) and through music.

My seven year old son shocked us all, the other night, at our backyard carols, when he insisted on accompanying us while we sang Deck the Halls. I got booted off the piano, and Tom took over. He’d never properly practiced it but he’s not at all shabby playing by ear, and so the delighted backyard assembly sang along to Tom’s unrehearsed rendition, and it all went surprisingly well. That’s Christmas.

The ten year old daughter of friends down the road volunteered to perform with her younger brother – they sang a Christmas song she’d composed just the day before. It was fantastic! Who knew Olivia was a song-writer?! She’s been taking piano lessons this year, but they sang a cappella, and it was perfect. That’s Christmas.

Ethan, the five year old son of a cousin of mine, was next – he suddenly wanted to share an action poem he’d learned about five lonely Christmas trees. Rhythmic, choreographed, and spoken with an insanely adorable lisp – his contribution was spontaneous, unscheduled, and we were spell-bound. That is Christmas.

This whole holiday season it has never occurred to me to encourage the children in my life, students, neighbours, relatives, to practice. Why would you?

Practicing is something you do to get ready, and this is the time of year is when all that preparation bears fruit. This is the time for playing along with the singing, for sharing the music that is within you, for knowing that your contribution is valued because it’s yours, not because it could score high marks in an exam, first place in a competition, thousands of views/shares/likes on social media platforms.

It is vital for us, as music educators, to demonstrate to our students that there are seasons to our practicing. Not every day is for arpeggios and metronomes and sonatinas and etudes. Some days are holy days – days where our musicianship is about our connection to others, not our devotion to the practice room.

There are teachers out there who see Christmas as an interruption to the true meaning of piano lessons, and for you I have just this to say: these times of connection to our communities are the essence of musicianship.

The everyday practice days will roll around again soon enough. Learning to be a better musician while also learning to be a better person should always be our goal. Take these days to practice being a part of (not apart from) the human race – this is what Christmas has always truly been about.

What Does a Piano Lesson Cost?

What Does a Piano Lesson Cost?

what does a piano lesson cost?

Signing up for piano lessons means committing to practice, attending lessons and paying the fees on a regular basis. What should your budget be expecting to include when you sign up your child (or yourself) for piano lessons?

In some parts of the world there are music teacher organisations which provide recommended minimum rates for their (qualified and experienced) members to be charging, but no matter where in the world you are you will find a massive range of prices being charged for a piano lesson. Why?

Education and Qualification: Some teachers have spent many years studying music at a university level and have multiple degrees and diplomas in performance, piano teaching and music theory, even composition and musicology. Other teachers have never taken any kind of study toward a diploma, degree or qualification, not even a piano exam… Some teachers engage in ongoing professional development every year (attending conferences, taking courses, engaging in research) while others don’t ever bother with professional development at all.

Performance experience: Some teachers have extensive concert-giving experience, including participating in the world’s highest profile piano competitions in their late teens and twenties and performing concertos with leading orchestras and conductors. Others have extensive experience as collaborative pianists (what we used to call “accompanying”, a field that until very recently had no substantial competition track). Others have experience performing as pianists in other settings, such as providing background music in restaurants or shops, being a keyboardist in a band, or playing for church services and other religious events. And then there are teachers who never really performed much at all in any context…

Teaching Experience: Some teachers have taught hundreds of students and given over fifty thousand piano lessons. Other teachers have only had two or three students before and only given twenty lessons so far.

Geography and Local Cost of Living: Where lessons are offered can make a big difference in the price paid. As is the case with real estate, lessons in the big cities are often substantially more expensive than lessons in the country. Fees are charged in the context of the local, not national, economy. Teachers live in the local economy, and so do their families.

Demographics: Are there a lot of children in the neighbourhood? Is the local adult population demographically likely to want to take piano lessons? Do the local communities value the piano as a musical instrument of choice? These demographics have a substantial impact on demand for lessons.

Cross-subsidisation of the business: Many piano teachers don’t factor in the true cost of delivering lessons when they calculate their fees; piano teachers often have no training in or native capacity for business. The price of the lesson needs to cover ALL the costs of providing the service, but often the costs are covered under the family budget instead and this results in the service being able to be provided for less than {cost + labour}. Other teachers calculate fees factoring in the full impact of costs.

What fees cost last year: Teachers are loathe to raise fees by too much in a single year, so often the fees a teacher charges this year are largely determined by what they charged last year + 2-3%, or + $1, or maybe with no increase at all. On the other hand, if a teacher hasn’t raised their rates in a very long time they might realise they need a big jump to keep the business operational.

