The Hal Leonard Australia 40 Piece Challenge 2013: suggestions for getting started

In 2013 Hal Leonard Australia is running a 40 Piece Challenge. And I’m very excited by this news.

The challenge is to teachers primarily – can your students each learn at least 40 new pieces in 2013?!

This challenge is not a random, out-of-the-blue event. There’s a massive back-story to the development of this 40-Piece Challenge, which you can read about here. But the point of the whole exercise is to encourage students to learn, perform and experience far more music than our exam-focussed culture usually allows. And to do so in order for students to develop much better reading skills and much broader musicianship, which will lead our students to be more likely to play the piano for the rest of their lives (no matter what grade exam they make it to before they stop taking piano lessons).

This post isn’t about convincing you that this challenge is a good idea – there are plenty of posts I’ve written that already argue the case, and plenty written by other people as well, for that matter.

What I want to do is give some suggestions for how you can prepare for the 40 Piece Challenge, bearing in mind lessons in Term 1, 2013 are at most 9 weeks away (depending on when you read this!). There are three principles you need to keep in mind when planning repertoire selections for this challenge.

#1: Mix up the degree of difficulty of the pieces you assign.

If your Grade 5 student learned 7 pieces last year when they were a Grade 4 student there is no way in the world that they are capable of learning 40 Grade 5 pieces this year. Assign 1 or 2 Grade 5 pieces at the start of the year, but also assign repertoire that is Grade 3 standard, Grade 2 standard, Grade 1 standard! 40 pieces a year means in practice just over 1 new piece every single teaching week of 2013, and that means students need to be completing a piece every single week. This won’t be possible unless you have an appropriate mix of degrees of difficulty in the repertoire.

#2: Give the student less choice than you usually would.

You are assigning an average of one new piece a week, every week. You just don’t have the luxury of taking all of February to play through the exam lists and come up with a program for the year. 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.

#3: 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!

In addition to these three principles for selecting repertoire, I suggest there three principles for implementing the challenge once pieces are assigned:

1. 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.

2. Start with a slew of material. Let’s stick with our hypothetical Grade 5 student. Week One of 2013, 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.

3. Explain directly and clearly what your expectations are regarding each piece, particularly in regard to time frames. For a piece of music 4 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 learn these easier pieces as quickly as possible and move on.

And finally: how do you structure your selections? Where on earth do you find 40 pieces for each and every one of your students?!

Suggestion 1: Use the Getting to… books or some other repertoire collection as the staple from which you draw repertoire selections. The Getting to… books have 30 pieces in each (maybe 29 in some cases?), 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!

Suggestion 2: 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!)

Suggestion 3: 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, Matyas Seiber, Gerard Hengeveld, 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. My own Little Peppers books are very easy pieces in this style, particularly if you choose the Very Easy Little Peppers collection!

Suggestion 4: 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. Your only issue is making sure the arrangements are pianistic. Fortunately, these days there are plenty of great arrangements available, and I’ll be posting more about my recommendations in the weeks ahead.

And at this time of year it would be remiss of me to not mention the plethora of Christmas carol arrangements available at any standard. [See Anita Milne’s article in the recent Piano Teacher Magazine, where various collections are recommended for specific grade levels.]

Suggestion 5: Make sure your student understands the cost of books for the year. For many years now (since 2000!) I’ve been recommending that teachers tell families to budget $150 per student per annum for books. In the past three years the price of print music books has generally fallen by at least 25% (in some cases the prices have fallen to half!) as a result of the strong Australian dollar, so I would think that any student could find 40 pieces without even needing to spend $75, but certainly for $150 there will be an abundance of great material to choose from and to take the student forward into 2014!

I know there are a lot of teachers keen to embark on the 40 Piece Challenge, and I hope these principles and suggestions help a little in transitioning your students into a repertoire-rich year!

14 thoughts on “The Hal Leonard Australia 40 Piece Challenge 2013: suggestions for getting started

  1. This is intriguing.

    What are the “getting to” books? I looked at Hal Leonard but couldn’t find them.



    • Hal Leonard Australia publish a piano music repertoire series called “Getting to…” with the grade-level of each collection included in the title. So, Getting to Grade 5, for example.

      There are six volumes of repertoire that is traditional/classical writing for young pianists (from Bach through to compositions from the 21st century) and there are another four volumes of arrangements and contemporary compositions in a popular/jazz idiom along with a selection of contemporary compositions that I think connect with contemporary children! These four volumes of arrangements and contemporary jazz-idiom pieces are subtitled The New Mix.

