Monday, 2 February 2015

40 Pieces a Year Challenge

There has been a lot of hype among piano teachers over the past few years about the benefits of students learning at least 40 pieces a year.

Traditionally, many piano teachers have had their students learn only 3 new pieces a year, which they play at an exam at the end of the year, only to throw another 3 pieces a grade higher at the student the next year.  

Not only does this approach near bore the student to death, it also doesn't help them one iota in becoming independent musicians who can learn new piano pieces by themselves.  It's the equivalent of giving 3 novels to someone who is wanting to learn how to read a new language and saying "good luck with that!  Oh, and have fun!"

Thankfully I never had a "3 pieces a year teacher" - my teacher had me learning hundreds of pieces a year, and I was a lazy student, so this was no mean feat on his behalf.  The trick to learning 40 pieces a year isn't to up your practice time astronomically - it's to find pieces at a level that you can play super easily.  I would almost go as far as to say that there is no such thing as TOO easy.  Anything above primer level is going to be beneficial in some way, no matter how advanced you are.  I have experienced this myself in my own playing over the past year and a bit.  To date I have made 2350 YouTube videos since September 2013.  The vast majority of them are grades 2 and under, yet over the past year my ability to sightread pieces grade 5 and up has increased off the charts.  My brain chunks the information ridiculously more effectively than it did a little over a year ago.  As a self confessed lazy person, I'm thrilled to have spent my time playing fun easy little pieces that give me instant gratification only to find I am truckloads better at picking up hard pieces!

ANYONE can learn 40 new pieces in a year.  The laziest pianist in the world can learn 40 pieces in a year.  It's not about hyping up the practice time, it's about chugging through lots of pieces you can read easily so that you start to recognise common patterns in the musical language, like chords and their inversions both blocked and broken, scales, intervals, repetitive sequences, common syncopated rhythmic patterns, common fingering patterns, the relationships between the different note lengths, and many other things that you can't pick up without experiencing them in zillions of different combinations.

If you're interested in giving this a go but not sure where to start, just remember that anything will do.  Old exam books that you've only played a 10th of the pieces from, or the method books that you used in your first year or two of piano lessons will more than do to get you going.

If you want some new materials to use for your first round at the 40 piece challenge (and I bet you can do it in less than a year!), I have included some suggestions below.  These are books my students have enjoyed learning from that are well sequenced for learning new skills, and that are excellent value for money.

Piano Adventures (buy here for around $7)

This is your best bet if you're a grade 3 or under piano player, with average-awful sight reading skills.  Start with lesson book 1, breeze through it, and then work your way through to 3A (beyond there switch to something new - it stops being good value from 3B onwards).  By the time you get there you'll be feeling much more confident about your sight reading skills.

The basic piano adventures series (not accelerated, or adult, or any of their other spin offs) is paced really well, enjoyable, and gives you a lot of pieces for your dollar.  Level 1 pieces are hands together but all in 5 finger positions, and works on recognising intervals up to a 5th .  Level 2A introduces new 5 finger positions and drills reading pieces with eighth notes in them.  Level 2B introduces dotted quarter notes, and is around preliminary exam level.  Level 3A introduces 3/8 and 6/8 time signatures and is around grade 1 level.

You can choose from the lesson books, technique and repertoire books, performance books, or popular repertoire books - there is one of each for each level.  The lesson books and technique and repertoire books give you the most pieces per dollar, and are what I would go with.

Listen to my playlist of lesson book 1 here, lesson book 2A here, lesson book 2B here, or lesson book 3A here.

Essential Keyboard Repertoire Volume 1 (buy here for around $15)

This collection is good for anyone who enjoys playing baroque, classical and 20th century music, and whose playing is at least at grade 3 level.  The pieces are preliminary - grade 3 standard.

This is THE best value early intermediate collection available.  These aren't simplified pieces.  You get 100 pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn etc in their original form.

Also, unlike other large anthologies that refuse to stay open on the piece you're learning, this collection is spiral bound, so it sits nicely on the piano stand and doesn't fall apart.

Listen to my playlist of Essential Keyboard Repertoire Volume 1 here.

The Microjazz Collection 1 (buy here for around $23)

The pieces in this book are preliminary to grade 1 standard, and are a good choice for piano players of grade 3 or above level.

Every single piece in this book is accompanied with a "microstudy" page that zones in on the skills (a specific rhythm, 2 note slurs, shaping a phrase, changing hand positions smoothly etc) you will need for the piece before you tackle it.

It comes with a CD that has both backing and performance tracks.

Listen to my playlist of The Microjazz Collection 1 here.

RCM Celebration Series Perspectives (buy here for around $15)

The RCM books go from Preparatory - Level 10, and I love the variety of composers, moods and genres in these books.

If you are an advanced piano player who wants to get faster at picking up new pieces, start at preparatory level and work your way through as many levels as you desire.

Listen to my RCM preparatory level playlist here.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Hi Quyen, sorry I took a while to reply. It depends which PA you're working from. If it's the regular series, then the second half of PA level 2B is about the same as AMEB Preliminary level. 3A is about the same as AMEB grade 1. If you're using the PA adult all-in-one books, then by the start of book 2 some of the pieces are AMEB preliminary level, and by the end of book 2 they're about AMEB grade 1 level. Hope that helps!

    2. Apologies for even a later reply! I am currently working on the regular series doing level 1 at the moment. She would use the techniques learned in the series apply them to the harder songs. For example I have asked her about the song "Don't cry for me Argentina" in the AMEB grade 6 piano for leisure and she would equate that to a level 2B to 3B in PA based on the techniques and theory that would be learnt by the end of 3B. The catch is though she would ensure that we master every song under the sun in that PA level and theres over 120 songs in level 1 and trust me I've counted. But coming from a Grade 2 AMEB classical down to a level 1 PA can be somewhat disheartening.

    3. Don't see it as disheartening! If you can't immediately play through these pieces observing all of the articulation and dynamic markings at top tempo, then you will be learning something new with them and improving your ability to pick up quickly, and that is a good thing right?

      I take this approach as well with my students. It doesn't mean the teacher thinks you're terrible at piano - it is her way of approaching the learning process. You can learn a lot faster working on pieces that deal with one or two concepts you need to be working on at a time, so you can keep seeing those concepts over and over in new configurations, rather than working on lots of different concepts in the one piece for months.

      These easier pieces will help you learn the harder pieces in less time, and it will help you play them with more attention to detail. It's a good thing! Do put the time into the easier pieces and take them seriously. I promise you will notice progress in your playing if you do!

  2. i am about to complete PA adult book 2, what books to you recommend after that? I can somewhat site read just that need to look for the right keys sometimes and double check on the # and flats.

    1. Hi Ken,

      At the end of adult PA book 2 you'll be at the end of level 3B in the regular piano adventures series. So you could do the PA lesson book 4, or you could have a look at the extra books at each level by Faber that are themed. The level 3A-3B books are called FunTime, and level 4 books are called BigTime. Search either of those terms in sheetmusicplus (or wherever you buy your books) and a bunch of different books will come up. I recommend them, they're good fun! Some examples of the different books they offer at these levels are popular, kids songs, jazz and blues, hymns, classics, rock and christmas.

      If you were interested in working from an exam book, you could look at ABRSM or Trinity grade 2 or 3, or the RCM Celebration Series level 3 or 4.

      Hope that helps! :)

      - Beth

    2. thanks Beth, Great Help, will look into those books, just completed the PA adult book 2. will look at a couple of funtime books to reinforce my learning then perhaps will look into jazz books . cheers!