Reputation/Word of Mouth: Teachers who are highly recommended by the families they teach very quickly fill up with students. Teachers who are so busy they can’t fit in all their prospective students are under no pressure to not raise their fees. Teachers who struggle to attract students, on the other hand, may feel pressure to keep their rates steady or even lower them.

Piano lessons are very different to other kinds of consumer services in that they consist of a long-term relationship where the teacher is planning a learning sequence over a number of years, responding to the individual needs and interests of the student as those needs and interests appear. The lesson involves the development of physical skills, listening skills, analytical skills, story-telling, reading, writing, organising, planning and performance skills, with lashings of emotional IQ development thrown in on the side. Choosing one teacher from another isn’t as simple as selecting the brand of toothpaste you use or a restaurant for a meal, and it’s nothing at all like buying a new pair of shoes.

In a way, the price is one of the least important considerations in choosing a teacher, except for the purpose of being able to budget – you want to know what to expect.

So how much does a piano lesson cost in 2014?

In the United Kingdom the Musician’s Union recommends a minimum hourly rate of £31, while in Australia the various state Music Teacher Associations recommend rates between $A60 and $A78 an hour. In both these countries you can find lessons for less than these amounts (take it as a sign that the teacher has no qualifications and/or limited experience), and you can find lessons for a lot more (take it as a sign that the teacher has qualifications, experience, reputation, and possibly a waiting list, and doesn’t mind earning more!).

But in the United States there are no associations permitted to recommend minimum rates, thanks to a local quirk of the  the US Federal Trade Commission. So I’ve done a bit of a search, and am in the process of collating data from all over the USA, rural counties, major metropolises, north, south, mid-west and coastal…

Roughly speaking, in cities like New York and San Francisco you will be looking at rates starting around the $100 mark and quickly heading north, if you are wanting to learn from someone with qualifications, experience, and great word of mouth, and there’ll certainly be a premium attached to that figure if you want lessons in your own home. Utah seems to be the state most notorious for insanely cheap piano lessons (think $10-15 an hour) from people who really can’t play that well themselves and have absolutely no training (no offence intended, Utah!). But in most places you will find that lessons cost somewhere between $40 and $75 an hour for a well-qualified teacher who knows what they are doing and has a track record to prove it. It’s important to note that in the US different state-based taxation regimes can create hugely differing conditions for running a business – so comparing these prices as a guide to the piano teacher’s take-home pay would be a mistake!

A follow-up post (coming very soon!) will detail the mosaic of pricing that is the state of piano teaching in the US.

If you’re a piano teacher from anywhere in the world and interested in sharing data from your local area please feel free to contact me via my facebook profile (I’m the only Elissa Milne there, and my profile is public). There’s a huge value in sharing information about ourselves with our colleagues and with the public, and I’m delighted to facilitate a little of that exchange!

Series 17 – Part 2 (some answers)

Series 17 – Part 2 (some answers)

There’s really no bad news, not even a single bit: the AMEB’s Series 17 is a collection that does exceptionally well in catering for the vast range of interests, urgencies and fixations of the Australian piano teaching world. David Lockett and the review team (Glenn Riddle, Jody Heald and Helen Smith) have taken a meticulous approach to delivering a series of repertoire collections that will serve the assessment process – as well as piano pedagogy – well.

Let’s start with that grade-deflation question. Have we seen a shift in the goal posts of any of the grades? Is Preliminary continuing the march to Grade One standard repertoire?! Short answer – no. All the pieces are very well graded. There are some easier and some harder pieces in each grade collection, but nothing to elicit outrage or confusion. More detail from me soon in a separate post.

Appropriate length? Delightfully so! Very few works that take too many pages, and none that are garrulous or engaging in “busy-music”.

Appropriate emotional content? What a relief – music in the Grade 5-7 bracket that doesn’t assume the life experience of a 45 year old.

This is a deal maker/breaker in my books – if you’re making a collection that will be primarily used by 10-15 year olds then the music should be emotionally appropriate, just the same way we don’t expect or want adult themes in movies and television being shown to this age group. Titanic, the movie, has an M rating, for goodness sake, and we expect 12 year olds to perform repertoire of immense emotional intensity? Come on.

Series 17 gets it so very right – choices that are all age appropriate, while still encompassing a massive emotional range.

Layout? The music has a distinct AMEB look to it (not a bad thing, in my book!), and the layout is neither too spacious nor too cluttered. An example, the final piece in the Grade 8 book is Ravel’s Rigaudon, a work I’ve used in a 4 page layout (very teensy staves to fit into so few pages) and in a 6 page layout (too much spread). Here the work has been laid out over 5 pages, the sections well designed to fit the page the way the eye works, highlighting the structure, and enabling easy analysis. There’s only one 4-page-turn piece in the whole 9-volume collection, and the 4 page turns (in the Grade 8 Haydn 1st movement of the Sonata in E flat, Hob XVI:49) are the exact right places a pianist would want to turn.

