75 pieces in one year? How Ben went from beginner to Grade 2 in 10 months!

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In 2011, I challenged all my students to learn at least 40 pieces during the school year. Out of my 40 or so students (and despite my best motivational efforts) most managed around 20 pieces, two achieved the 40 pieces milestone and one completely outdid even my own expectations. Ben (pictured with his award), learnt 75 pieces in 2011 and, with a lot of practice, managed to get himself from beginner to around Grade 2 level in a less than a year.

The moral of the story: learn more pieces (duh!!).

Some of you might be thinking, “Big deal. A lot of my kids are like that!”. If so, you’re very lucky and perhaps teaching at one of the world’s top institutions! Most of my students on the other hard, are pretty ‘normal’ teenagers – they play sport inside and outside school, many are in swim/tennis/karate squads, they play video games, waste time on Facebook and many have part-time jobs. I don’t teach 12-year-olds who are doing their AmusA (diploma exams) and I encourage my students to play other instruments and get involved in school bands, orchestras and choirs. Only a few sit formal exams. For my students, playing piano is something they do simply because they like it, it’s fun, it’s different and sometimes gets them out of maths class!

The idea for a benchmark of 40 pieces was first suggested to me by Sydney-based piano teacher and composer Elissa Milne (an excellent blogger to follow, by the way) at a conference I attended early last year. The ’40 pieces challenge’ may come as a shock to teachers used to teaching students only 6-10 pieces each year (and choosing these only from exam books, heaven forbid), but is definitely worth trialling in your studio. Sight reading, repertoire knowledge, theory, rhythm and performance skills are continually developed and the results will speak for themselves.

Keep in mind that it won’t be possible for students to play 40 pieces a year at the level at which they are currently working. To do that would miss the point. The idea of playing more pieces in a year than is required for an exam is all about breadth of repertoire and having fun. Given that the pieces will only take a week or two to master, there is less anxiety and frustration and the students can just play to enjoy. For example, my Grade 6/7 level students play fun pieces around Grade 2-4 level. My first year students might play really easy duets and learn some pop riffs. All that matters is that the 40+ pieces are fun, interesting and give the students something different to focus on – perhaps music in a different style, LH-only pieces, duets, boogies and blues if they are classical players or classical if they are jazz players. The list is endless.

For ideas on pieces to use, check out my other posts about repertoire. Norton’s Microjazz, Diabelli duets, “Joy of Boogie and Blues”, 2-piano works, chordal pop music, video game tunes and movie themes all come up regularly in my studio. Elissa Milne’s “Getting to… (New Mix)” is another great compilation of fun and well-arranged music that kids love as is Daniel McFarlane’s Soundscapes. To keep track of a student’s pieces, I use a page like this one.

There is so much amazing music out there. Aren’t we doing a disservice to our students by only learning a few?

ps. If you’re looking for a great source of medals and awards for your students (like the one I gave Ben), check out awardsandtrophies.com.au who provide fast, efficient service with free engraving and a great selection of music-based awards.

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Tim Topham

Lead blogger and coffee snob
Best-known for his blogging and teaching, Tim is also a well-respected presenter, performer and accompanist based in Melbourne, Australia. You can check him out on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.
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  • http://twitter.com/paul_somerville Paul Somerville (@paul_somerville)

    Hi Tim,

    Thanks a lot for this post. I found it really encouraging to hear you talk about having a pretty ‘ordinary’ client base – I’m in the same boat. Although probably about half of my students do exams, I have heaps of students with very busy and diverse schedules, adult beginners who barely practise, and zero six-year-olds doing their LMus …

    I’ve also been thinking about ways to get my students to play a whole lot more repertoire this year. I’m wondering if I can ask you a couple of specific questions about it:

    * Do you make it a (softly) competitive thing with all your students to try to get to 40 pieces, or is it just something for each student to achieve?
    * Quite a banal, logistical-type question: how do you keep track of how many pieces a student has learnt?
    * When you are working with a student towards an exam, how do you find time in a 30-minute lesson to cover, like, another whole new piece every week?

    Many thanks,
    -Paul

    • http://timtopham.wordpress.com timtopham

      Hi Paul

      Thanks for your comments – great to connect with like-minded teachers! In answer to your questions:
      1. The challenge tends to be more personal for my students – there isn’t a lot of competition between students. That said, a few of the students who have close friends also learning piano tended to get a bit competitive!
      2. I’ve linked to a copy of the table I use to record students’ pieces in the third-last paragraph above. My school students also have music diaries which we’ve designed with a space for listing pieces at the back. I’ll either write down the pieces as I give them out during a lesson, or ask them to write them in during the week (often gets forgotten and I do it anyway, but for the dedicated and organised students, this works well).
      3. Finding the time can be tricky! I tend not to push students to do an exam each year unless they really want to, instead often taking 18 months – 2 years, giving plenty of time to study other music. I also aim to only teach 45 mins + for Grades 4 up exam students which also gives more flexibility. Each week, I might only work on 2 out of a students 6-8 exam-level pieces and make sure that I leave time for some easier “40 pieces” pieces, just as you do for aural work and sightreading. In fact, these pieces can become part of a student’s sightreading work…

      Hope that helps – looking forward to hearing how you get on :)

  • Carly McDonald

    Excellent post Tim! Like you and Paul I have a diverse and what I would think would be a fairly ‘normal’ student base.

