My 40 Piece Challenge – A Piano teachers journey

David Catterall

In 2015 I began searching for a new approach to learning for my students. There had to be something out there that would be a repertoire-rich learning opportunity for my students as well as something that could hone my own piano skills. I had recently joined the Australasian Piano Teachers’ group on Facebook, and amongst the sharing of ideas and interaction with other teachers I heard about the ’40 Piece Challenge’ — a repertoire-rich approach that takes some students who are learning only six pieces a year and challenges them to learn 40 or more!

I have greatly enjoyed applying this in the form of the ‘100 Piece Medal Challenge’ in my studio this year. Students learn pieces from a wide variety of sources: books already in their collections, method books, my own collection, and the Piano Maestro iPad app, a sight-reading and technique app. Students are challenged to complete three songs per week, and are required to earn three stars on each song before they can add it to their progress chart. This is a fairly easy task for younger students in their early years of learning, but the more advanced students with pieces that take longer to learn are able to use other means (including the app) to up their piece count. Weekly competitions for ‘Maestro of The Week’ and prizes at the end of each term have been excellent motivators for students to achieve their 100 pieces.


In late 2015 I came across a challenge for teachers to complete the 40 Piece Challenge — what a great chance for me to improve my own playing, as well as motivation to explore different repertoire!

The logical first step was to work through a collection of classical music I already own that has been sitting on my shelf, almost completely untouched, for far too many years. However, I found after a few pieces that many of these would take too long to learn for me to be able to complete 40 in a year. I realised I would need to start looking elsewhere for repertoire.

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Soon enough, it was Christmas, so I did a ’12 Days of Christmas’ challenge, focusing solely on the music by Daniel McFarlane, which covered just enough to get me through the 12 days. I found this to be a lot of fun, and Daniel shared the recording I’d made with his followers, which I found to be a great inspiration to keep going. It’s always a sign of achievement when the composer appreciates the time you put into learning their pieces.

Daniel McFarlane’s music had covered a significant portion of my 40 Piece Challenge, but now what? I decided to take a breather while figuring out what to do next.

“I also wanted my next challenge to hold more significance than to simply be for my own benefit”

 

My salvation arrived at the end of January with the formation of two new Facebook groups: the Exam Repertoire Club and the Beyond Exam Repertoire Club. Elissa Milne, the administrator of these groups, posted three or four pieces each week of varying difficulties and the members were to learn them in one week, record them, and provide teaching ideas for each piece. Fortunately, some of the pieces posted were in books I already owned. With the inclusion of these new pieces, my challenge was starting to take a clear focus on Australian composers, so I decided to pursue this even further. Two pieces that particularly interested me were Jessica’s Theme and Waltzing Matilda. One of the great things about learning new repertoire is that you learn new things about well-known pieces — apparently Waltzing Matilda isn’t about a lady who dances…

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One piece to go in my 40 Piece Challenge, and I was determined to find the perfect grand finale. I considered two of my favourite Australian composers: Ross Edwards and Peter Sculthorpe. Should I continue my Australian theme? I also considered composing my own work for the finale, but these ideas didn’t quite speak to me. I finally chose to veer away from my Australian focus, and learn a Harry Potter medley arranged by Kyle Landry, a piece I had been wanting to tackle for some time. I found this quite a challenge, and it took me three solid weeks of study before I was ready to create a recording of my performance.

Before the challenge was over, I knew I would do this again. The 40 Piece Challenge not only pushes you to learn and complete 40 pieces of a year, but also forces you to expand your horizons to find new repertoire, creating a much richer learning experience. I am already planning my next 40 Piece Challenge, and have decided this next one will include a focus on familiar tunes from musical theatre. One thing I noted from posting my videos of the last challenge was that the community responded much more to tunes that they were familiar with.

However, I also wanted my next challenge to hold more significance than to simply be for my own benefit. I found Musicians Making a Difference (MMAD), an Australian charity that exists to change young lives through the power of music and mentoring. I set up a GoFundMe page, with the proceeds raised at the end of my challenge to go to MMAD. I’ll continue to post videos of my challenge, and will include bonuses for people who donate: MP3 tracks, free lessons, and tickets to a final concert I plan to hold at the completion of this challenge.

In this way, the 40 Piece Challenge, which is already a wonderful and enriching learning tool for both students and teachers, can aid the wider community as well.

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