Every grade, the whole way down to Preliminary, is equally appropriate, with generous use of blank pages (where need be) to facilitate the better page turn.

Adequate Australian representation? Well, this question was a bit of a trick, because the AMEB did have as one of their marketing hooks the information that Series 17  contained 25 works by 17 different Australian composers. The AMEB have gone above and beyond, if you ask me, but none of the choices feel at all like a concession to parochialism.

And here they are:

Preliminary features four of us, me with my Salt and Pepper, from Very Easy Little PeppersJennifer Trynes with her The Banjo, from her Progressive Piano Series Book 2, both of us in the studies section, and with Sonny Chua‘s wonderfully not-what-you-expect Dripping Fairy and Miriam Hyde‘s rambunctious Gnomes Marching over there in the 20th/21st century section.

4 Australian pieces fill out the full complement of canons in Grade 1, all canons by Jo Kotchie (demonstrating a variety of moods and shapes, from the wonderfully titled collection A Canonical Adventure). Grade 1 is the collection with the most substantial Australian representation with yet another 3 pieces by locals: Dulcie Holland‘s Around the pool (a study in compound duple, despite being included in the List C section), Margaret Sutherland’s marvellously Mixolydian Sea Shanty from Holiday Tunes, and Jennifer Trynes Puddles (yes, you can hear and feel the jumping in muddy puddles, gumboots and all in this List A study!).

Grade 2 has another Sonny Chua composition, T-Rex Hungry, from A day in the life of a T-rex (a little collection that is also available in duet arrangement, and as a trio!). This is low and menacing, and should, in fact, be played an octave lower than written (that is, an octave lower than it looks as if it should be played in the Series 17 Grade 2 book – the octave lower indication is missing!). For a student who can manage playing sf for a whole piece this composition will be a joy. The other Australian work in Grade 2 is by Margaret Sutherland, Patter Dance, a lively example of unadventurous mid-20th century writing for children.

One of my all-time favourite Australian piano pieces for students is included in Grade 3 – Arthur Benjamin‘s magical Soldiers in the distance, from his Fantasies collection. This piece has the soft pedal depressed for the entirety of the piece, and the effect of distance is completely compelling; a great experience of this effect for young pianists at this stage of development. Graeme Koehne is another Australian composer for whom I have a lot of time, and his 1989 collection of Aphorisms has yielded A closed world of fine feelings and grand design (this link to a performance of the extended and widely recorded guitar version of this piece) for this Grade 3 book. Maybe a bit big, quite literally, for a lot of Grade 3 students, even allowing for a relaxed hand moving across the large intervals and judicious application of the sustain pedal. But beautiful.

Kerin Bailey makes an appearance as the sole Australian in the Grade 4 collection with the lyrical Summer Rain, a lilting exploration of major and minor 7th chords, originally published in Jazzin’ Around 3; an examination collection simply wouldn’t be right without at least one of Kerin’s tunes featured, and while completely unlike his most famous Melinda’s Mini-March, this piece will certainly appeal! The fabulously-named Amanda Handel‘s Stalactite, from her collection Migrations in Music, is one of two Australian sounds for Grade 5, this an eerie realisation of a 3+3+2 rhythmic pattern creating a very convincing experience of the depths of a cave. Also in Grade 5 is  Larry Sitsky‘s Jewish Folksong – dance, from his tremendous Century collection (originally published by Currency Press, now by Hal Leonard Australia) which traverses so many different sound worlds for student pianists (and from which I drew his Didgeridoo for inclusion in P Plate Piano 2).

Elena Kats-Chernin, beloved by many a teenager of recent years for her Eliza’s Aria (remixed here), has written 12 one-page piano pieces (well, in hand-written form they’re 1 page, but – ahem – they’re a wee bit longer than that once they’re typeset) and the twelfth, Cinema, is the Australian inclusion in the Grade 6 publication. Sounding perfectly like music for a silent movie, this piece gives Grade 6 students a chance to get a bit virtuosic if they desire (the composer and the AMEB make it clear that there’s a lot of room for different tempi in performance – no single metronome mark here).

