The 40-Piece Challenge – a personal piano journey

This excellent initiative was started by Australian piano teacher and composer Elissa Milne. The purpose was to promote and implement the concept of students learning a huge quantity of piano pieces in one year to allow students to learn, experience and perform far more pieces than our exam-focussed culture tends to allow. Known learning outcomes from the exercise include improved sight-reading skills, greater independence in learning, and enhanced musicianship and music appreciation.

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 told myself that one day I would do something similar.

A new year, and a number of pianist friends and colleagues have embarked on their own 40-Piece Challenge. Despite, or because of, the fact that I have set myself a vast learning challenge in Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata (D959 in A), I decided it was time to try my own 40-Piece Challenge. My motives for doing so are slightly different from the original purpose of the project:

What kind of repertoire?

The Schubert sonata is a big work in four movements, which takes c.40 minutes to play, and the learning process is by necessity long and detailed. It would be foolish to add other very advanced works to my musical diet, so the premise is to learn shorter and “easier” works for the challenge. And the pieces selected do not necessarily have to be “new”: as part of the exercise, I am revisiting some pieces I learnt a few years ago. There is much to be gained from reviving previous repertoire, as new insights and ideas about the music are revealed.

To guard against boredom and retain variety in my practising

I would be crazy to devote all my practise time to the Schubert alone. Adding a variety of shorter works is a supplement to my main learning and a way of ensuring I retain interest and excitement in the piano.

To extend my repertoire

When one is working for exams or diplomas, there is a terrible tendency to focus only on the set pieces. This is not healthy, as too much focus on a narrow repertoire can lead to familiar pieces growing stale. One often finds that even the most disparate repertoire will inform other works. I also wanted to have a “bank” of pieces I could call on for the occasional concerts I give.

Each piece will be recorded and uploaded to my Soundcloud

Recording is an excellent way of evaluating one’s playing and an opportunity to listen in a different way, allowing us to make judgements about which areas need revision or improvement. By insisting on recording each piece, I am forcing myself to prepare each work carefully. This in itself is a useful exercise: just because the repertoire is “easier”, it should still be prepared to a high (concert-ready) level.

Update 1 – September 2015

With 27 pieces recorded and uploaded to Soundcloud, I am nearly three-quarters of the way through the project. There was a slight hiatus during the summer break when I was devoting much of my practise time to the Schubert Sonata in order to meet a personal deadline to have the entire sonata in the fingers by the end of June. Also, the piano was in need of a tune and I didn’t want to make any further recordings until it had been tuned.

Learning outcomes so far:

  • The project has encouraged me to learn “fast and smart”
  • I have become slightly less hyper-critical than usual about my playing, resulting in, I think, fresher and more imaginative recordings.
  • It has given me a focus in that each week I consider which works should be prepared for the challenge and add them to my practising diet.
  • It has made my work on the Schubert more enjoyable because there is variety in my practising regime

Update 2 – December 2015

I completed the project in early December – ahead of my deadline – and 40 pieces are now uploaded to my SoundCloud. I enjoyed the project very much, in particular the discipline of learning shorter pieces quickly and carefully. I am now considering a new 40 Piece Challenge for 2016 during which I will learn and record 40 new pieces of music (rather than a mixture of new and revived works).

The pieces:

For those considering a similar challenge, I offer some repertoire suggestions (intermediate to advanced level):

J S Bach – Kleine Preludes, Two- and Three-Part Inventions

Chopin – Preludes, Waltzes, Mazurkas, Nocturnes

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)

Ligeti – Musica Ricercata

Debussy – Preludes, Children’s Corner

Scarlatti – Sonatas

Single movements from sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, etc.

9 thoughts on “The 40-Piece Challenge – a personal piano journey”

  1. Frances, I’m so excited to read about your 40 Piece Challenge experience thus far! And I love the way you’ve spelled out your motivations for embarking on this project…

    For what it’s worth, two of those motivations (to keep boredom at bay and to extend your repertoire) are the basis of the original repertoire rich approach that was the foundation of the 40 Piece Challenge concept. I’ve found in my own teaching that if students are learning at least 26 pieces each year they keep momentum and enthusiasm high; slip much below that figure and the students become disengaged and disenchanted.

    I can hardly wait to see your playlist at the end of the year – already it’s obvious that your selections are going to cover a lot of ground! Inspirational!

    1. Thanks Elissa. Your original post was very inspiring; also a U.S. teacher’s GoPlay Project. I’m enjoying exploring lots of new repertoire and reviving previously-learnt pieces🙂

      1. Catherine’s GoPlay has gone far beyond the bounds of simply playing lots of pieces (so far beyond the bounds!!! – that’s a whole post in itself, because Catherine has taken the concept into every aspect of life!) but originally sprang from this idea of playing lots of pieces that I’d been blogging about.

        The GoPlay website is an inspiration!

  2. Yes the exam system promotes a pretty poor idea for learning. Makes it easier for teachers of course but is not necessarily in the best interest of the students. Hooray for the 40 pieces a year idea which should be the norm rather than the exception. It was the way I was taught to proceed. Familiarise with a number of pieces, leave and familiarise with another group before coming back and revisiting the first group. Which magically have become easier to play in the meantime? Revisit 2nd group move on to familiarise with a third group go back and revisit first two groups again etc etc. Amazing how much repertoire one can get through without feeling like one is slogging away at a few pieces week after week as the exam system demands.

  3. This is great! I’m just starting the 40 pieces challenge with my students and I’m doing it too – I really don’t think I’ve played 40 pieces in a year since my first year of piano lessons when I was 5! Mine will all be by different composers, and for my students, there will be an extra task linked to each piece, plus they have minimum numbers of compositions, performances and pieces to learn by ear. We’re all super excited! Great idea to record your pieces – I will watch your continued progress with interest!

  4. Thank you for sharing. I feel inspired by your blog; I will try to revive a piece that I learnt 30 years ago.

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