Tag Archives: maintain

Reflections on the 100 Piece Challenge, Part 2

In this post, I am continuing reflections on the 100 Piece Challenge that I started here.

I said in my previous post that pieces should be “ready to revive at any time” – this is what I mean by pieces becoming “a permanent part of my repertoire”. I would like to say some more about this:

  • For some of the major pieces that I learned in the distant past, a revival would take a very long time because I didn’t properly preserve the musical thoughts that I had at the time.
  • For each of the pieces that I learned during the 100 Piece Challenge, I know the exact fingering, shaping, balance, sound, etc. of each note – this is documented not only by the recording itself but by necessary markings in the score. I will show examples of some of my marked-up scores in the future to show what I mean. This leaves them ready to revive and re-memorize very quickly.

I still would like to have as many pieces as possible “at my fingertips” and “ready to play at any moment” – I want to see how far I can stretch those limits as well. However, it is not a requirement of any Challenge that I undertake. In fact, I should again note that it wasn’t a requirement in the first place, but is merely one interpretation of “permanent part of my repertoire”.

So, looking back at the requirements for the 100 Piece Challenge that I talked about in last year’s post, the three main rules were satisfied and I will continue to hold myself by these rules. Here they are:

  1. In the original 40 Piece Challenge, pieces are not required to be memorized. However, I must memorize all of my pieces.
  2. In the original challenge, one could move on from the pieces once they have been learned. However, I must keep all of the pieces in my memory. This means they become a permanent part of my repertoire.
  3. I saw that quite a few teachers chose to record themselves. I will give myself the same requirement and post all recordings on both YouTube and Facebook.

In that post, I mentioned some other points as well. For instance, I wrote, “Pieces can be very short as long as they are legitimate pieces of music. Many of the recordings I saw teachers posting were only one or two minutes long. There were also quite a few under one minute long.” I would like to elaborate on this comment.

Actually, there had never been any kind of rule set (either in the original 40 Piece Challenge or in my own 100 Piece Challenge) that there was a minimum length for the pieces.

  • A piece’s value, after all, is not determined by how long it takes to play it. Several Chopin Preludes, for instance, certainly take under one minute to play.
  • If a piece is short, a minimum time limit would probably encourage a slower tempo. And altering a piece’s tempo for the purposes of having it count towards a Challenge makes very little sense.

However, I found that there were at least two situations where the piece I wanted to learn – despite being “legitimate” (i.e. of real musical value, worth sharing with others, worth learning to improve one’s musicianship, etc.) – was both very short and relatively easy to learn, memorize, and record.

  • The first was when playing shorter compositions by undisputed masters such as Beethoven, Schubert, or Mozart. Pieces such as German dances, ländler, and minuets are examples.
  • The second was when playing pieces originally written by living composers for pedagogical / teaching purposes. For instance, I recorded many of the pieces from the Microjazz series by Christopher Norton. When I decided to increase the tempo of many of the pieces for my own musical and interpretational reasons, many of the pieces ended up even shorter than originally intended by the composer.

Since I found the effort and time to record most of these pieces to be much less than that which was required to record others, I (privately) created a new set of rules during last year’s 100 Piece Challege that explained how I would sometimes count two pieces as one piece. I still believe that counting each piece separately would have completely satisfied the rules of the Challenge, but I wanted to encourage myself to learn even more pieces. I also wanted to at least acknowledge to some extent that the difficulty of learning some of the pieces was less than originally anticipated.

  • If the piece is less than one minute long, it will be counted as only half of a piece (for the purposes of the total piece count – this does not mean that it is any less legitimate). A piece less than one minute long will be counted as one piece only if is it of exceptional difficulty to me or was unusually difficult to record (but the extra time and effort would have to be substantial for this exception to be made).
  • If the piece is one minute in length or longer, it will typically be counted as one piece, even if it is not particularly challenging to record. This is for two reasons.
  • First, it often requires more concentration to create a longer recording (i.e. to play longer without messing up!), even if the piece itself is simpler.
  • Second, the listeners will have more music to listen to when a longer piece is shared. In this simple way (even though it does not make the piece more “valid” in any way), a longer piece may be more substantial.
  • If the piece is more than one minute long but is unusually easy to learn, it may also be counted as half of a piece.
  • If the piece is unusually easy to learn even compared to other pieces counted as “half of a piece”, it may be counted as a third of a piece. Examples may include pieces originally intended for relatively younger children.

