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.

 

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… 

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!

Repertoire Rules (for students)

Repertoire Rules (for students)

Repertoire Rules
These rules are rules about students and repertoire, but really these are more rules for piano teachers… So for any students reading this post – this is the stuff your teacher should know!

In the 11 month history of my blog I’ve discussed 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?

First up: a rule of thumb. 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 die of boredom.

Second: a 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.

Next: two rules of motivation. Interesting music is interesting to learn and Almost-instant gratification is very gratifying. It is tautological to state that interesting=interesting and gratifying=gratifying, yet our profession as a cohort hasn’t quite grasped these two basics: students will be interested in learning music that is interesting and students love hearing themselves playing music right from their first encounter with the score/piece. I’ll write more detailed blog posts on each of these two ‘obvious’ rules in the weeks ahead.

A 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.

And finally, a rule of pacing. 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 (3-6 pieces a year) into a repertoire-rich mode of learning. See the forthcoming blog post Repertoire Rules (for students): How to Transition.