The 30-Piece Challenge

This past season was phase two of developing reading skills in my students. We know that students who read well will be lifelong musicians. And one factor of being able to read music well is accumulating a large number of hours reading something new. But, when we get busy preparing for performances and exams, we spend a long time working on just a few pieces. So I launched a studio-wide challenge: Could students learn 30 new pieces in a 36-week season?

This idea came from Elissa Milne’s own 40-piece challenge. Elissa is a teacher from Australia where the piano season is typically 40 weeks long. That’s one new piece of music each week. Elissa wanted her 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.)” Well, it turns out there are many other teachers who want the same for their students. This idea was the shot that was heard around the world, if you will. It’s gone global.

The terms of the challenge: You must learn something new. Any level or length. One week to learn it to a high standard. Memory not required.

Things that counted were a new time signature, key signature, score type, time period, tempo; transpose, or create an arrangement of something.

So what happened in my studio? It blew the doors off all my expectations. Not only is it possible to learn 30 new pieces in a season, it’s possible to learn 40, 50, or 60 pieces. The highest total was 69 pieces by a level 4 student.

While the totals are very impressive, I am the most interested in the long-term skills gained during the process. Here are the big-picture results:

  • my student’s sight reading skills improved dramatically
  • my students loved searching through music to find a piece that contained something NEW!
  • my students bravely tackled any and all new challenges
  • I became reacquainted with some great music that was in my lending library
  • I became acquainted with some new music that I purchased for my lending library, such as Béla Bartók’s Mikrokosmos and Canadian National Conservatory of Music’s Northern Lights series.

It was amazing. And we are going to play more – a lot more – next season!


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