Have you ever come across students who have been taught using the ‘three pieces a year’ model? The approach is closely connected to the exam cycle: start the year with three new piano exam pieces and repeat them until the exam is taken nine months later. 

Dr Sally Cathcart, founder and director of The Curious Piano Teachers, says, “Just imagine how horrified a parent would be if, at the beginning of the academic year, their child was only given three books to read! What’s more, their child wouldn’t be reading any other books, but would need to read those three perfectly by the end of the academic year. Before you read any further, pause for a moment and consider the effect of this approach. How would the child feel about reading after nine months on the same three books? How much would their reading/vocabulary actually improve? What would the response of a typical parent be?” 

There are alternatives to the three piano exam pieces a year approach. To inspire you, here are some different ideas members of The Curious Piano Teachers having been trying out:


Not just piano exam pieces…Close up of a 7-year-old’s 40 Piece Challenge sheet completed with the songs he is learning, downloaded from ComposeCreate.

The 40 Piece Challenge is a great way to help students explore repertoire other than their piano exam pieces. We love this free download from Wendy Stevens’ ComposeCreate.

Joanna Garcia

If pupils are only learning three piano exam pieces a year, they are by definition too difficult.

I don’t have a hard and fast rule. I just go with what students need as their next learning step. Sometimes that’s a new concept; sometimes it’s consolidation. Psychologically, I like to strike a balance between quicker, one-week learns, which allow rapid learning because they are bite-sized and highly attainable for the students. At other times, we may have a longer project on the go, that develops over time. 

Sometimes we might call it the “Play Often Please” piece, and we enjoy the benefit of seeing it develop incrementally over a few weeks. But it all depends on the learning! If I’m wanting to help my pupil to learn about wrist rolls/lifts, I will start by thinking about different ways to communicate and practise that, which is not solely through pieces, but through improvisation, watching and commenting, listening like mad, applying to known pieces, etc.

I think getting away from the “what piece is next?” model is the most effective and liberating thing we can do as piano teachers. Joanna Garcia

Julie Cooper

I continue to introduce new repertoire as ongoing e.g. ‘A Piece a Week’ by Paul Harris, [and] short pieces alongside longer ones for more advanced students, or studies, improvising and learning to play chords. [This] keeps the students’ reading skills active and adds variety and interest in lessons, and in home practice.

Julianne Ingram

I’ve been doing a ‘Personal Repertoire Challenge’ with a goal of 250 pieces across the year [by adding up pieces completed by all the students in the studio]. There’s enough room on the chart for students to sticker off 20 pieces (small celebrations every 10 pieces). When they fill up one line, they get very excited to write their own name on a new line. Some students get to 6, others get to 40+, but they all count towards the studio goal, thereby contributing to the team. As well as regular repertoire, students’ own creations/planned improvisations are also countable as long as they are musical and/or convey specific characterful intent.

Genevieve Frost

I love the 20/30/40 piece challenges. [They] help students stay motivated because they can see their progress and don’t get stuck with the same pieces for too long or pieces which are constantly challenging them and stretching them to their absolute limits. It also stops me being too perfectionist about the pieces they learn! Without it being competitive, they also get a clear sense of how quickly they are progressing in relation to their peers. 

I use the ‘piece a week’ books with some students, but also dip in and out of their earlier books. Rote, improvisation and easier pieces [are useful for] teach[ing] new concepts before approaching a more challenging piece that contains those same concepts. I like to make sure we have time for lots of seasonal repertoire. 

After taking an exam, I encourage students to play at least 20 pieces at or below level before they stretch up again and a minimum of 6 new grade level pieces before preparing for an exam ideally. This gives plenty of time to consolidate and level up on the technical and theory whilst students enjoy simply playing with the skills they have acquired.

Angie Tse

We have 40-piece Challenge running on a roll-over basis (lifetime totals) with all pupils…It is crucial to prepare [them] – it can be a huge shock and a quick failure if a pupil who has been used to working on 3 pieces a year [is] suddenly faced by this huge number! For a teacher like me, who only teaches on average 32 lessons a year, it doesn’t take a maths genius to work out that pupils have to self-learn a whole lot – and will have to achieve this through a mix of repertoire difficulty – with a whole load that are either within comfort zone or slightly easier than that, in order to hit the 40-piece target.