The higher grades: Grade 7 features a gentle Prelude by Roy Agnew, a composer who will be well-known to older teachers – his work was featured in series from a couple of decades or so ago.  Miriam Hyde’s Concert Waltz for left hand is included as a List A Study – an exciting inclusion, in my opinion – there’s a small body of fabulous writing for left hand (including some other pieces by Miriam Hyde), and I’m intrigued to see students and teachers prompted to consider this choice as part of an able-bodied program. Finally, Grade 8 has the wonderful Frangipani, by Ross Edwards, from his Mantras and night flowers collection – a composition derived from a theme by Liszt by way of a Japanese scale; intriguing and a piece that has already been a favourite for Year 12 pianists.

So far so good!

More questions answered and explored in the next post…

Series 17 – Part 1 (the questions)

Series 17 – Part 1 (the questions)

The Australian Music Examination Board issues a new series of piano exam books every 5 or so years, and this year we’re up to the 17th such event since they started counting.

Like many piano pedagogy print music enthusiasts, I get really excited when a new series of examination books comes out: old favourites mingle with new discoveries, and the new material puts a whole new slant on the programs it’s possible to construct for presentation at examinations. Calling it something like Christmas Day isn’t putting it too strongly for some of us.

Series 17 had me even more excited than usual, however. This time I knew the syllabus consultant already, and knew that we had surprised and delighted ourselves by sharing a number of views on piano teaching and technique; David Lockett had been on the committee overseeing the development of P Plate Piano and I absolutely loved the experience of working with him on that project. How would he see the repertoire beyond that doorstep of Preliminary?! Would our tastes diverge as the degree of difficulty increased?

Series 17 had, for me, the overtones of a mystery novel.

Series 17 Preliminary Cover

One thing I did know: Salt and Pepper, my little mixed meter, white key/black key, staccato/sustain pedal, all-over-the-keyboard piece from Very Easy Little Peppers was being included in the Preliminary book. And I knew that the AMEB hadn’t realised that the piece came from Very Easy Little Peppers, because the copyright notice had come through to me as the copyright owner first (which would only make sense if the piece had been sourced from the Getting to… series where my original © ownership listing is still current).

Finally, the day and the Series 17 books arrived. Questions would be answered. Questions like:

What was the level of emotional maturity demanded by these pieces? Series 16 had had some truly delightful selections, but many of them were better suited to the middle-aged than to the bright young primary school-aged things lining up for their AMEB exams. Was the trend to cater for baby boomer intermediate students going to continue?

How would Australian composition be represented in this Series? There’s a lot of really impressive writing for student pianists in Australia – we punch above our weight, well and truly, in this compositional niche – and new voices are always coming onto the scene, including composers who are noted for writing for other forces. The current structure of the syllabus means there’s only room for a maximum of 2 Australian pieces per grade, with the likelihood of 2 Australian works being in one book increasingly unlikely the higher up the grades you go. Would that hypothetical maximum of 16-18 pieces by Australian composers be reached?

Would the grading of the pieces be continuing the grade-deflation trends of recent series? Grade-deflation – where a Grade 6 piece gets included in the new Series Grade 5 book, or where what once were considered Grade 1 skills show up in Preliminary repertoire. Teachers loathe grade-deflation, because it makes it harder for a student to accomplish a lower level grading. It’s like going to the shops and finding that your size 12 figure now requires a size 14 dress or a size 16 jacket. :) Would the Series 17 pieces feel ‘fair’ for each grade?

Would the pieces be an appropriate length for an exam program? The AMEB is the only exam board to regularly feature theme and variations formats in its examination repertoire – one such piece in Series 16′ Grade 8 book required 6 page turns to get through that one single component of the exam program! Which leads to the next question…

Would the layout be a pleasure to work from? Size of the score (not too big, not too small), placement of page turns, number of page turns, logical end-points to sections, sufficient space on the page for teacher and student annotations – these all come into play in this “do I want to work from this score?” aspect of the new book experience.

And maybe most importantly of all:

Would I like the pieces? Seriously. If we’re going to teach repertoire we want to like it. The kids only have to deal with it for one examination – for teachers it’s something they have to live with for years!

Oh, OK. There was one more question in the back of my mind: how many pieces would Series 17 have in common with my “Getting to…” repertoire series? The “Getting to…” books were designed to present 30 of the best pieces at each grade level, representing a broad cross-section of skills and styles, presented in a learning sequence that would encourage students to notice similarities and differences between their repertoire experiences. With the series now comprising 10 volumes of graded repertoire (more than 300 pieces) it would be weird if there wasn’t at least one piece in common.

I’m heading off to Melbourne tomorrow to be a part of the AMEB’s official Series 17 launch. I’ll be there with Sonny Chua and Elena Kats-Chernin and Larry Sitsky, as well as the crew from the AMEB and hopefully a whole lot of wonderful people from the world of piano pedagogy and music education. Answers to the questions above when I’m back!