    Last year I also took up Elissa’s suggestion of challenging the kids to learn 40 songs and many got to the mid-20’s. Those who were really dedicated got to the 40! They were so excited, it was such a wonderful achievement.

    I enjoy reading posts from teachers who are interested in thinking outside the traditional.

    • http://timtopham.wordpress.com timtopham

      Hi Carly! Thanks for taking the time to comment and great to hear you’ve had similar success with this challenge :)

  • http://gravatar.com/harjoydes Joyce de Silva

    Hi Tim, I just discovered this blog recently and I’m hooked. Teaching piano can be very isolating, and while you hope you are doing the right thing, you’re never really sure….
    I have taken up your 40 piece challenge with most of my students, and keep it to fairly simple, familiar tunes. I call them “one week wonders”. It has been very encouraging for some of the slower learners to be able to achieve a new piece a week, even if it’s something like Twinkle, twinkle little star.

    • http://timtopham.wordpress.com timtopham

      Hi Joyce! Love the “one week wonders” – might have to pinch that title!! Glad you’ve found my blog useful. Where abouts are you based?

  • Joyce de Silva

    Hi Tim,
    I’m in Melbourne – southern/ bayside area.

  • Connie Yeung

    HI Tim,

    You made me think back how many pieces I used to play in a year. My teacher made me play over 100 songs a year. You could imagine my rate of improvement. ;)

    Would you mark a song from Czerny Opus 599 as “one piece” in your 40 pieces a year challenge?

    Connie

    • http://timtopham.wordpress.com timtopham

      Hi connie – depends on the level of the student really. If they are quite advanced, then a I’d group a number of simple czerny’s into one listing; if they are beginners, then each one counts. 100 pieces is HUGE! nice going… do you teach in the same way yourself?

  • Connie Yeung

    ;) as you said it depends on the kids’ interests. I am slowly adding more songs but I am also aware that I will need to cut back the number of songs if they can’t deliver. does that make sense? I guess at some stage we all learnt from our previous teachers. I never analysed the pieces that I learnt in terms of “numbers” because my teacher made me think that I was playing songs for different periods. That’s why I needed to learn n number of songs in one lesson. Your article was a great perspective. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://atadbitcreative.com Chrissa (a tad bit creative)

    What a great idea! Especially for students studying for exams where they tend to only focus on their exam pieces. I might have to throw out this challenge for my students!

  • Dean

    They must sound like shit if they can ‘play’ that many pieces, if, as you say, they have all the other competing interests that take so much of their time. We all know that almost everything else comes before getting to the piano, even if they claim they enjoy their pieces and the instrument itself. Doing something properly these days is almost a thing of the past…..

    • http://timtopham.wordpress.com timtopham

      Hi Dean. Quite to the contrary – all the pieces sounded great. They may not have been performance or exam-perfect, but that is never the intention. The aim is to learn something new, gain a new skill or play in a new style and improve a student’s reading ability. In amongst all the pieces, we always record a few favourites for YouTube or polish them for our annual recitals, and those are the ones that definitely get “done properly”. You sound quite negative about it all – are you a teacher too? I agree that piano takes a backseat for many, but that’s just another challenge for us to work around.

  • Alice Siah

    Hi Tim, I really really love reading your blogs! Thanks for sharing your ways to teach piano as a fun “job”! I’m going to corporate this into my studio this year, as it sounds so much FUN .. not to mention I need to have this list for myself :) I do have questions for you though:
    1. Do you make copies of songs for your students? Or do you loan the books if the song only takes 2 weeks to master? Some songs may be in their level books already, but the fun songs must be copied?
    2. When do you declare each song is successfully learned/passed? When they get all the notes and rhythm perfect? Or plus dynamics, pedalling, etc.
    3. On your tracking page — there’s a checkbox and starting date — do you put a date when they start learning and then put a check when they pass it?

    • http://timtopham.wordpress.com timtopham

      HI Alice. Great questions!
      1) I used to provide copies of the “easy” 1-week pieces as I sourced them from so many places, but now I tend to find books of fun, easy pieces a few grades lower than the student’s current level and get them to buy that to work through. Things like Christopher Norton, Daniel McFarlane, etc. are great – there are heaps of great options out there. There are also lots of great, simple original pieces and transcriptions on the web that can easily be printed out for a student (eg. G Major Music Theory’s resources – see my post on repertoire for boys).
      2) This varies, but I try to get everything up to a basic in-lesson “performance standard” – ie. all rhythms, notes, articulation correct with as much dynamic/interpretation as is relevant for the student. Remember that this challenge is more about reading fresh music and different styles than perfecting everything. Judge it on a piece by piece basis – not every piece will resonate with a student, so you might be happy with a more basic interpretation than one they really enjoy and are prepared to put more effort into.
      3) I tend to only put a starting date (and often just a term number) and this is written when they start the piece. I don’t worry about adding anyting when they finish, although there’s nothing to say this isn’t a good idea as well :)

      Hope that helps – let me know if you’ve got any other questions.

