How Many Pieces?

One question that seems to frequently challenge teachers of beginner piano students is – How Many Pieces? It’s a compelling question because an optimal number of pieces may have a positive effect on beginner students’ musical development, while working on too few or too many pieces may unfortunately inhibit students’ progress. So – How do teachers decide the ideal number?

My approach to How Many Pieces is based on the way we gain fluency in speaking a language. At first, when we only know a few words, we use them over and over again. Repeating these same words over and over is essential because that’s how we increase our fluency with speaking. At the same time, we also gradually take on new vocabulary. However, what’s key in this process is that our fluent vocabulary is always larger than our new vocabulary. The amount of established vocabulary of words and expressions is always greater than the number of new words and expressions we might be attempting to incorporate. Also, when we acquire new vocabulary, we don’t stop using our fluent vocabulary. New vocabulary isn’t something we isolate from our fluent vocabulary. We continue to use and strengthen our fluent vocabulary as a kind of foundation for exploring new words and expressions.

To replicate this language-based approach to fluency, I work diligently to set up routines that promote the above ratio between fluent pieces/skills and new pieces/skills for my beginner piano students. The following dynamics are essential in supporting students’ musical development:

  1. Everything every week – Most importantly, I hear everything my beginner piano students know how to play at every single lesson. When I don’t provide follow up on everything we did from their previous lesson, students may conclude that it doesn’t matter whether they play all their pieces/skills at home or not. I watch the clock diligently to make sure I always have enough time.
  2. Engaging challenges – I introduce appropriate challenges to keep my beginner piano students engaged with their most fluent pieces/skills. Challenges may include activities like playing with eyes closed, looking away from the piano, standing up, playing in the high treble clef and low bass clef. I make sure students have valid reasons for continuing to play their fluent pieces/skills at home.
  3. Acceptable mastery – Knowing that students develop fluency over time, I don’t get bogged down with thinking that students need to play every piece/skill absolutely perfectly before going on to new pieces/skills. Staying on one solitary piece/skill until it’s perfect can be detrimental for students’ motivation. As an alternative, reinforcing an acceptable level of mastery in multiple pieces may soon lead to students playing with consistent fluency.

After six months of lessons, my beginner piano students can typically play a minimum of ten pieces consisting of hands separate exercises and melodies. As they progress to hands together pieces, their total number of pieces frequently increases to fifteen pieces (sometimes twenty) including a mixture of hands together pieces, hands separate exercises, and melodies. While it might seem impossible to hear fifteen pieces in one lesson, most beginner level pieces are thirty seconds or less, so responding to fifteen pieces is well within the limitations of a 30-minute lesson. Even when students make errors or perform poorly in specific pieces, I still have ample time to respond to everything.

What I appreciate is how this approach to How Many Pieces has several significant benefits:

  • First of all, because I’m attentive to maintaining more fluent pieces/skills than new pieces/skills, I spend the majority of the lesson time in affirmation of positive student outcomes. In other words, most of our lesson time is spent doing things students do well.
  • Secondly, by playing more fluent pieces/skills than new pieces/skills, students develop fluency in the repertoire they’re most comfortable with rather than repertoire with which they have the least amount of experience.
  • Thirdly, by engaging challenges in a number of confident pieces, this approach means that students can have lots of fun with their pieces/skills rather than focusing exclusively on the repetitious perfection of an isolated piece.
  • Finally, because students play lots of fluent repertoire, they always have something ready for impromptu performances, like when relatives drop by for a visit or their teacher at school makes a spontaneous request.

Many years ago, I asked one of my first year beginner students, “Why do you think I always hear you confidently play so many pieces every week? Why don’t I just check off some of them and never hear them again?”

Following several moments of thoughtful deliberation, my student replied, “Well… So I won’t forget.”

It’s a response that pretty much sums up the question of How Many Pieces. It’s one that I most certainly have not forgotten!