      All these volumes feature heavily in AMEB examination lists and in other exam programs as well (ANZCA and NZMEB, notably). The gradings match the standards of the AMEB.

      The idea behind these collections is explained a little in this post.

  2. Thanks for the suggestions Elissa, have been trying to get my head around repertoire selection for this as I want my studio to participate.

  3. Wow! How wonderful that your voice is being heard on this subject. Hopefully this will slowly change the 5 piece a year mind set of Australia piano teachers!

  4. Thanks very much for the specific tips on how to go about the 40 piece challenge, Elissa. I’ve been very keen to try this for next year but wasn’t completely sure how to go about it!
    Will look forward to reading your recommendations for pianistic arrangements too 🙂

  5. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an really long comment but after I clicked submit
    my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Anyhow, just wanted to say excellent blog!

  6. Hi – I just picked this up. I think this “40 goal” is a great idea. I am 60 and have had three bashes at piano: the reluctant kid (gave up at grade 2 / age 14), a Church group in my 30s (for 5 years – I went to grade 8, but always needed the printed music), and “Open Mic” nights (in a pub – anyone can get up and do around 4 songs, tunes, poems, whatever from around a year ago, after having lessons a year before that (so that was a gap of nearly 20 years).
    OK, kids can’t go to pubs, but for me the kick-start to my own 40 goal was that whilst it’s OK the first time to do your 4 party pieces, what do you do the next week, and the week after that?
    Here’s my tips:
    1) Top tip: if it sounds right – it is right;
    2) It’s distractions, NOT nerves that destroy – distractions come from people, from yourself, from the acoustics of the venue, from the balance of your set-up in the venue, etc.;
    3) You have to learn it by heart – pubs are too dark, printed music is only a distraction (it’s how, and how quickly, you get it out of your brain that’s important), and you need some eye contact with the punters;
    And then to do this:
    4) If a tune is going through your head at a random time of the day, try to envisage the keys / chords being played or the notes, accidentals, etc. on the page;
    And in practice:
    5) Practice a little but very often;
    6) In any one session play any one piece twice only (hard to do this “twice only”, but you must);
    7) Sometimes start randomly part way through the piece – be aware of your “checkpoints” where you can start “automatically” (but between which you can’t) – if these checkpoints are too far apart (more than 16 bars) that’s a big risk you’re running of a brain failure between them – if such a brain failure occurs in practice, force yourself to bludgeon your way through first, and only then look at the printed music;
    8) Work out fudges / fills (I call them my get-out-of-jail-free-cards) for when your mind goes blank – these are typically extended cadences (riffs) – and your ability will be very key centric: I now find I can do blues in F for ever, but put me two sharps or flats away from F and I’m lost.
    9) Make changes (“improvements”, simplifications, wrong notes that turn out to be OK) in everything – make as many as you like, but ALWAYS at least one – you then own the piece – even consider a change harmonies (I now call myself the semitone shifter);
    10) Don’t be surprised if a piece you know perfectly by sight (with the printed music) always fails by heart – go back and re-learn from scratch, preferably changing many things as you go;
    11) Timing doesn’t matter much at the start – it’ll probably come automatically anyway – if I see a modern piece with changing time signatures (e.g. occasional bars of 3-4 in a 4-4), that’s carte blanche to do whatever I like;
    12) Classical is OK – even in pubs where its normally the latest pop or 80s rock that is constantly being done – come in with your digital keyboard and play some classical and you’ll be surprised at how well it is received.
    Incidentally I had hoped, a year ago, to achieve 100 pieces by heart in a year – I quickly changed that target to 50, but when I got to around 30 by heart I found that there is a big maintenance load of keeping the list up to scratch whilst adding new pieces on. I guess I have another 40 I know by sight.

  7. Hi Elissa, I have 7 students on the 40 PC and all are enjoying learning and playing more pieces. They are very pleased with themselves. Keen to practice = happy parents! Rewards at 3, 6 and 10 (so far) from their teacher (me) make it even more inspiring to achieve.
    Saw in the Piano Teacher Magzine. excellent idea. Thanks.

  8. Hi Elissa, I’ve been doing the 100 song challenge (thanks to your suggestion at an MTAQ workshop years ago) with students in our music school for some time now, and I love the 40 song challenge idea too (more achievable for a greater percentage of the students). I just wanted to give another suggestion for places to find extra songs. For some variaton, simple accompaniment pieces can be an entirely different world for piano students (eg. accompany a preliminary grade violin piece), and they introduce an element of ensemble playing that goes beyond having a teacher play a duet part on piano. I found my high school aged students especially enjoyed it.

    I’m loving discovering your blog, thank you for all the effort you put in to it!

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