Since I still have many more things to say, I have decided to continue these reflections and new rules as another series of posts. Hopefully, these thoughts will be useful for understanding the mindset necessary for undertaking something like the 100 Piece Challenge and for constantly striving to find new ways to improve one’s musicianship, flexibility, and discipline in the process. I believe that the creation of, strict adherence to, and subsequent adjustment of self-imposed rules is crucial to success in endeavors such as this.

Reflections on the 40 Piece Challenge and the 100 Piece Challenge

A new year means that I had to decide whether to redo the 100 Piece Challenge or to issue myself a new Challenge. It also gives me a good excuse to talk about what I learned last year and to revive this blog yet again. For details about the 40 Piece Challenge I issued my students and the 100 Piece Challenge I gave myself, please see this post from exactly one year ago.

The 40 Piece Challenge was a big success with my students last year! Even though there were also a lot of students who didn’t pass, I can safely that for all of my students:

  • Sight-reading skills noticeably improved.
  • Ability to solve problems (both musical and technical) independently improved greatly.
  • There was a definite increased motivation to both bring current pieces to a high level and to continue to learn new pieces.
  • They became mentally stronger and better able to manage time.
  • Since they were exposed to more rhythms, coordinations, and different musical situations in general, they developed greater stylistic awareness and learned faster overall.

I have decided to continue issuing the 40 Piece Challenge to my students every year. Each student does the Challenge on their own time – in other words, their start and end dates vary a lot and they can restart the Challenge at any time.

With both the 40 Piece Challenge and the 100 Piece Challenge, I used many of the new practicing methods that I have been developing over the past two years. In the case of the students, of course, I taught them these methods in order to help them achieve their maximum potential. I hope to continue revising and strengthening these strategies and to finally write more about them this year. I also have confidence that many more students will pass the 40 Piece Challenge this year since they (and I) have much more experience now.

In terms of uploading the 100th video, I publicly competed the 100 Piece Challenge on October 20th, the 100th Piece being Chopin Prelude Op. 28 No. 15, the “Raindrop” Prelude. I uploaded piece #133 yesterday night (December 31st, 2016) as the final piece of the year. I don’t have a custom YouTube URL, but if you search “david chang 100 piece challenge” on YouTube, you will find all of the videos.

reflections

I have a lot of scattered thoughts and reflections about how the Challenge went. Some of these thoughts will directly address the requirements that I set myself in my post from one year ago. Some of them will ponder over what I learned from the Challenge – both the expected and the unexpected. And still other reflections will be on mental and emotional obstacles, what the purpose of the Challenge actually was, and how issuing a new Challenge is at all useful or relevant in the context of larger goals. Here they are in no particular order:

Regarding my saying in my original post that “I am able to learn music five to ten times faster” than before:

  • This is certainly no exaggeration at all in terms of the number of pieces I ended up learning, but it’s true that the length and difficulty of the pieces in a solo piano recital program are significantly greater.
  • I should also note, though, that in the past it would be months before I felt I could learn and memorize even a simple piece of music. It would take incredibly long to work out the technical difficulties, to make all of the musical decisions (such as shaping and touch), to feel like the memory is solid, and then eventually to get up the nerve to record and listen to myself. And then I certainly wouldn’t share or perform the piece once I had finished learning it. In this sense, the fact that I ended up able to share newly learned pieces so often truly supports my claim of “five to ten times faster” than before.
  • As a result, I feel much more confident now that my methodologies really do work.

In my previous post, I said regarding the 100 Piece Challenge, “I must keep all of the pieces in my memory. This means they become a permanent part of my repertoire.”

  • At the time, I meant that all of the pieces would be ready to play at any time, and indeed, for most of the year, I attempted to have every single piece from the Challenge (and others from before the Challenge) at my fingertips at all times.
  • If I had to have the first 100 pieces simultaneously ready to immediately perform in order to pass the 100 Piece Challenge, then I was in fact not successful last year (though I was close).
  • It is also difficult to give a strict definition of “ready to play”. To me, “ready to play” did not mean that a piece would be played flawlessly, but rather that the piece could be performed musically and convincingly without too many errors. But “without too many errors” can also mean many different things when you compare, for instance, an audience of laypeople with an audience of pianists.
  • As the Challenge went on, I found that I could maintain more and more music in a performable condition (over five hours at some points… for laypeople at least), but it became increasingly difficult to maintain ALL of the pieces while continuing to learn new ones.
  • I now feel that while keeping all pieces “at the fingertips” is possible, it is simply too time-consuming and takes too much energy away from learning new pieces and from achieving other goals.

