I honestly didn’t expect the 40 Piece Challenge to go global the way it has quite as rapidly as it has. This backstory post was supposed to get written in plenty of time for anyone interested, and I know I’ve already missed that window.
Here’s the deal…
Once upon a time I was a teacher in Australia teaching my students the way teachers in exam-oriented and competition-oriented culture have always taught – spending between 4 and 9 months working with students on their exam/competition repertoire (the 4 month kids were doing two exams/competitions each year rather than one) and then having a few months per year for “fun” pieces that weren’t “for” anything.
Students working this way would be learning between 6 and 10 pieces a year total, as a rule. The more students progressed in degrees of difficulty the more their sight-reading skills lagged behind. And at the end of about 10 years of serious study throughout their childhood the students would cease lessons with a slew of certificates and awards and probably never really play very much again.
The students who could play quite well by ear tended to be the ones who kept on playing after formal lessons stopped. And that struck me as signalling that there was something very wrong, possibly even unethical, with the way I was teaching. Shouldn’t 10 years of serious study equip you for a lifetime of engagement with your instrument?
In the year 2001 I was doing a series of workshops around Australia on technique for beginners. I was asked to give this series of presentations and I felt as if I really wasn’t the most qualified on the subject, so I began reading all kinds of treatises and manuals and histories and pamphlets. One three page article at the front of an etudes collection really struck a chord with me. It said something along the lines of “how on earth can students be expected to gain a wide variety of skills, let alone an understanding of musical thinking and pianistic style, if they only ever learn 6 pieces each year? Our students should be learning many times this number, 40 or so at least each year, if they are to have any hope of truly mastering the instrument”.
Gosh, I thought, this guy could be talking about me! This is MY students he’s referring to! He really knows what it’s like to be a teacher in Australia at the start of the new millennium.
Now I have no idea where I read this – it’s somewhere in my vast library – but the salient element here is that when I got to the end of the article I realised this guy wasn’t talking about me at all, or musical life in Australia. The article was written in the mid-1800s, in the middle of Europe.
Right, I thought. So this has been going for literally ages. Time to take this guy seriously.
So in my tour that year (2001) when I spoke about teaching technique to beginners I also talked about this revolutionary idea from the mid-1800s, that piano students would develop better skills and deeper understanding if they learned more music. Uh-huh, nodded the encouraging but sceptical piano teachers. “Tell you what”, I said, “I’ve just started getting my students working on more pieces and in a couple of years I’ll be able to report back.”
“You do that”, replied the encouraging but sceptical teachers.
Well, it wasn’t easy, I can tell you that. My students weren’t overly impressed that I was asking them to learn double, triple, quadruple the number of pieces they learned the year before. Why?, they would implore. I’d explain the logic and they’d smile and nod, and they liked me, most of them, so they did their best.
Part of the trouble was where to find the vast quantities of repertoire the students were going to need. Christopher Norton’s Microjazz books seemed like an instant no-brainer inclusion – the kids loved so many of his pieces, and the collections were amply laden with repertoire. Learning extra pieces from exam books was equally obvious – so long as there were sufficient pieces the students would want to learn.
In 2002 I pitched an idea to Hal Leonard Australia. How about we produce a repertoire series that matched up with the Australian Music Examination Board and the Trinity College exams and the ABRSM exams and the other local exam boards operating in Australia (ANZCA, for example), and presented 30 graded pieces at each grade level in a logical learning sequence, including plenty of works written in the 20th century. Teachers have so much trouble sourcing these pieces – and it’s vital for students to play the music of their own time.
It took about a year to get the green light, and in 2003 we launched the Getting to series – Preliminary, Grade One and Grade Two. And that’s all we ever thought we were going to make. So many students drop out after Grade Two…
By the time I was presenting the professional development seminars that launched this repertoire series I had about 30 months experience implementing my new repertoire-rich teaching regime, and so I could report from the trenches just how it was working out.
