40 Piece Challenge

I am kicking off this year of lessons with a 40 piece challenge for my students. I have never tried something like this before, but have read a lot about it and think it will challenge my students and challenge my teaching. I knew my more advanced students needed to learn more music, but I wasn't sure how to motivate them to do it until I started reading about the 40 piece challenge. 

Elissa Milne, one of the main voices behind this now world-wide movement, writes about how it got started here: Where did the 40 piece challenge begin?

The idea is that for students to become better musicians and excel at sight reading, they need to be exposed to lots of music. Sight reading is one of those elusive skills that is hard to teach, but vital for a pianist. The more music a student sees and plays, the more likely they are to connect that music with other pieces they see, making it easier to play. When students only play 5-6 pieces per year, they don't have a broad foundation to stand on. Beginner students tend to play many pieces each year, each concept being taught using several pieces. But as students get more advanced, we give them harder music. Soon their music is taking longer to learn, so they are given fewer longer and harder pieces. That excellent foundation that they started with is not continued. 

I am bringing this challenge into my studio this year. I've have two different sets of rules, depending on the level of the students, and two sets of prizes as well. For beginners, they receive the prize only if they achieve the 40 piece mark (which I am almost positive they will surpass halfway through the year). For more advanced students, the threshold for a prize is 20 pieces, and after that each additional 10 will give them an addition to that prize. The advanced students can even go beyond the initial 40 and continue to add on to their prize. 

For the advanced students I created punch cards for each set of 10, with spaces for the students to write their piece when they start it, and a note to hole punch when they complete the piece. 

For the beginner students I bought wide Popsicle sticks and glass containers. As they complete a piece, we'll write the name on the stick and put it in the container. Each week I will ask them to select at random a certain number to review, in addition to their regular work. Knowing how to work review into my teaching has never been my strong suit, so I am glad to have found a way to build it into this challenge.  

My hope is that this challenge will help keep my students motivated to work on:

Sight reading


Reviewing "completed" music


I'll let you know how it went when the year ends!

Summer (finger exercise) Games

I've been noticing poor hand technique in some of my younger students for a while and trying valiantly to help them fix it. However, there are only so many analogies I can give and so many times I can remind them in each lesson and during each song to lift their wrists and bend their pinkies. After all, there are other things I am trying to teach them as well!

Good hand technique is something you have to consciously work towards until it enters your sub-conscience and your muscles remember what to do. It also means students need to spend a decent amount of time watching their hands to see what they are doing and correcting it if necessary. "But you told me not to look at my hands!", my students say when I ask them to watch what they are doing. I have to remind them that there is a time and a place for both looking at their hands and for looking at their music.

So to help them spend some quality watching their hands, I decided to dedicate this summer to just that: hand technique. And because the summer is a time that most students are less likely to practice and tend to miss lessons, I made it a game and added an incentive.   

(If this looks like a rug as a background... it is. The walls of the studio are covered with rugs, so I try to work with what I have.)

I've compiled eight exercises that they will play in four different keys. We'll cover all 12 five-finger scales this summer while they work through the eight exercises. They get two tries for each key and must play them perfectly (in all four keys) without any yellow card infractions (World Cup, anyone?) to complete the exercise. The infractions are:

  • flat fingers (especially pinkies)
  • heel of hand on the piano
  • incorrect rhythms
  • incorrect notes
  • inconsistent tempo

If that sounds a little tough, it is on purpose. This is my chance to demand excellence and get them to really think about what their hands are doing. 

Here's a look at the first exercise:

The circles under each key correspond to white keys and black keys. I have the students color in the circles that will be played as black keys. (I got this concept from Piano Safari and find it really helps the younger students to have another visual). The exercises gradually get harder, but every one of them is written in C major and is short enough to be easily memorized. 

While I intend to go over every key with my students, the last exercise is a review of the seven white key five finger scales:

Their prize is one homemade rice krispie treat for each exercise they complete by Sept. 4th. That's 10 weeks of lessons to finish eight exercises! I'm excited to see how they do this summer.  

PianoOpoly and Teaching Incentives

As I prepared for fall lessons, I read a lot about using teaching incentives with piano students. Some people are completely against them, others think they should only be used for a short period of time, while still other teachers always have some sort of game or incentive going in their studio. While I'd love for my students to just practice for the pure joy of learning piano and making music, the truth is no matter how good of a teacher I am, there will still be times they don't want to practice.

I still remember being 8 and having a timer set while I was practicing piano to make sure I stayed on that bench long enough to satisfy my parents and my teacher. I also still remember the rocket ship posted on my first piano teacher's wall. We were split into two teams and were competing to see who could make the rocket ships get to their goal the fastest. Suffice to say, I think for a certain age student, teaching incentives work wonders to get through those slumps of learning how to practice and why practicing is important.

Since most of my students fall in this age range, I decided to make a game for them this fall. My goal was to have a game that was: 

  •  portable (since I am essentially a traveling teacher and need to carry everything with me)
  •  applied to as wide a range of students as possible
  •  would cover a variety of subjects and skills
  •  and could be played for multiple weeks

Allow me to introduce: PianoOpoly! 

I based my board game around the idea of Monopoly (hence, PianoOpoly... creative, I know) basically only in the sense that students could go around the board multiple times, getting a prize every time they passed GO! The corners of the board all have bonus squares (kind of like the specialty corners in Monopoly), allowing the students to move extra spaces if applicable. 

Then I came up with questions applying to various things I thought my students should know. Some were purposefully difficult (What is the Tempo of Your Piece?), while others were really easy. In my planning, I actually rated them by difficulty to make sure I had a good balance. I also tested the board, doing practice rolls, to see how many "weeks" it would take to get around the board.  One time I made it around the whole board in one "week"! Good thing I knew this was possible, because one of my students made it almost all the way around on week! 

 After all this, I put the game into action with my students. I printed the game board and had it laminated so I could simply write their names into the appropriate squares with a dry-erase marker.  

Here were the results from this fall


  • All my students made it around at least once! (That was the goal). 
  • The questions were just the right difficulty. Not too easy and not too hard. They got stuck enough times to make them think without feeling like they would never make it around the board.  
  • It was portable! 
  • My students liked it so much, they would remind me when I forgot to have them roll their turn for their lesson. 

Feel free to use this with your students! I used it with students who were at least in Piano Safari book 2 (this can work with beginners who at least know their lines and spaces and some other important concepts).