In 2011, I challenged all my students to learn at least 40 pieces during the school year. Out of my 40 or so students (and despite my best motivational efforts) most managed around 20 pieces, two achieved the 40 pieces milestone and one completely outdid even my own expectations.
The moral of the story: learn more pieces (duh!!).
Some of you might be thinking, “Big deal. A lot of my kids are like that!”.
If so, you’re very lucky and perhaps teaching at one of the world’s top institutions! Most of my students, on the other hard, are pretty ‘normal’ teenagers – they play sport inside and outside school, many are in swim/tennis/karate squads, they play video games, waste time on Facebook and many have part-time jobs.
I don’t teach 12-year-olds who are doing their AmusA (diploma exams) and I encourage my students to play other instruments and get involved in school bands, orchestras and choirs. Only a few sit formal exams.
For my students, playing piano is something they do simply because they like it, it’s fun, it’s different and sometimes gets them out of maths class!
The idea for a benchmark of 40 pieces was first suggested to me by Sydney-based piano teacher and composer Elissa Milne (an excellent blogger to follow, by the way) at a conference I attended early last year.
There are now plenty of articles on the internet about this topic – just Google “40 piece challenge” for more info and suggestions.
The ’40 pieces challenge’ may come as a shock to teachers used to teaching students only 6-10 pieces each year (and choosing these only from exam books, heaven forbid), but is definitely worth trialling in your studio. Sight reading, repertoire knowledge, theory, rhythm and performance skills are continually developed and the results will speak for themselves.
Keep in mind that it won’t be possible for students to play 40 pieces a year at the level at which they are currently working. To do that would miss the point. 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.
For ideas on pieces to use, check out my other posts about repertoire.
Norton’s Microjazz, Diabelli duets, “Joy of Boogie and Blues”, 2-piano works, chordal pop music, video game tunes and movie themes all come up regularly in my studio. Elissa Milne’s “Getting to… (New Mix)” is another great compilation of fun and well-arranged music that kids love as is Daniel McFarlane’s Supersonics. To keep track of a student’s pieces, I use a page like this one (click to download) or a coffee card. You can even have a poster on the wall.
There is so much amazing music out there. Aren’t we doing a disservice to our students by only learning a few?
ps. If you’re looking for a great source of medals and awards for your students (like the one I gave Ben) and you live in Australia, check out awardsandtrophies.com.au who provide fast, efficient service with free engraving and a great selection of music-based awards.
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Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular TopCast show, blogs regularly at topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.