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The Repertoire-Rich Challenge: three stories to inspire you

Stacks of books

The more you learn, the more you know: Adopting a repertoire-rich attitude in your studio

For a couple of hundred years now, piano teachers (and their piano students along with them), have bought into the fashion maxim that "less is more" when it comes to learning repertoire.

by Elissa Milne
The more you learn, the more you know," I told my students, as I outlined the plan for 2002. The advanced and intermediate level students narrowed their eyes suspiciously. I was assigning them a larger number of pieces than usual, and some of those pieces were looking seriously easy. Was I joking? What was the point of learning pieces that were so simple? Why weren't we spending the first few lessons of the year selecting exam repertoire, the way we had the year before? 

For a couple of hundred years now, piano teachers (and their piano students along with them), have bought into the fashion maxim that "less is more" when it comes to learning repertoire. A small number of pieces is selected at the start of the academic year. Each one of them representing a high level of challenge, with multiple new concepts and techniques that need to be mastered along the way. Months are spent accruing note-to-note proficiency, while anything falling into the category of interpretation (aka "the final touches") are delayed until hands are together, the metronome has been applied to recalcitrant passages, and every page is under the fingers. "Aren't we going to learn a new piece this week?" the not-particularly diligent, early-intermediate student pouted. "I've only got three pieces to practice at the moment, and we didn't learn a new piece last week, either!" This was the turning point for me, and I shifted my teaching strategy. 

The results were palpable. After two years of working in a repertoire-rich fashion, my students had become addicted to the buzz of discovering new music. And the more new music they learned, the easier the process of learning new music became. My students were developing not just their piano performance chops, but an ease with (and enthusiasm for) dealing with learning challenges. Meanwhile, their sightreading skills were becoming sufficiently impressive that few students ever asked me to play something through for them before learning it —they could just read it for themselves.
"We're going to miss you so much!" the mother of my student of the past five years mourned in 2007. "Do you know anyone on the Gold Coast who teaches this way? We can't imagine going back to only learning nine or ten pieces a year. Sam's going to go crazy if that's what piano lessons are going to be like from now on!" 

I'd been touring Australia over the previous seven years, giving seminars on building creative musicianship into the traditional piano lesson, transitioning from beginner materials through to the classical teaching canon and the Australian piano examination systems, 20th century and contemporary literature for the piano, approaches to jazz piano for late elementary through intermediate-level students, seminars launching my own complete Little Peppers series when published by Faber Music, speaking at conferences, and presenting at conservatoria. So, it was a reasonable question to ask: I'd met a lot of teachers! 

Even though I'd also been presenting the case for repertoire-rich teaching/learning in nearly every seminar I'd been giving, I hadn't really thought to give it a label, a simple way of referring to this very-different-from-the- normal approach to a student's learning journey. There were teachers, I knew, who were transitioning their own teaching to include a greater quantity of pieces, but few of them had embraced a genuinely rich (for me, meaning twenty-six or more pieces a year) repertoire experience. Teachers, hearing about my ongoing experiment with my own students, were getting excited by the idea. They loved using the "Getting to…" repertoire series I'd created with Hal Leonard Australia especially for this purpose, but the whole concept was profoundly counterintuitive to the appeals to specialization that underpin a repertoire-impoverished, learn-music-for-certificates-and-trophies approach. The worries of teachers mirrored the suspicions of my most advanced students back in 2002, most especially in regard to the idea that progressing fast was the gold standard, and evidence of their own good teaching. 

"I want you to do a tour with me next summer, talking about what you do with your 100 Piece Medal," my friend, and colleague, Samantha Coates, mentioned one day at a 2009 print music expo. "It's completely intriguing, and it would be a brilliant contrast to my sessions discussing sightreading, and Abe Cytrynowski's sessions on scales!" Seven years after first taking the concept studio-wide with my own students, this was the first time I was specifically asked to speak about it. Teachers were intrigued, by the concept of tracking repertoire, by the focus of celebrating beginnings, by the idea that a medal was awarded for every 100 pieces learned and mastered, and by the allure of students being excited to learn new music.

Central to the philosophy is the expectation that pianism and musicianship take years to fully develop, and the goal for students experiencing as much of the musical world as possible—in their own fingers and bodies, at their own pianos. 

More is More: Forty pieces and beyond

Students felt greater ownership over their music making and exhibited less anxiety when presented with new challenges. Practicing went way up.

by Benjamin Steinhardt
I am currently in my fourth year of using a "Rich Repertoire Challenge" in my studio. I first became aware of the challenge through Elissa Milne's blog and through piano pedagogy groups on Facebook. The concept is simple, but the difference it has made in how my students learn and how I teach has been profound. Students who have a well-balanced diet are happier and healthier. Students who play a wide variety of pieces become more confident learning new music, working through adversity, and playing a variety of styles. 

