75 Pieces in One Year?

How Ben Went From Beginner to Grade 2 in 10 Months!

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 piece milestone and one completely outdid even my own expectations: Ben (pictured with his award), learnt 75 pieces in 2011 and, with a lot of practice, managed to get himself from beginner to around Grade 2 level in a less than a year.

The moral of the story is simple: the more pieces your students play, the faster they will develop.

Ben with his award and Tim Topham.
Ben with his award and Tim.

Some of you might be wondering how on earth a student could master so many pieces in such a short space of time. Others may be wondering if the quality of his playing was adversely affected by doing so much. Rest assured that his playing, sight reading and musical knowledge only improved with his effort while the key to his success was just plenty of deliberate practice and a whole lot of encouragement.

Most of my students are pretty ‘normal’ teenagers – they play sport inside and outside school, they play video games, spend time on Facebook and many have part-time jobs. They are also encouraged 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 and 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 at a conference I attended in 2010. The 40 Piece Challenge may come as a shock to teachers used to teaching students only 6-10 pieces each year, 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 their current ‘exam’ level. 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, different experiences 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, works in unusual meters, pop songs, lead sheets, duets – you name it! Boogies and blues are great if they are classical players and jazz players can try something classical. The list is endless. There is so much amazing music out there. Aren’t we doing a disservice to our students by only learning a few?

In my opinion, learning only six exam pieces a year just doesn’t cut it any more (did it ever?).

Want to join the 40 Piece Challenge? Head on over to the website to learn more!

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