I am therefore revising “permanent part of my repertoire” to mean “ready to revive at any time” rather than “ready to play at this very moment”.

  • “Ready to revive” could mean anything from 20-30 minutes of review for a simple piece to several days to a week for a major piece.
  • To make sure that the piece is ready for performance, it’s important to forget and re-remember it in sets several times (or many times) as described in my earlier posts, so it’s best to allocate a day or two to be safe if it’s an important performance.
  • I know that a lot of high-level pianists have a similar conception of how to maintain their repertoire.
    • Many learned their pieces well enough that they can revive them in a very short amount of time.
    • Having previously learned (and revived / re-learned) music so slowly, I always assumed that they had some sort of superhuman ability.
    • The way I learned pieces for the 100 Piece Challenge is so thorough, however, that I now feel confident in my short-term revival ability.
      • However, obviously technical difficulties can still arise if I didn’t solve all technical issues in the piece at the time of the learning / recording.

In my next post, I will continue my reflections on the 100 Piece Challenge.

The 40 Piece Challenge and the 100 Piece Challenge (2016)

The idea for my personal 100 Piece Challenge came from the 40 Piece Challenge, which was started by the amazing Elissa Milne. You can read more from Elissa Milne here. I am also very grateful to my friend Walter Aparicio, fellow pianist, for telling me about the challenge in the first place. Basically, the idea behind it stems from a problem that many piano students and teachers face. When a student begins taking piano exams, there seems to be no time to learn additional pieces, and the student ends up focusing on only three to six pieces the entire year. Elissa had the fantastic idea of using a repertoire-rich approach in which students must learn 40 pieces in one year. Here, I quote the results from her blog:

Students were sight-reading ridiculously well. Their initiative to source new pieces to learn had gone through the roof. The volume of pieces wasn’t slowing down their capacity to progress onto more difficult work. And when they did progress onto more difficult work they had this growing stylistic awareness that is the fruit of much experience. It was amazing!

The Cross-Eyed Pianist, another important blogger, had this to add: “Known learning outcomes from the exercise include improved sight-reading skills, greater independence in learning, and enhanced musicianship and music appreciation.” Indeed, the 40 Piece Challenge exploded in popularity and has been used successfully by many teachers worldwide.

I already am very careful that each of my students develops the skills they need to teach themselves music and play at a high level as soon as possible. And for about nine months now, I have been developing techniques – both mental practicing and other ideas as well – for learning and maintaining music as fast as possible while not sacrificing quality. By teaching the kids all of these techniques, I found that my students actually helped me to fine-tune said techniques and improve upon them week by week. (Sorry, I really do hope to blog more about those topics soon!) But I digress.

The point is: a lot of my students, especially those who have been studying with me for some time, are already quite independent of me. And the idea of having them learn many more pieces actually is perfectly in line with all of the techniques I have been teaching them over the last year. I am confident that they will reap all the benefits described above and also be much happier now that they won’t have to focus on only a few pieces. So, I did, in fact, issue them all the 40 Piece Challenge, and gave them all a sheet last weekend that I found online:

40piecechallenge

Reactions ranged wildly, but for the most part students were either indifferent or enthusiastic. I honestly was pleasantly surprised. The trick, of course, lies in continuing to give them those “challenge” pieces, but in also finding a lot of repertoire that is at or below their current skill level. In other words: learn a few big pieces while learning many small pieces.

The other part of the story is that teachers began giving themselves the 40 Piece Challenge. “After all, if my students can do it, shouldn’t I be able to as well?”

Keep in mind that at many music schools, the idea of preparing an hour-long recital of big pieces each year and then immediately forgetting all of the repertoire to learn new music for the next year is extremely common. The idea of learning music in addition to your recital repertoire sounds very nice, but often seems impossible. At least, it seemed that way to me. At this point, I don’t even agree with the idea of “completely forgetting pieces to make room for new ones” anymore, but that is a discussion for another time.

