The Surprising Power of Quantity

It’s an oft-used phrase “quality not quantity”, as if the two were diametrically opposed. And if the two are diametrically opposed, who on earth would want to argue for quantity? Quantity suggests superfluity, redundancy, possibly lack of restraint and even a propensity to waste; and none of these are particularly positive attributes in contemporary culture.

And yet, as a piano teacher, I find myself realising afresh each week the surprising and undeniable power of quantity.

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 fabulous at whatever your 10,000 hours was invested in.

The research only underpins what piano teachers have known since the dawn of piano lessons: a lot of it comes down to how much time you put into it. When parents of piano students discuss amongst themselves the idiosyncracies of their children’s piano teachers you can be sure one of the first topics is how much practice the teacher requires on a daily or weekly basis.

What piano teachers haven’t cottoned on to anywhere near so well is the concept of quantity in relation to the number of pieces leaned.

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.

For the past decade I’ve been offering students a “100 Pieces Medal”.  Once they have learned (really properly learned) to play 100 pieces I award them a medal at the end of year recital.  This is readily achieved in the first year of instruction – at 3 pieces a week a beginner student need only have 34 lessons in the year to surpass this target.  We count a piece when it is first assigned, and if a student for some reason fails to master that particular composition we subtract the piece from the list when we decide to abandon it.  This method of measurement rewards starting something new, and in the rare instance that a student fails to complete learning some piece of music, the ‘penalty’ is imposed at that exact moment that the student chooses to ‘fail’.

My students know that I will not assign too many pieces simultaneously (6 different works is about the limit for the best of them), so lessons usually begin with the student telling me which pieces they would like to play  – pieces they believe they have completely mastered (accurate notes, rhythm, articulation, dynamics etc.; playing with flow; at roughly the indicated tempo), and that we will move on from.  And while my more advanced students do not expect to have a new piece assigned each week, I do find that they will find their own new pieces during the week to present to me at the lesson if they feel I have not been assigning enough repertoire!

All good and well, but what is this all good for?

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.

Maybe quantity delivers quality after all?

12 thoughts on “The Surprising Power of Quantity

  1. Now that’s an approach I would have revelled in!

    Or rather, I effectively created this scenario for myself. The difference was, there were many pieces (the ones not on my “official” lists) that I never really studied thoroughly or worked on with my teachers, which was a great pity.

  2. Very interesting. 100 pieces! That’s impressive. Are all of those pieces expected to be at the same grade level (presuming you’re using some type of method) or are they progressing in difficulty throughout the year?

    How many pieces would you recommend before moving up in level of difficulty?

    • Meant to add that it sounds like assigning music the students can easily sight read is key here, or really, developing good sight readers. I think many students learn fewer pieces because they haven’t learned to reading well, which means tackling a new piece and getting it hands together a challenge.

    • Hi Denise – I’ve written a lot about how to manage quantities of repertoire, particularly in terms of transitioning from repertoire-poor approaches to repertoire-rich ones, but also in terms of students not feeling derailed by the change and other very pragmatic elements!

      In regard to degree of difficulty, no, I don’t think it’s important for the music to all be at the same level, but I DO hold that each and every piece must consist of a learning experience. Sight reading through a piece ≠ learning a new piece of music!

      And it’s not 100 pieces per year, I should add, although beginners are quite capable of reaching this figure if they are practicing consistently! Most students are learning somewhere between 26 and 50 pieces a year.

  3. I have found similar results with learning foreign languages, that quantity is essential. I get more out of reading 50 pages of an easy novel than struggling through 5 pages of something more difficult. I am coming back to the piano after a ten year hiatus (and I was never good). I have always had the motivation and determination to practice but I stopped playing 10 years ago because I was so utterly bored with my limited repertoire of mostly classical pieces. This time around I am dipping my toes in to boogie and ragtime and I’m have so much more fun.

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