It was working out just like the guy in the mid-1800s had said it would. Students were sight-reading ridiculously well. Their initiative to source new pieces to learn had gone through the roof. The volume of pieces wasn’t slowly down their capacity to progress onto more difficult work. And when they did progress onto more difficult work they had this growing stylistic awareness that is the fruit of much experience. It was amazing!
On the other hand, I’d had some dodgy moments along the way as well. Students who resisted the repertoire I was assigning. Repertoire that was getting bogged down over time. But I was paying attention and learning from my mistakes. One of the big lessons I had learned was that I needed to compete with the external assessment values of the exam systems. The students needed to feel as if learning each and every piece was actually important, the same way they felt about their examination repertoire.
I began the 100 Piece Medal. When students had learned 100 pieces they received a medal at the end of year recital. Beginners could manage this in their very first year if they worked really hard! Older students became motivated to learn easier pieces so they could reach the arbitrary target of 100 pieces sooner – and best of all, every time I assigned a new piece students would be excited and leave their lessons telling parents “I got three new pieces today!!!” all aglow because they were getting closer to the medal.
In 2004 we took the 100 Piece Medal studio-wide. I’d been teaching with my mother, Anita, and my sister, Suzanne, through the 1990s, and we had a massive studio when taken as a whole. By 2004 Suzanne was in London, so we were back to a studio of about 70-80 students (still plenty) who by this stage had had at least a year of two of learning in a repertoire-rich fashion.
In the professional development seminars I was giving around Australia and New Zealand (and in Malaysia in 2006) I kept talking about teaching roughly a piece a week (the origin of the 40 Piece Challenge number – there being roughly 40 teaching weeks in the Australian school year) in order for students to be developing all-round keyboard musicianship and knowledge.
In 2009 I started this blog, and very soon began writing about the principles involved in teaching students to be learning a wide variety of repertoire right from the beginning, what it meant to learn a piece this way, and discussing the benefits this approach brings.
In January 2010 I did a tour with Samantha Coates of Blitzbooks fame and with Abe Cytrynowski, of ScaleCards fame (both Sam and Abe are the brains behind the amazing ScaleBlitzer app), and my part of the day long seminar was to talk about this idea of a repertoire-rich approach to teaching. By this stage there were teachers present who could testify to the impact of teaching LOTS of pieces each year to their students, and by this stage I couldn’t ever imagine going back to the way I’d taught before and the repertoire-rich teachers agreed: how tedious that would be! Sam went on to implement a 50 Piece Challenge in her studio in 2011 and wrote about it here.
In January 2011 I did a tour with Gayle Kowalchyk and Dan Coates, a series of day-long seminars organised by Alfred. My job was to be the MC and – you guessed it – to talk about repertoire-rich teaching and learning. A whole new teaching crowd came along to these seminars. Teachers who’d never heard me talk about this approach before. One of them quizzed me hard on the day he attended in Melbourne, and a year later he wrote this blog post.
I was writing some articles for Piano Teacher Magazine, and the editor, Gina Wake, and I discussed the magazine backing this repertoire-rich approach, and next thing the 40 Piece Challenge was born. And that’s all it was – a challenge to teachers to change their teaching, to commit to not being limited to one set of exam pieces and a couple of Christmas carols each year. No rewards or prizes. Just a challenge.
Then I was at NCKP in July 2013, and had a fabulous dinner with some of North America’s most fabulous piano pedagogy writers: Diane Hidy, Forrest Kinney and Wendy Stevens. I told my dinner companions about the 40 Piece Challenge. Cool idea, they all said, and Wendy said, hmm, I’d like to do a 30 Piece Challenge with my students this year… She blogged about it and instantly the 40 Piece Challenge had gone global, albeit with a numeral change.
By the time September 2014 rolled around the Northern Hemisphere was gearing up for its second year of 40/30 Piece Challenges, and teachers were blogging about their experiences over the previous academic year. This mid-19th century idea had gone full 21st century.
So here we are. February 2015. There are now students who began learning this way, who have no idea what it might be like to only learn 10, 8, 5 pieces a year, who are old enough and advanced enough to begin teaching students of their own.
It’s global, and it’s now generational.
And this is the story of how the 40 Piece Challenge began.