 

 

 

Six Rules About Repertoire

Six Rules About Repertoire

Repertoire Rules

These six rules are:

  • for piano teachers,
  • about students and their repertoire,
  • covering motivation, sequencing, development and quantity.

I’ve discussed in this blog before how  students having access to more books of music is going to have a positive impact on their musical literacy, and how learning a large number of pieces each year will have commensurate educational benefits. I’m not going to rehash either of these posts, but rather cut straight to: what are the rules we need to apply to students and their repertoire?

RULE 1: The Rule of Quantity. If your student learns less than 26 pieces per annum they will be bored.
They may not tell you they are bored, but they are. If learning 6 pieces a year truly engages their curiosity they must be almost entirely disinterested in learning to play the piano. On the other hand, you may have a student who only learns 6 pieces a year with you; they are busy finding their own repertoire (jamming with friends, composing their own songs and pieces, playing songs they listen to on their iPods, playing pieces they’ve discovered on YouTube, accompanying worship services at church, accompanying friends at school, and so on) which makes up the 20-piece deficit in order for a piano student to not completely (albeit metaphorically) die of boredom.

RULE 2: The Rule of Development. Once a student has hit 15 years of age they get to have a very large say indeed in their repertoire; before a student reaches 12 years of age they get basically none.
Or let me put that in the correct developmental order; children under the age of 11 don’t necessarily know what they like, because they haven’t tried it yet, and further, they may think they don’t like something via some truly superficial or temporary rationale (such as a scary looking key signature or because they can’t already play it). Children at this developmental stage don’t have the requisite knowledge and insight into learning (and learning the piano) to construct their own programs of study. Don’t let them.

On the other hand, a student over the age of 15 is in the throes of  forming their identity and finding ways to take greater control over their own lives. Repertoire choice is the perfect zone for a teenager to exercise agency – you literally cannot make them practice what they do not want to practice, and you certainly can’t stop them from playing what they like. Take advantage of this! Students around this age will research their own repertoire, and your job becomes akin to that of a counsellor, guiding their choices rather than restricting them, showing the student the best means of attack rather than discouraging them from their planned endeavours.

RULE 3:The Rule of Curiosity. Interesting music is interesting to learn.
It is tautological to state that interesting=interesting, and yet time and time again piano teachers present students with music of limited ideas under the misguided belief that these pieces will inspire their languishing students to re-engage with their practice. The best learning happens when students are curious, so offering students more of the same seems like a recipe for poor learning, both in terms of what will be learned (not much) and in terms of how that learning takes place (through learning not emerging from curiosity).

RULE 4: The Rule of Gratification. Almost-instant gratification is very gratifying.
It is also tautological to state that gratifying=gratifying, yet our profession as a cohort also struggles with the reality that students will be interested in learning music sounds like music right from their first encounter with the score/piece. When we accept that music-making is what our students are curious about, and that curiosity is fundamental to what we do, we approach the experience of learning any piece of music from a completely different angle – sound, for example become primary in lessons, as does musical experimentation.

Note: f it takes three months before it sounds like music the whole process is wrong (see Rule 6 for more thoughts on this).

RULE 5: The Rule of Context. The more students can put their music into a context the more excited they are to play that music.
Context can be as simple as music the student is already familiar with because an older sibling learned to play it, or that it featured in an advertisement on television, or the student has watched performances on YouTube. Context can be biographical, historical, technological, technical, sociological, interpersonal. A piece of music free of context is a piece students will be ambivalent about investing time into.

RULE 6: The Rule of Sequencing. For each new technique, skill or understanding a new piece requires a student to gain, add another week to the length of time it will take the student to learn the piece.
So if your student has never played in F sharp minor before, in a 9/8 time signature, with double sharps, mordents, demisemiquavers and dotted semiquavers before you will be looking at a 7 week ‘acquisition’ process prior to being able to work on performance aspects of playing the piece. Ideally a new piece will have no more than 2 new elements, so that students are quickly moving into performance learning (and sounding as if they are playing music). And of course, if they are learning new pieces all the time they will have gained 26-50 new techniques/skills/understandings within a year without really trying.

These rules are all focussed on different aspects of student experience, but all come down to one thing – creating conditions favourable to joyous learning and performance.

Next, of course, is the issue of transitioning students from their almost repertoire-free modes of learning (as few as 3-6 pieces a year) into a repertoire-rich mode of learning. See the blog post Repertoire Rules (for students): How to Transition for ideas and principles to apply to transitioning students.

This is a slightly extended version of this piece from 2009… 

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?