40-Piece Challenge

piano_hands.jpgThis excellent initiative was started by Australian piano teacher and composer Elissa Milne and was taken up by the music publisher Hal Leonard Australia in 2013. The purpose was to promote and implement the concept of students learning a huge quantity of piano pieces in one year. The main purpose of this exercise was to encourage students to learn, experience and perform far more pieces than our exam-focussed culture tends to allow, and equip students with improved sight-reading skills, encourage independent learning, and enhance their musicianship and music appreciation by exploring a wider variety of repertoire. By broadening the student’s experience of piano music, hopefully they will feel inspired to continue to play the piano for the rest of their lives regardless of what grade exam they achieve before they stop taking lessons.

The exercise reminds me of something I did when I was studying the piano as a teenager and preparing for my Grade 8 exam. My then teacher felt that I needed to spend as much time as possible at the piano, regardless of what I was playing (i.e. not necessarily practising my Grade 8 pieces and technical work). To achieve this, I took a Saturday job as pianist for a local ballet school where I was required to play waltzes, polonaises and mazurkas for a group of pink-tutu-clad little girls and a teacher who was straight of out ‘Fame!’. My sight-reading skills, which had always been pretty good, were much improved by the exposure to new repertoire and I became adept at learning music quickly, skills which I have retained, despite a long absence from the piano in my 20s and 30s.

Another similar initiative is the Go-Play Project, in which US pianist and teacher Catherine Shefski set herself the task of learning (or relearning) a piece of piano music each week over the course of a year (she recorded the pieces and uploaded them to SoundCloud). Like many piano teachers, Catherine felt she was not spending enough time at the piano for herself amidst all the teaching and admin that goes with running a piano teaching studio. I followed Cathy’s project with interest and discovered some new repertoire myself through her initiative, including a Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableau which I included in my LTCL programme (G minor, Op 33). Cathy has extended the project beyond the sphere of music, applying the concept to other areas of creativity.

I think the ’40-Piece Challenge’, ‘Go-Play Project’ and similar initiatives are wonderful for piano students and pianists of all ages and abilities. As pianists we are spoilt for choice: the piano has a huge and varied repertoire, but sometimes this embarrassment of musical riches can be daunting. Where to start? What to play? By setting reasonable parameters, the project is both possible and enjoyable. (For example, one is under no obligation to play “difficult” music, and much pleasure and satisfaction can be gained from learning relatively simple pieces and playing them really well). The object of the exercise is to experience many musical idioms and forms, from Baroque to contemporary classical, jazz, world and even duets or two-piano works. Mix the difficulty and genre of the pieces you attempt: by keeping the repertoire varied, you will find the exercise enjoyable and challenging. Record yourself and use the recordings for self-evaluation and critiquing of your playing. Even if you are working on larger-scale works or studying for an exam or Diploma, there is no reason why you shouldn’t engage in this exercise as a supplement to your main learning and as a way of ensuring you retain your interest and excitement in the piano.

The exercise is also brilliant for piano teachers: we expose ourselves and our students to a wider variety of repertoire while challenging us as teachers – can we actually teach 40 pieces to each of our students in a year? (I have in fact adapted the project and will be challenging my own students to learn 20 pieces over the course of 2015.)

Some repertoire suggestions for more advanced pianists:

J S Bach – Kleine Preludes

Chopin – Preludes, Waltzes

Beethoven – Bagatelles

Schubert – Moments Musicaux, Ländler, Waltzes

Heller – Etudes

Rachmaninoff – Preludes, Moments Musicaux, 6 Morceaux Op 11, Etudes-Tableaux

Scriabin – Preludes, Etudes and other shorter piano works

Prokofiev – Visions Fugitives

Bartok – Mikrokosmos (later volumes)

various – Variations for Judith (a delightfully varied collection of contemporary piano music based on a Bach Chorale)

An article by pianist and teacher Graham Fitch on how to improve your sight-reading

Trinity College of London new piano syllabus – an overview

In July 2014 the new Trinity College of London (TCL) piano grade exam syllabus was released. I have enjoyed teaching the TCL syllabus and my students have enjoyed learning the pieces: some highlights of the previous syllabus include Fanfare for the Common Cold (Grade 2), Allegro Non Troppo (Grade 2), Song of Twilight (Grade 3) and Tapping Heels (Grade 4). To assist in my preparation to teaching the new syllabus, I recently attended a presentation for piano teachers given by Peter Wild, Associate Chief Examiner, and Govind Kharbanda.

