New year piano challenge: 40 pieces a year club

Now that we’re into the new year, it’s fun to start thinking about resolutions and challenges for the upcoming year (2018). I figured this would be the perfect time to do a video on the “40 pieces a year challenge”.

In today’s video we’ll discuss this challenge, why I think it’s a great idea, and where you can find some online accountability.

40 Pieces a Year: Origin story

The whole hubbub with learning 40 pieces a year didn’t begin with Elissa Milne, but she’s the one who popularized it on the internet. She was frustrated with her students’ progress, since they tended to only learn 6-10 pieces a year (mostly exam pieces, with a few “fun” ones thrown in).

But as she started researching, she began to realize how learning a higher volume of music was much more beneficial to her students. Their sight reading dramatically improved, and so did their musicianship since they were exposed to a wide variety of music.

You can read more about her story here, but that’s essentially where this whole idea began.

Why 40 pieces a year?

The reason the number 40 was chosen is because there are typically 40 weeks in a school year. So it’s about a piece per week, with breaks for holidays and summer vacation.

I like 40 because it’s much less intimidating than 52. 52 is a very strict number, but 40 gives you some leeway when things come up in life. You can always surpass 40, too – it really is just a number.

My experience with learning lots of repertoire

I had a very similar experience to Elissa Milne in my piano studio. In the early days, we spent a lot of time working on very few pieces. While this meant that students usually had a very polished end result, it wasn’t exposing them to enough, and they didn’t improve to a degree that I wanted them to.

Probably about five years ago I changed my philosophy to learn many pieces, instead of just a few. Yes, they would memorize and polish some pieces – festival or recital pieces especially – but we wouldn’t stay stuck on each and every piece.

So now, in my studio, even if a piece is only learned to about 70-80%, we’ll still scrap it and move on. Not everything they learn has to be a complete masterpiece. They’ll like some pieces more than others, and those will be the ones they spend more time polishing.

Another benefit of this rapid-fire approach is that it removes the fear and resistance to learning new music. Students who only learn a few pieces tend to resist learning new music. It’s a lot of work to start fresh, and their sight reading skills aren’t usually very well-developed.

But students who are constantly exposed to new music aren’t afraid of it. In fact, most embrace it! New music becomes an exciting new challenge, instead of a massive drag.

Why do a 40 pieces a year challenge in 2018?

So why do a 40 pieces a year challenge for the year 2018? (Or whatever year you happen to be in watching this video).

Well I’ve already discussed several reasons already, including:

  • Improve your sight reading skills
  • Release mental blocks to learning new music
  • Expose yourself to more piano music (there’s an endless amount of great music out there!)
  • Develop your musicianship skills
  • Get rid of perfectionism (good enough is usually good enough)
  • Having a specific goal is very motivating

Your sight reading has to get better if you’re reading more music. And your resistance to the new and unknown has to start dissolving once you tackle more pieces.

There is more than a lifetime’s worth of piano repertoire out there, and I like to devour as much of it as possible. Life is too short to only learn a handful of pieces a year!

Your musicianship will improve, whether or not you do a deep dive into Bach’s music or expand more broadly into a variety of composers.

Learning 40 pieces in a year is a great way to get rid of perfectionism. Perfectionism is a problem, and usually stems from fear. Learning more music keeps us fresh and playful, and helps us avoid thinking, “I’ll move on when it’s perfect”.

And, of course, it can be very motivating to set real, tangible piano goals. If we just learn aimlessly, our progress might be slow. But with a real and tangible goal of 40 pieces per year, we almost definitely have to push ourselves harder.

How to do this challenge

Before starting this challenge (because you’re going to, right?), I want to share a few tips.

First, these 40 pieces probably won’t all be high-level. If you’re currently around a level 6, it might be difficult for you to finish 40 level 6 pieces in a year. It’s best to do a variety of leveled pieces, regardless of what your “official” level is.

So for example, I consider myself to be around a grade 10 level. That means I’ll do several level 10 pieces, but I’ll also do quite a few more pieces between grade 6-9. These pieces are still going to offer me plenty of musical challenges, but they’ll be much more doable on a weekly basis.

Ideally I’ll have a daily practice selection from a variety of different levels. I’ll have a longer-term project that’s more difficult, with a few short-term projects that are simpler.

Masterpieces

If you learn 40 pieces in a year, you’re probably not going to want to keep them all in your regular repertoire. Some will have simply been learned for the experience. And you probably won’t love all 40 pieces.

However, it would be a mistake to spend so much time learning new music just to forget it all!

That’s why I usually give my students the additional challenge of picking around 10 pieces to keep in their regular repertoire. So when they come across a piece they really enjoy, they write it down on their repertoire list and maintain it throughout the year.

These are pieces that get extra practice and polish. These pieces are usually recital, exam or festival pieces. They’re usually memorized, so that the student can play them whenever and wherever they want.

So try to keep your eye out for approximately 10 of those 40 pieces that you really enjoy, and really want to master. It could be more or less than 10 – 10 is an arbitrary number. But it’s a number to give you a general idea.

40 pieces a year: Pianoworld forums

A final but important note – accountability!

It’s one thing to do this 40 day challenge all on your own. It’s another thing entirely to participate with a group of people! That’s why the pianoworld forums are awesome.

Every year, they start a thread called “40 pieces a year club”. Here’s a link to 2017’s club if you’d like to check it out.

And here’s this year’s new 2018 club!

In this thread, you can post recordings of your pieces, tracking your progress, and general discussions with other participants. You can learn whatever genre you want – it’s not a strictly Classical music challenge.

And like we’ve discussed, this challenge isn’t about learning 40 really tough pieces, or perfecting all 40. They state that explicitly at the start of each year.

One really cool thing that this thread does to keep you accountable is to keep a name of everyone participate stickied at the top, with a running tally of how many pieces they’ve learned so far. So make sure to post each time you’ve completed a new piece!

40 pieces a year: Conclusion

I hope you’ll join me on this challenge this year, and that we’ll be able to hang out over on the Pianoworld forums. I’m going to do my best to hit 40 this year, but it might be tough with a baby on the way this month or next. Even so, it’ll be fun to try!

xo,

Allysia

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