This year thousands of piano students from across the world have taken up the 40 Piece Challenge. Register for the challenge by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by making a comment at www.40piecechallenge.com.au
‘My students are not only practicing but they are practicing properly.’
‘Not only has their sight reading improved but they got better results in the exams with 5 students getting A+.’
‘I have noticed a huge improvement in the student’s sight reading and enthusiasm for learning more pieces.’
‘Most of my students that hardly practise in the past now come to lesson prepared and are enjoying playing their instrument more.’
‘All of my students’ parents are on board the challenge and acknowledge the tremendous change in their child’s playing.’
Start with a slew of material
Let’s start with a hypothetical Grade 5 student. Week One, 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.
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!
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.
Give the student less choice than you usually would
You are assigning an average of one new piece a week, every week. 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.
Explain directly and clearly what your expectations are regarding each piece, particularly in regard to time frames
For a piece of music four 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 to learn these easier pieces as quickly as possible and move on.
Use the Getting to… books or some other repertoire collection as the staple from which you draw repertoire selections. The Getting to… books have around 30 pieces in each, 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!
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!
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, Mátyás Seiber, Gerard Hengeveld, Elissa Milne, 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.
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.
Make sure your student understands the cost of books for the year. We usually recommend that teachers tell families to budget $150 per student per annum for books. We often hear that teachers are loathe to recommend a book from the manual list because there is only one piece that a student can use. That may be so for an exam situation, but if selected well a book should provide an abundance of great material to choose from to challenge them for years to come.