One of my main reasons for switching from ABRSM to TCL for graded exams is that TCL focusses on the individual, and the exam structure offers flexibility and choice to enable students to play to their strengths. Part of my teaching philosophy is to encourage students to play with expression and confidence, and I am keen to help them develop performance skills. Performance is at the heart of the TCL graded exams, and the pieces carry a maximum of 66% of the marks available in the exam.

Pieces

Unlike ABRSM exams where students must select a piece from A, B and C sections (traditionally divided approximately into Baroque/Early Classical, Classical/Romantic and Modern/Jazz/Pop), TCL offers students up to Grade 3 free choice to select pieces which suit their individual strengths and allow students and teachers to create an interesting programme. This helps students understand how to build a contrasting concert programme and is particularly useful for students who wish to study for a Diploma at post-Grade 8 level. All the pieces offer contrasting moods, tempi, character and technical demands, and the syllabus combines well-known works and composers with music by lesser-known composers. There are always pieces with a Jazz-leaning and also some contemporary classical pieces. Arrangements of well-known jazz standards and songs, for example, are always good-quality arrangements. Right from the earliest grade, the pieces offer plenty of opportunities to explore aspects such as dynamics, tone quality, articulation and expression, and the pieces are chosen to encourage further listening and “listening around” the pieces to give students a broader frame of reference and set the music in context. In TCL the emphasis is very much on performance and students are encouraged to consider aspects such as stage craft and presentation. A duet option is also available in the early grades.

In marking the pieces, the marks awarded are subdivided into three areas:

  1. Accuracy & notational fluency – or “me and the music”
  2. Technique – “me and the instrument”
  3. Communication and interpretation – “me and the audience”

Supporting tests

There is also a choice of supporting tests and up to Grade 4 students may select two of the following:

  • Sight-reading
  • Aural
  • Improvisation
  • Musical Knowledge

I have found that many early and younger students find sight-reading at Grade1/2 level very daunting and I prefer to teach it within the context of learning new music, allowing students to develop their sight-reading skills at their own pace.

Musical Knowledge is a useful option and gives the student the opportunity to learn some music theory within the context of the pieces they are playing, thus making the theory relevant.

Many students, particularly boys, find singing in aural tests excruciating, and so in Trinity aural tests there is no singing (except at Grade 1). The test is designed to explore musical understanding, awareness and perception.

Technical work and exercises

Technical requirements in TCL exams are less onerous than in the ABRSM syllabus. Scales and arpeggios are relevant to the pieces, and TCL encourages students to take a musical approach to scales, demonstrating that they can play with fluency, accuracy and good tone. From Grade 4 students must play scales and arpeggios legato and staccato, forte or piano, and from Grade 5 students play scales in major thirds, and arpeggios of the dominant and diminished 7th. In my experience, most young people who want to learn the piano simply want to be able to play well and enjoy playing the piano. For the more serious pianist, the technical requirements in the ABRSM syllabus, where by Grade 5 the student will have learnt scales in all the major and minor keys, is more useful.

For each TCL exam, the student must prepare three short technical exercises. The exercises focus on aspects of technique such as balance, tone, voicing, coordination, and finger and wrist strength and flexibility. The exercises related to various pieces in the syllabus: for example, A Lucky Find (3a, Grade 6) is useful in enabling the student to shape a good cantabile line in Chopin’s Cantabile in B-flat and practises playing chords as an accompaniment. Music lies at the foundation of all the TCL technical requirements, and indeed the entire exam.

Exam report and results

All candidates receive useful feedback on each element of the exam, and results are released quickly, usually within a week of the exam date (certificates take somewhat longer).

I know some teachers hold strong views about the usefulness of exams, and the individual exam boards. At the end of the day, I feel it’s important to find pieces and technical exercises/supporting tests which allow the student to explore a varied range of repertoire and techniques and, above all, to enjoy playing the piano.

Resources

Trinity College London – syllabus support

Trinity College YouTube channel – includes an introduction to the grade exams and sample exams to show how the actual exam is conducted