It is not unusual for my Elementary pupils to be working on exam repertoire and technical work, while having a list of 5-7 quick learning pieces on the assignment. I will hear the quick learning piece either when the pupil says it’s ready…or when there is a problem that requires my input. A prepared 8/12/16 bar improvisation/composition based on another piece also qualifies. So are sight reading specimens (2-3 specimen exam reading extracts making up a total of 12-16 bars) or learning a lead sheet and accompanying it with chords or even play-by-ear pieces…Recently, I restarted my piano groups (pairs) face to face again – so duets and trios are definitely part of the repertoire challenge.

Pupils develop independent learning skills to tackle many pieces at a time and they work out very quickly that they have to practice effectively [even] to [complete the easier pieces quickly]. Their practice duration also extends…

Have you ever asked pupils and wondered why they cannot tell us what music they prefer? They will have great difficulty in developing a musical preference if all they know is three pieces they’ve been perfecting in the year.

Angie Tse

Veronica Tadman

I love setting challenge pieces – even for my absolute beginners. I might set out a few questions for their Musical Detective brains to kick in but all in all I leave them to it…With older students we set a goal date for them to have learnt their challenge piece and they have that amount of time to look at it and work on it. If they have any pressing challenges they can ask in a lesson, but I aim to keep these pieces easier than the level they are at so that this doesn’t happen, and they have a sense of achievement learning new pieces independently.

Why not let us know your alternatives to the three piano exam pieces a year model in the comments below?

For more practical piano teaching tips and demonstrations, why not sample a month’s membership for free? Click here for more details, entering the code LOVECURIOUS to claim your free month. 

This blog post was compiled by Hannah O’Toole, Community & Marketing Manager of The Curious Piano Teachers.


  1. Rosi Bryer

    I really like the idea of a “challenge” though haven’t decided yet how many pieces yet. As I have a large number of ‘challenged learning abilities’ I need to think carefully about what counts as a piece for some pupils,
    The idea of 3 pieces per year/grade …… no way. We learn most exam pieces and also choose some from the alternative listing. Inbetween grades I like to use Up-Grade books by Pam Wedgwood, Pauline Hall Jazz or Piano Time books, Keyboard Anthologies (ABRSM)
    and songs that the children and adults want to play.
    Have just taken on a pupil who is in the middle of preparing for Grade 3, 3 pieces …. and already brings Grade 4 book along…………………………..R

  2. Jason

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Of course, I agree that it’s important to expose students to a wide variety of repertoire, and to keep in mind that not every piece needs to be prepared to recital level. There are a couple of big “howevers”:

    1. It is incredibly motivating to get a true challenge piece. I have a student who is really at the level of Burgmuller’s Ballade who came in with Mozart’s Variations on Ah, Vous dirai-je Maman!” He *loves* this piece, and I can often use it as a motivator to get work done on his other repertoire.

    2. Some part of the lesson needs to involve artistry. Being able to play the piano truly well is also a great motivator, and very much of what we see with top performing children is not talent – it is teaching. But this necessitates spending months learning something.

    3. I worry that we can give kids the wrong impression about what learning is like. I don’t know, maybe you can get Chopin’s Ballade ready for a concert in a month, but I need several, at least. If students are preparing too many pieces per year, some may never get to know the great literature because it simply can’t be done that fast.

    4. On the younger level, as Dr. Julie Knerr so wonderfully points out in her teaching essays, review pieces are wonderful for keeping kids at the piano and building confidence and security. Care should be given to ensure that the lesson balances time for introduction of new material with time to hear old favorites.

    So I certainly agree with the overall concept: students *must* learn much more than a couple of pieces per year for an exam. But at least some part of their assignment should include repertoire that we intend them to spend a considerable amount of time with. I try to have in mind which part of an assignment is intended for memorization and performance and which is not, to keep my perfectionist tendencies in check. I think it’s also useful to have a document that lists every piece a student begins (once they’ve left the method books) to ensure the number of works studied isn’t too small.

  3. Caroline B

    I don’t do exams often as I think they slow up progress, but sometimes a student wants to do one or there is a good reason to. This term I started a student on grade 2 pieces and entered her for the exam before she even knew them! Coming up to 6 weeks later two are almost completely learned. I think this is the way forward for me now. Give students plenty of repertoire at different levels, blithe easier, harder and at their level and get the exam done and dusted in a term!


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