Interview with Elissa Milne on the 40 Piece Challenge

Interview with Elissa Milne on the 40 piece challenge |

Elissa Milne is changing the face of piano pedagogy in the 21st Century. I love that she consistently thinks outside the box and proposes creative and brilliant ideas for tackling the challenges we have as teachers. Elissa is the creator of the 40 piece challenge and she graciously agreed to do this interview on this popular program that motivates students of all ages.

I am blessed to know and be friends with Elissa and I think you’ll be challenged and inspired to even better teaching when you read this interview with Elissa Milne! Elissa’s blog should be at the top of your “must-read piano teaching blogs!” Her remarkable insights come from both being in the trenches as well as her unique ability to see the big picture of piano pedagogy!

Welcome, Elissa!

1. Tell us briefly what the 40 piece challenge is!

The 40 Piece Challenge is a challenge to piano teachers and their students everywhere to learn more music! The number 40 was randomly selected because in Australia we have 39-41 school weeks each year, so the basic idea is to embrace a new piece of music each week, on average!

2. How did you come up with this idea?

It started back in 2001 when I read an essay written in the mid-1800s which complained about how hopeless it is when piano students spend all year learning no more than six pieces. To start with I assumed the essay had been written sometime in the previous decade, it spoke so clearly to the issues I was seeing in piano teaching wherever I went! Realizing that the piano teaching world has been in a repertoire-poor funk for 150 years gave me pause, and I began preaching the repertoire-rich word from that day forward.

I experimented with different ways of increasing my own students’ engagement with a broader selection of repertoire, and this was the prompt for my developing a repertoire series especially to address this problem. Hal Leonard Australia published the first three volumes in 2003 and teachers around Australia began embracing both the publications and the idea of students learning a LOT of pieces each and every year.

By 2004 this had turned into a 100 Piece Medal awarded to student who had learned, you guessed it, 100 pieces over the course of their studies. That year all my beginners learned at least 100 pieces! And the more advanced students had been working toward this goal for the previous few years, so pretty much everyone in the studio received this recognition!

Turning the concept into something achievable by any piano student in a single academic year, however, necessitated a smaller number. A colleague of mine, Samantha Coates, trialled a 50 Piece Challenge to great success, but 40 was a good match with the school year, so 40 was the number selected.

3. What are the benefits of the 40 piece challenge?

Interview with Elissa Milne on the 40 piece challengeSight-reading improves in an organic way – students are reading more, so they are reading better. And that holds true even if students learn some pieces by rote; the volume of material being covered means that students develop broader strategies for supporting their musical memories (i.e. reading!). Because it’s impossible to learn 40 pieces that are at the most advanced extremes of a student’s skill set, students take delight in learning easier pieces, and this has a range of positive outcomes: better reading being just one of them.

Students develop better learning skills, and that’s happening because they are practicing learning much more than before, and more regularly than before.

Another (in my opinion, amazing) benefit is that students experience a much broader range of repertoire when they are learning a high volume of material. Instead of being an early advanced student who has only played a handful of Baroque pieces before, students might now attempt their first Bach Prelude and Fugue with 30+ quality encounters with the sound world of the Baroque behind them. This makes a massive difference in terms of a student’s stylistic sophistication.

But maybe the best outcome is that students are far more enthusiastic about learning new music. With each new piece just being a tiny part of the mosaic of their learning, there’s less investment in only learning the pieces they feel extremely passionate about from the get-go, and this creates increased opportunities for discovery and learning about the world.

4. Teachers often ask, “How can we get through enough music in one lesson to do this?” Can you give us some tips?

We need to be honest with ourselves: a half hour piano lesson is never going to be enough. Not if we want our students to develop life-long skills. But sometimes that’s all we have!

The first tip is to carefully curate the music the student is being assigned – mix up the degree of difficulty. It’s very easy to power through a number of new pieces if they are easy enough.

