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40 Piece Challenge

Information for Parents

Teachers around Australia have been promoting and implementing the concept of students learning a huge quantity of piano pieces in one year. Many students will be encouraged to be a part of the 40 Piece Challenge by their teachers. These excerpts of blogs by Samantha Coates, Elissa Milne and Tim Topham provide background information for parents to help you understand why learning many pieces in one year is such a positive thing for students.
Although these posts are almost a decade old, their authors continue to inspire their students to break away from the four-pieces-a-year concept and build their skills with lots of interesting repertoire!

Why should my child learn 40 pieces in one year?

“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).”

“It starts with quantity of time spent at the piano; simply nothing impacts on my students so much as the amount of time they requisition for exploring the piano. It doesn’t even need to be time spent practicing the repertoire I’ve assigned. It’s simply a question of how much time their fingers have spent finding their way about the piano keyboard, how long they have allowed themselves to linger at their instrument. It’s the old 10,000 hour rule – spend 10,000 hours acquiring a skill before you reach 21 years of age, and bingo, irrespective of your natural gifts, you’ll be world-class at whatever your 10,000 hours was invested in.”

Why learn pieces that are not in the exam?

“Many (most?) piano students around the world learn no more than ten pieces per annum. The idea seems to be that by investing all their energies into a smaller number of works the quality of the students’ performances will be enhanced. And at first glance this seems to be a reasonable idea. But what happens is that students take longer and longer (in terms of days and weeks) to master an ever-smaller repertoire, and as the time-frames lengthen, and the repertoire lists shorten, so the student’s enthusiasm for practice seems to ebb almost entirely away.”

“The idea of playing more pieces in a year than is required for an exam is all about breadth of repertoire and having fun. Given that the pieces will only take a week or two to master, there is less anxiety and frustration and the students can just play to enjoy. For example, my Grade 6/7 level students play fun pieces around Grade 2-4 level. My first year students might play really easy duets and learn some pop riffs. All that matters is that the 40+ pieces are fun, interesting and give the students something different to focus on – perhaps music in a different style, LH-only pieces, duets, boogies and blues if they are classical players or classical if they are jazz players. The list is endless.”

How will it work from week to week?

“The idea was to churn through lots and lots of repertoire, but it didn’t all have to be difficult repertoire! I set each student a minimum standard of repertoire they could learn. For example, a student working towards a 5th grade exam would learn at least 5 or 6 pieces over the year at 5th grade level – but the other 44 pieces could be anything from 1st grade onwards, from a variety of different repertoire books. So, a few of their pieces are ‘long term’ projects (i.e. the exam pieces, at their grade level), and the rest are ‘rocket’ pieces, a term coined by my friend and colleague Abe Cytrynowski – pieces learned at the speed of a rocket! I explained that in order to get through the 50 pieces, they would need to present at least one new piece each week, and in some weeks two new pieces. Perhaps the new pieces wouldn’t be completely learned and perfected in one week, but that’s ok… it would be like a conveyer belt of repertoire, in which new pieces keep coming on at the beginning, and once they’re learned they drop off the end (except for the long-term exam repertoire, which would stay on the conveyer belt for a long time!).”

What value does this have for my child?

Elissa Milne: “Firstly, my students gain a wide, practical, lived experience of many distinct musical idioms and forms. Instead of learning one or two pieces from the Baroque period in a year, they may learn ten. Instead of mastering one piece in a swing groove, they may learn to play fifteen. Secondly, my students become very musical sight readers. When you are learning a new piece every week or so you simply don’t have time to learn the music line by line, or playing separate hands for a couple of weeks. And if you can basically sight read your new piece of music then about 95% of your practice time can be devoted to exploring performance possibilities and finessing your interpretation of the work. But most importantly of all, my students become very happy. In fact, I have observed a direct correlation between number of pieces learned and student happiness.”

See – sight reading leads to student happiness! Good luck to all families who take on the 40 Piece Challenge this year.

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Information for Teachers

Track the 40 Piece Challenge in your studio with this free chart!

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