  • Alice Siah

    Thanks for the informative reply! Sorry, I’m a bit anal about the details!
    1) Is this something that can be done yearly?
    2) Would you share about your reward system in your studio? Do you provide trophies only to those who achieve 40 pieces?
    3) I’m wondering if you have incentive rewards for students completing other musical activities such as listening, practicing daily, etc.? I have those and thinking to change it for the new school year after reading your article about extrinsic reward.
    Thanks so much!

    • http://timtopham.wordpress.com timtopham

      1. Yes – I try and do it each year, although its success is highly dependent on how much you push it. It’s not a challenge that will necessarily run itself. To have real success each year, you have to stay really enthusiastic about it and push the kids to work towards it every week.
      2. I give a certificate for 20+ pieces, an engraved medal for 40+ and a trphy for anything over about 60 (only happened once!).
      3. No, although I’m very positive about it and push students to do other musical activities as much as possible. I guess the intrinsic reward of being able to play the piece better is the reward to practising daily, etc…

      Hope that helps!

  • http://pianelco.wordpress.com els cozijnsen

    Hello Tim. Today I started giving lessons after the christmas holidays. And yes I started with the 40 pieces challenge. I put a cross in the box when the study of a pieces has begun, and the date on which the piece is ready! One girl came with the second lesson book of Hal Leonard, and she was so happy about having a new book that she learned 11 pieces! Also a few short ones, but she (and I) was very happy when I told her about the challenge, and the fact there was a price for the pupil who has learned the most new pieces in 2013. So it was a great start for this new year. Another thing is that sometimes I am thinking that I myself have to work very hard in my lessons motivating my pupils. But with this challenge the pupils have to work! I am very anxious to see how this plan will work out this year!

    • http://timtopham.wordpress.com timtopham

      Hi Els! Great to hear you’ve started already. I’m still on holidays so haven’t started myself, but it sounds like you’re on the right track! You’ll find that you do have to motivate the kids and you also have to have LOTS of pieces up your sleeve as some kids will go through them fast. Short ones are great to get the numbers up – as long as they are reading them and learning something new, they will be worthwhile and will help their reading. On the other hand, some kids just plough through pieces and don’t need much motivating – funny itsn’t it?!

      Enjoy the challenge and I look forward to updates. Where abouts do you teach?

      • http://pianelco.wordpress.com els cozijnsen

        I Teach at a public music school in a middle great town in the east of HOLLAND, called Almelo.
        More than 40 pupils each week. Most of them are young, because a few years ago I started with lessons for children at the age of 5.

  • http://pianelco.wordpress.com els cozijnsen

    The lessons are very short……20 minutes for each pupil, some 30 minutes for two! Most of them liked the plan for 40 pieces in 2013 and asked about the rewards! I think in a few weeks I can give you the results so far.
    I am happy with the blogs of pianoteachers all over the world and read about their ideas. I also started a blog for my pupils and collegas, but I think it will be difficult to read for you in Dutch. You can try it http://pianelco.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/een-zeer-muzikaal-2013-toegewenst/ or ty just: http://pianelco.wordpress.com

    • http://timtopham.wordpress.com timtopham

      Thanks for your comments, Els! I had no idea I had readers in Netherlands! I’ve had a look at your blog but unfortunately can’t read Dutch as you suspected! Good luck with the 40 pieces – be great to hear your progress. Hope it’s not too cold over there!

  • charlotte

    Hi Tim, I came across your blog after researching about renting a piano. It’s always delightful to read what other piano teachers think =)
    Just to share my own story, I always give my students a few pieces (not just one) from the very first lesson. It can be something very easy or more challenging depending on the students’ age and ability. As they learn to read more notes, I put them to a designated lesson book. I like Bastien Primer A and Primer B for young beginners, and I usually move them to Piano Adventure afterwards. Each time they pass a piece from the book, they earn 1 sticker. On top of that, I also give them one extra piece from various sources. This is the “fun” piece which can be a popular tune, christmas carols, movie themes etc. If they pass this piece as well, they earn an extra sticker. They can collect 10 stickers from small prize, 20, 30 and even 50 for bigger prize.
    So far, most students can usually pass the piece from the book as it is usually shorter, with a lot of clues like finger numbers and hand positions. For the extra piece, it ranges from 1 week to 3 weeks. I usually give them a “warning”, which is to take away their stickers once it has passed 3 weeks and only little improvements are shown. Not that I have ever actually taken their stickers anyway but this seems to work! (haha).
    So, I would say my students (who are normal primary school boys and girls and some teenagers) learn more than 40 pieces a year. I have never thought of given them awards, as this has always been the system.
    However, all of the “fun” have to stop once the students move to exam preparation.. As they only have 30-minute lesson, I have to focus on their exam pieces more and there is often no time to look at other stuff.. Do you face this problem, too?