My 20 Piece Polishing Challenge

While updating my student repertoire playlist on YouTube, I noticed that one of the videos that I selected was tied to a 40 Piece Challenge. Curious, I did a little digging.

It turns out that piano teacher Elena Fortin has been participating in these 40 piece challenges with other colleagues in the Art of Piano Pedagogy Facebook group for several years. They learn one piece a week and upload a performance of it at the end of the week. 

What a great idea for us music teachers to keep our chops up. Learning pieces in a short amount of time really forces a musician to practice efficiently. 

Lately, I've been working more on collaborative music. My brother and I have had fun working on music by Pia no Jac. I played and sung at a friend's wedding recently and have been doing more of that in church choir. Then, there are the various VGM and J-Pop projects that I have been doing with my buddy, the Animal Alchemist. In most of these cases, I utilize my technical, improvisational and sight-reading skills more than anything else. As much as I hate to admit it, I'm getting a little rusty at taking a solo piece - especially a classical one - and polishing it up to performance standard.

With more of my students moving up to the upper intermediate and advanced grades, I myself need to get back into shape. Sure, I know their pieces well enough to teach them, but they are by no means polished. Nor do they need to be, but what better way to get my solo piano polishing skills back up than by starting with my students' pieces?

Setting up my 20 Piece Polishing Challenge

I set up the parameters for my 20 piece challenge as follows:

  • Polish 20 student pieces between now and August 31, 2018.
  • Record polished performances of the challenge pieces and upload them onto the Studio's YouTube Channel.
  • Pieces must not be ones I have previously learned and polished up to performance standard (that will be another self-imposed challenge).
  • Pieces must be between Grade 7 - 10 level in the Royal Conservatory or Conservatory Canada (Traditional or Contemporary Idioms) syllabi.
  • Repertoire must be for solo piano.
  • Memorization is optional.

As I have to juggle this project with the rest of the repertoire I'm working on, I'm not going to pin myself down to spitting out a piece a week. I have had plenty of practice speed learning pieces and getting them to "good enough." I need more practice getting things to a much higher level. Some pieces will take me just a few days to polish while others will take several weeks.

Perhaps I'll participate in the 40 Piece Challenge next fall but for now, this seems like a good way to get back into shape while being able to help my students with their repertoire even more.

20 Piece Challenge Video #1: Disco Visit

About Disco Visit

Composer: Mike Schoenmehl (b. 1957), Germany

Source: RCM Level 8 Etudes

Notable Score Markings: Einleitung, MM ♩ = 84 - 92, straight eighths at the start. "With a heavy groove!" at bar 5.

Prior Experience with the Piece: Minimal. I sight-read it when I first bought the Etudes book at the beginning of the school year and immediately thought it would be a perfect fit for one of my students. I was right and she's going to start working on it later this year.

Learning Challenges: syncopated rhythm, leaping bass, repeated large chords and octaves, hand coordination, speed

My Disco Visit Journey (AKA, "Practice Log")

Day 1: Ran through the entire piece. Reviewed patterns and structure. Identified rhythm and coordination trouble spots (bars 9 - 12 and bars 17 - 19). Drilled them by tapping and counting out the rhythms, playing hands separately and then hands together several times. Got the first spot clean and consistent. The second? Still working on it. #awkwardchords #syncopationproblems

Day 2: Checked to see if I could get the easier bits up to 84 beats per minute before drilling the fingering fingering on bars 17 - 19 and 21 - 24 until I had better consistency than the previous practice. Drilled the trouble spots at the piano with and without the metronome. Did full run-throughs with and without metronome at 60 - 69 beats per minute. Holding steady.

Realized how easy the patterns were to memorize and began to memorize the music in four-bar chunks. Tempo shot up to 72 - 80 beats per minute as the memory improved. Did periodic memory and speed drills in between bookkeeping and errands, getting obsessed with the idea of reaching 84 beats per minute by the end of the day. Stopped after realizing that trying to get two pieces with large chords up to speed was beginning to take its toll on my right hand and arm. Will need to rest my arm and break things down slowly to memorize "release all tension" spots. So much for practising the big chordal section in Typhoon today.

Day 3: Rested the piece. Worked on Typhoon instead as I performed it later in the day at the studio piano party.

Day 4: It was a light practice day as I wound up suffering from a bad case of eye strain from using the wrong glasses at work the night before. I simply ran through the trouble spot between bar 17 - 19 by memory slowly, and in a darkened studio (which really forces your aural and tactile memory to kick in). I made a point of really relaxing my forearm during those eighth rests. I even tried with my eyes closed.

Day 5: It's my lesson prep/housecleaning day, so I alternated between drilling my memory stations and cleaning my house. I recorded my final round of memory and tempo drills to show how I worked on the hardest part of the piece (click here for the practice video).

Then, it was time to record. Here's my video performance of Disco Visit:

I've got Easter Triduum music to focus on and Typhoon to finish learning this week, so it may be a couple of weeks before I get another challenge piece up to snuff. You can follow my progress on by checking out these two playlists:

Check back here for my thoughts and musings as I work through the pieces.