The traditional way of studying piano in Spain, and to my knowledge in many other countries in the world, has been based on the choice of a repertory of two, three or four pieces per school term and the necessary practice to improve its playing technically and artistically during this period of time. Once achieved a good command of these three or four pieces the student begins practising some others of greater difficulty and this goes on in succession term after term and year after year. This makes the student prepare some ten pieces every year, at the most. The difficulty of the repertoire increases too fast from one piece to the next because, if you want one of your students prepare a Chopin Nocturne or a Mozart Sonata in his eighth year, for instance, he will have studied only some 60 pieces in his life and will not be able to face these pieces with the necessary musical knowledge. In order to be able to deal with them you should have had to play a much bigger number of works of different styles, varied scripts, in all possible tonalities and multiple characters. And this cannot be achieved with 60 pieces!
In fact, these students (my friends and I have studied in this way) have to fight hard with these pieces and they can never understand them properly nor master them, because when you are starting to play them you have to leave them and move on to the next pieces. In my case, during my student years, whenever I was in some friend’s house and there was a piano available they would say: “Please, Juan, play something, you must play really well after 5 years playing” and I had to answer: “Right now I cannot play anything, in a month I will try to do it”. But one month later I was forced to move on to other pieces, so that I was not able to play neither the old ones nor the new, which was really frustrating.
Why is it so important to play a big number of pieces?
The more pieces a student plays the better prepared he will be. Everybody will agree about this. The problem is that in order to be able to do it, it becomes necessary to lower the level of the repertoire because the student will be unable to play a bigger number of pieces if they are really complicated. And here the conflict arises, many teachers prefer to increase the level of the pieces quite fast and diminish the number of pieces prepared accordingly. I think this is a mistake. This can work only in a very small number of students. Practising many pieces will help to improve the motivation of students, their abilities to memorize, read , and achieve better technique and musical understanding. That is to say that, from my point of view and my experience this has no drawbacks at all. I have been trying to apply these ideas with my students during the past two years achieving spectacular results. Besides, as the educator Julie Knerr says, young students do not have the knowledge nor the concentration to prepare and study three pieces in a proper way. In consequence, if his weekly task is the study of three pieces, he will study them for some 2 or 3 minutes each , and this in the luckiest chance, which means some 8 minutes of study. And if he is assigned 7 pieces he will still practise 2 or 3 minutes each one, but this will make him sit at the piano for a much longer period of time, practising twice as much. The longer a student sits playing the piano, the more he will learn.
We must consider also that, as Elissa Milne says, that if a student plays 6 or 8 pieces every year he will obtain several certificates of examinations and several diplomas for courses finished, but if he stops playing the piano because he decides to pursue other interests he will probably not be able to play any more, he will not be prepared to study pieces on his own and will completely lack motivation to play the piano at all. My chief aim with my students is not to make them professional musicians, this very rarely happens, but to enable them to make playing the piano a permanent activity in their lives, either to play with friends, to play a favourite classical piece, music from movies or popular musical groups, playing all this without special difficulties. Too many people stop playing completely after having studied for 8 years, this is really a shame. If students, after these 8 years, would have practised 40 pieces a year, they would have studied a total of 320, a musical background more than enough to be able to deal with a large repertoire without any problems.
What is the 40 piece challenge?
Searching through the Internet I found that some other teachers had had the same idea and, what is more, they had already put it into practice! This way I found the “Forty Piece Challenge”. The idea was launched in 2001 by the Australian composer and educator Elissa Milne. You can read how the idea sprang forth and take a look as well to her very interesting blog, that I have already mentioned in former posts, in this link elissamilne. In this article she tells how she found in the foreword of a book of piano studies of 1850 the following reflection:” How can students attain a great variety of technical and musical abilities in they only learn 6 pieces every year? Our students need to study a many more pieces than 6, at least 40 pieces per year, if they want to have some hopes of mastering the instrument some day”. Neither Elissa Milne, nor this man from the 19th century, nor myself, are the only ones that have had this same idea, obviously. What Elissa Milne has done is to make it official in Australia, where books containing 30 pieces have been published, organized for school terms, to help teachers putting into practice this idea with students. This phenomenon spread fast through Australia and reached the whole world in a few years and is now being applied in a great number of countries. Just typing “40 piece challenge” in Google one can find hundreds of entries. yet, I have found none in Spanish, so I have named it as “El reto de las 40 piezas”. Arising from this idea we now have “the 30 piece challenge” and the “50 piece” one. Teachers use one or another but the aim and the intention is just the same, make the student play as many pieces as possible in order to improve enormously all his musical and technical abilities, being able to read, understand, play and remember pieces much better.
How can we start to apply this system?
As Elissa Milne says in her post or as the following document about the challenge from the ACT Keyboard Association explains, it is not advisable to make a student study 40 pieces a year when he is used to prepare just 9 and all of the same level of difficulty. For instance, a 4th level student could be assigned 4 pieces of this level, 8 of a lower level and add much easier pieces to reach the proposed 40. This number of pieces means studying a new one every week, which is a lot, so combining pieces of different levels to complete the desired 40 appears as the best way to do it. The student must combine pieces of different levels in his program, many of them will have to be prepared in just a week. But even with the easiest pieces a good level of interpretation must be reached, so students must not only be able to read them but they will have to play them with a satisfactory degree of correctness, according to their abilities.
Which repertory should be used?
It is recommended that students should have books containing an ample repertoire of pieces that they could play according to their level, I will later write a post including a list of books of different levels that are well suited to the 40 piece challenge. These pieces must be brief and varied, not difficult to read, but with a wealth of musical aspects. Many of the books already mentioned in former articles are well suited to this purpose, such as : The Preludes in Romantic Style by Gillock, the series Accent on Gillock by the same author, Les Petites Images and Les Petites Impressions by Jennifer Linn, the series of Little Peppers by Elissa Milne, piano methods such as Piano Adventures, Piano Safari, books by Paul Sheftel, Christopher Norton, Mike Cornick or my book, Piano Train Trips, which was conceived with this idea of providing the students with pieces of different styles and easy understanding.
How am I going to start the challenge?
This year I am carrying out the challenge with all my students, but only with 30 pieces, I have seen many other teachers start this way. So, if you are one of my students or a student of any other teacher that is also starting the challenge, be prepared to start practising!
Besides starting the challenge with my students, I have read that many teachers take the challenge at the same time as their students, which means that I am also ready to start practising.
I also hope to have time to prepare a table to control the students progress, in which table the number of pieces they have to study will be shown, so as to increase their motivation,. If I cannot get it prepared in time I will use one of the tables that can be found in the Internet, like the one published at Wendy Stevens website. I, finally, send my best wishes and encouragement to every one ready to carry out the challenge. I honestly believe that it deserves a try.