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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rationale behind the Getting to books

The rationale behind the Getting to books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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