So it is not surprising, given their experiences as music students, that many teachers would ironically find themselves caught in the same trap that their students are caught in. From what I have seen, those teachers who managed to complete the challenge reaped many benefits of their own.

As excited as I am to give my students the 40 Piece Challenge, I have to say that I am just as excited to give myself the 100 Piece Challenge, in which I must learn 100 pieces in one year. As far as I know, this has never been attempted. I have a lot more time than most people since I teach mainly on the weekend and I purposely do not teach many private students during the week. In addition, since I feel that I am able to learn music five to ten times faster than one year ago, this is also a chance to prove that to myself. In a way, I have been preparing for this challenge ever since I started developing new practice techniques back in March. There are a few important rules that I am setting for myself, however:

  1. In the original 40 Piece Challenge, pieces are not required to be memorized. However, I must memorize all of my pieces.
  2. In the original challenge, one could move on from the pieces once they have been learned. However, I must keep all of the pieces in my memory. This means they become a permanent part of my repertoire.
  3. I saw that quite a few teachers chose to record themselves. I will give myself the same requirement and post all recordings on both YouTube and Facebook.

There are other things I would like to say as well:

  • I will allow myself to revive old pieces for this challenge (I saw that other teachers had also allowed themselves the same thing). In fact, as long as I do not have a recording of the complete piece on my YouTube channel, I can record the piece for this challenge. However, since I have posted quite a few recordings, quite a bit of my repertoire (and almost all of my recent repertoire) is ineligible.
  • I am not limited to classical repertoire. However, I must uphold the same high standards if I learn pieces of other genres.
  • Pieces can be very short as long as they are legitimate pieces of music. Many of the recordings I saw teachers posting were only one or two minutes long. There were also quite a few under one minute long.
  • For me, a “piece” means that it must typically be considered one complete piece. Many teachers that did this challenge would post separate movements of sonatas as “pieces”. Obviously, this makes sense because of the length of the sonata and I do not fault them for it. However, you would normally say that a sonata is only one piece of music. Thus, a Beethoven sonata that lasts half an hour is to me only a single piece. However, the 24 Chopin Preludes are 24 separate pieces despite their brevity (because we would refer to them as such).
  • I think that this entire process will make me much more comfortable with the idea of recording and sharing. I had avoided sharing more music before because it is too troublesome for me to sync audio from an external device to video and because I only have an upright piano at home in Westchester. But since this is not for an audition or any sort of formal purpose, I am content with just balancing my iPhone on a music stand and recording my slightly out-of-tune upright. 🙂 I have removed the pressure of a perfect setup, and it feels great.
  • I do not have the time to obsess over perfect recordings. I will try my best to produce quality recordings, but I won’t let my pride stop me from sharing. Because music is meant to be shared!
  • I basically have to record around two pieces each week.
    • The idea is not to start each week thinking: “What should I learn this week?” I am always learning many pieces simultaneously – some very challenging and/or longer and many that are easier and/or shorter. Some may take just one week to learn, while others can take six months, a year, or even longer. There will simply come a week at some point where I think, “OK, this is ready to record / perform now.” In other words: I have been working on many pieces to prepare for this challenge already. This is how attempting to learn 100 pieces is possible. I expect that many pieces that are not ready to record this year will also spill into next year.
    • I believe the key to success in this challenge is to constantly learn new pieces, constantly record myself, and constantly record as many pieces in advance as possible. I should be at least two videos ahead at all times… hopefully more!
  • I will not let this challenge interfere with the maintenance of all my other pieces, my musical standards, my constant volunteer-performing that I am doing with the wonderful organization Sing for Hope, my other musical goals, or any of my other goals. This challenge should be a logical complement for everything that I am already doing. If I approach it correctly, really shouldn’t feel any extra pressure. Rather, it should help me learn pieces even faster and feel even better about my playing.
  • I probably will not have enough time in 2017 to attempt a challenge like this since I am planning to apply for piano doctoral programs this fall. So this is the time to do it!

I hope to continue my long-forgotten posts about mental practicing soon. I will post updates about the 40 Piece Challenge I have given my students and the 100 Piece Challenge I have given myself every few months or so. Looking forward to a fantastic year of music!!