Halfway through my first year of using the Rich Repertoire Challenge, I made an important discovery. My older elementary students had no problems learning forty pieces in a school year. But my youngest students and later intermediate students were falling behind. I discovered that they were not getting enough music to master new concepts. For example, when I introduced a new idea such as triple meter, the youngest students got frustrated soon after because their method book had moved on before the idea had taken hold. My older students spent a whole semester on a Clementi sonatina, a Bach prelude, and a Burgmüller etude, but did not learn much more than what they could extract from those three pieces. 

After increasing the amount of music I taught the students in these two groups, I noticed a big change in my studio. Students felt greater ownership over their music making and exhibited less anxiety when presented with new challenges. Practicing went way up.

Mixing levels and styles is essential for a successful challenge. I like to give students music right at their level that can be learned in one to three weeks, stretch pieces that can take up to a semester to learn, and pieces that are below their current level which they can learn with minimal or no help from me. Paraphrasing Nora Ephron: Since a novel will always be a five-year process, a writer might as well write a couple of screenplays and short stories during that time. I also like to vary the kinds of pieces. Mixing reading pieces, rote pieces, original compositions, arrangements, lead sheets, etudes, classical, and popular styles helps students become well-rounded musicians. Doing this, of course, means purchasing several books a year. But just as studies have shown that children who have more books in the house are more likely to read, students who have a wide variety of music in their library are more likely to sit down and play. The biggest change I've noticed since beginning this journey is how excited my students are to learn new music. Music has proved to be a greater incentive to practice than stickers, practice charts, or prizes could ever be. 

The challenge that revolutionized my studio

The biggest challenge for me has been to keep a large variety of music in various levels available for students to have what they need to be successful.

by Lizbeth Atkinson

When I first heard about the 40- and 30-piece challenges, I thought teachers must be out of their minds! How can a student possibly learn this many pieces in one year, and why would she want to? I started reading comments and questions from teachers on a popular Facebook page called The Art of Piano Pedagogy, where I met Elissa Milne. I will never forget how she patiently explained to anyone who had comments or questions, the method behind what seemed to me, the madness. She had me hooked. 

I began planning my first 30-piece challenge three years ago. Wendy Stevens already had wonderful materials prepared on her website, I decided to take one of her charts and blow it up to poster size so that students and parents could track their progress. Students keep individual charts in their three-ring binders listing each piece they have played. They have kept these throughout the years and it has become a wonderful catalogue of all the pieces they have learned. 

Annelise gets to 20 pieces!

Before earning a sticker for the wall chart, a student must be able to play a piece with correct notes, rhythm, dynamics, articulation, and phrasing while being video recorded. I save these pieces on my computer, and at the end of the year, they are uploaded to the student's playlist on my YouTube channel to share with the student's family and friends. I also copy the student's videos onto a flash drive for the family to enjoy.

Students are able to earn an award at the 10-, 20-, and 30-piece levels. At the 10-piece level, students earn a large-size candy bar, a small white board, or a set of pens, for example. At the 20-piece level, students earn a $5 gift card to a local ice cream shop. At the 30-piece level, students earn a $10 gift card to Target or someplace similar. If students reach 40 pieces, they can earn a $15 gift card to a place of their choice. The idea for awarding prizes at each division of 10 originally came from Wendy Stevens's website, "" I thought this would be a fun idea that students would enjoy. Deciding on how much to spend and what would work for my studio was a consideration. Of course, I wanted everyone to reach the goal, but how much would that actually end up costing if that happened? I determined that if each student earned every prize for the year, it only equaled about 1.5 percent of their tuition. This figured into my budget very nicely.

The biggest challenge for me has been to keep a large variety of music in various levels available for students to have what they need to be successful. I have become much better at this over the years and have collected many resources from fabulous composers. This process has opened up a whole new world of music for me and for my students. Students who choose to participate become more well-rounded musicians and better sight- readers. They are able to see the details of pieces they are playing and enjoy the process of making music. They are excited to learn new music and are not afraid or intimidated. Students gain confidence and experience as they strive for each level of success. The 30-piece challenge has revolutionized the way I approach teaching my students.

Hear Lizbeth's students and a parent discuss the 30-piece challenge

 Benjamin Steinhardt enjoys an international reputation for his innovative teaching and performs regularly in the NYC metro area. Placing an emphasis on creativity and exploration, his teaching incorporates concepts from the Taubman Approach, Music Learning Theory, Dalcroze, and somatic education to give students the tools to reach their highest potential. BenjaminSteinhardt. com

Lizbeth Atkinson holds a Bachelor of Music from Brigham Young University in Piano Performance and Pedagogy. She is a member of the NFMC, National Guild of Piano Teachers, and MTNA. She serves on the board of the Central East Division of Ohio MTA. Lizbeth is a Nationally Certified Teacher of Music through MTNA and was recognized as CEOMTA's and Ohio MTA's Teacher of the Year in 2015.

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