Designing an Incentive Program for Your Piano Students

Most piano teachers provide some sort of tangible reward to mark the achievements of their young learners. Stickers are traditional, and many of us adults still play music from sticker-riddled piano books from time to time. In fact, some piano teachers pour a great deal of time and creativity into crafting themed incentive programs.

There are also some who avoid incentive programs, arguing that learning music is its own reward. They may point to research showing that paying someone to do a task tends to decrease their motivation later when the rewards are stopped.

However, they often overlook the research that tells us:

  1. If you find the task boring, rewards make you more likely to choose to do it.
  2. If you find the task interesting, and the rewards are based on performance, they make you either more likely to do it freely, or they have no effect.

In short, meaningful rewards for achieving something you care about won't kill your enjoyment. And rewards for doing something that you're not immediately interested in will make you more likely to do it. And lets face it, our students' interest in learning music is often overshadowed by their dislike of regular practice.

In fact, the right incentive program can actually help foster a lasting love of playing music, by focusing on students on the most important and rewarding aspects of piano practice.

1. Remember what your overall goals are.

Starting with overall goals is important when designing any teaching strategy. We often struggle to get students to practice, so it's easy to say, "we need students to practice more." And it's true. Say we start with that, and decide to reward students based on how long they practice each day.

But consider the disparity between a student who mindlessly plays through pieces for an hour, compared to one who spends 10 minutes identifying and drilling challenging passages. Your incentive program may reward the first student disproportionately, while the second makes just as much progress, if not more.

So start with your main goal. As a general rule, the goal of piano lessons is for students to learn new pieces and improve their playing over time. How fast or slow may depend on the individual, but if nimprovement is being made, the piano lessons are probably not succeeding in their purpose.

Starting with the overall goals rather than the immediate problem helps focus us on what we truly want our students to demonstrate in order to get the rewards. 

That being said, maybe your students need a bit of a nudge to get them going - but even if you reward students for practicing every day, having an incentive system that also rewards progress towards musical goals is key to developing a love of learning music.

2. Reward real progress.

Having decided to focus on rewarding achievement, you need to decide what achievement is going to mean for your students. The ability to play a new piece of music smoothly with few mistakes? The ability to make a distinction between staccato and legato passages? The ability to improvise a more complicated melody over a 12-bar blues progression? The ability to vocalize a simple rhythmic figure using the "one-ee-and-a-two-ee-and-a" system?

Your incentive program is an opportunity to communicate what's important to learn. Learning to play the notes with minimal mistakes is a major challenge, and for many students that can start to feel like the end goal. However, you can offer rewards that are contingent on demonstrating a thoughtful approach to phrasing, dynamics and articulation. Just be very clear about what you're looking for.

As your students get more advanced and able to articulate their own musical goals, you can let them make a case for what achievements deserve to be rewarded - this gives them ownership of the process, and encourages thoughtful and self-motivated learning.

3. Make goals easy to achieve.

This is key. The reason that a good game is fun to play is that each immediate goal is a short-term goal. If you have to spend too long on one stage without any measure of progress, you're likely to loose interest.

If you want your students to attack piano practice like they do video games, think about how to break tasks down into small chunks. Joy Morin at Color In My Piano awards a sticker for each page of music that her student "passes," rather than the more traditional sticker-per-piece. You could also divide pieces by section, phrase, or number of measures. 

You can also have small achievements eventually add up to larger ones, so long as the system is easy to track. Perhaps a certain number of points wins them a badge, or (as with Joy Morin's system) a certain number of stickers wins them an inexpensive prize.

You could even explore apps that try to turn the tasks and achievements of your choice into video games! Habit RPG (shown below) lets its players earn "gold" by completing the tasks they've set themselves, which can be used to outfit their little adventurer.

You can even set it up so that the adventurer looses health if the student fails to sit down at the piano at least once a day! It works on computer, tablet or mobile phone, so it's easy to authorize your student to check of their "to-dos" during the lesson lesson if they use these devices.

If you're dismissing incentive programs as mere bribes to get students to practice, you may be missing out on the way that measurable progress towards goals can motivate and engage students. Learning music is a complex task, and any system that encourages students to see it as a series of small, easily-achievable chunks is not just an incentive to practice, but also a valuable teaching tool in itself!

Practice smarter.

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