By the same token, students thrive on mastering challenging work as well, so it’s about balancing the workload in the lesson, and across the academic year. One week spent working on a difficult performance piece, and that alone, is fine! Just be aware of how the weeks are passing and make sure you’re structuring in some weeks for truly doable one-week pieces as well!

Another tip might seem obvious, but it’s worth saying anyway: give students the choice as to whether they think they’ve prepared something well enough that week to spend time looking at it in the lesson. It’s really easy to spend a lesson practicing with a student when we could, instead, be empowering them to manage that practice at home by running through strategies that work for learning each specific piece.

Which leads to my final, and important tip: remember to teach different pieces differently. Some pieces suit simply being assigned for the student to master on their own. Other pieces are best introduced through improvisation before the score is ever sighted! And other pieces are best learned when the student has the sound of the music in their imagination before they ever begin. Think about which strategies for introducing the music are going to be the most engaging and the most efficient.

And remember: efficient pretty much always means both you and your student are having more fun!

5. Since you are the creator of this, you’ve obviously been doing this the longest. What long term effects are you seeing in your students that those starting out might not see?

There are students who have grown up with this approach who are now teachers themselves! They can’t imagine the tedium of learning even as few as 12 pieces a year! The best impact, in my opinion, is that this approach results in confidently independent learners, students who can source their own sheet music, and who can tell at a glance what good writing looks like – an important skill in this internet age where the quality control is squarely in the hands of the consumer rather than something we assume publishers have taken care of on our behalf!

6. Have you noticed any downsides to the 40 piece challenge?

No downsides.

New certificates for the 40 piece challenge plus an interview with Elissa MilneBut the 40 Piece Challenge is not an appropriate structure for all students – and I really do mean this!

There are students who, for whatever reason, really won’t be doing any practice very much between lessons. Maybe they live one week in a house with a piano and the next week in a house without. Maybe their dad comes home from work exhausted at 6pm and can’t tolerate the sound of piano practice in the house (sounds a bit 19th century? I’ve had a number of students with this problem!). Maybe the student is wildly over-scheduled and they truly only have two opportunities a week to get serious practice done. Whatever the reason – this approach simply won’t allow this kind of student to experience growth, because they need the piano lesson to deliver something different than what we’re expecting a piano lesson to deliver to a student who can and does practice (even if it’s only a couple of hours a week).

7. What kind of criticism have you received about the 40 piece challenge?

Maybe I’m just not good at remembering criticism?! I’ve had people express healthy skepticism, but I can’t recall a criticism from anyone who has actually tried it.

I do get a lot of questions, however, and I find that when teachers are genuinely struggling to implement this approach it’s almost always because the expectation of the teacher and student is that the pieces will all be difficult!

8. What is the most convincing argument (or compelling story) for using this challenge?

Different teachers will be convinced by different arguments, but to me the most compelling evidence for the benefits of a repertoire-rich approach comes from the happiness levels of students. Students who play lots of music feel happier than those who don’t. Simple as that. And I’m big on happiness.

9. Does it ever get old? How do you keep it fresh if you do it each year?

If this is the only thing a teacher is using to structure the learning experience of the student, then sure, it’s going to get old. But I don’t see this approach as being a novelty per se: it’s an ethos, not a motivational technique.

Each year in my studio new themes are selected (my mum, Anita Milne, curates these themes, and she always chooses inspiring concepts!) and students work toward recitals based on these themes. In addition, students in my studio work toward external assessments, when we feel the time is right, so the thrill of these external validations is a completely separate aspect to the student’s learning year.

But no matter what, students learn lots of music. And once they’ve experienced how rewarding that is, it’s hard to ever go back.

Wow. I hope you are as delighted with this interview with Elissa Milne as I am! I want to thank Elissa for all of this helpful information and for all the things she does to help teachers understand the beauty of repertoire-rich teaching. Elissa Milne, you are one in a million!

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