4 Components of a Good Practice Incentive

There is much debate in the educational community about whether to use extrinsic motivators (i.e. practice incentives) to encourage students to perform required tasks or meet certain objectives. Those in the non-incentive camp tend to assert that motivation should be intrinsic and that the completion of the task or the attainment of the objective is itself the best reward. Obviously, I am a proponent of using extrinsic motivators! However, I don’t believe that it has to be an either/or proposition. I think it is possible, and highly effective, to design a practice incentive that creatively instills motivation and ultimately capitalizes on the reward of [in this case] learning to play the music itself. That’s what I attempt to do each year with the practice incentives that I develop. This is certainly a challenge, but here are some thoughts on what contributes to a good practice incentive:

1. Age and Level Inclusiveness – the objectives should be structured in such a way that students of any age and level have equal opportunity to achieve the highest level. This is why the practice frequency aspect of my practice incentives emphasize number of days of practice rather than number of minutes – because an advanced high school student will typically have at least an hour’s worth of assignments, whereas a beginning 5-year old will have more like 15 minutes worth of assignments. For example, in the Let’s Have a Ball incentive, each student got to add a ball to their jar based on the number of days practiced. Skill-based aspects of the themes allow for variations based on level as well. For example, in a scale objective, the requirement could range from pentascales up to four octave scales in patterns, based on the ability of the student. However, completion of the skill requirement results in the same end reward, regardless of the student’s level.

2. Realistic and Measurable Objectives – the incentive has to be designed in a way that challenges the student, but makes them feel like it’s possible to be successful. For this reason, I encourage outlining smaller objectives that fit into a cohesive whole. Additionally, they must be able to measure their progress along the way, so the goals have to be concrete. For example, in the Climbing the Ladder to Success incentive, instead of just having an abstract goal like “learn a piece,” the student has a list of step-by-step points they can refer to so that it’s clear when the pieces have been officially learned well enough to warrant moving up to the next rung on the ladder.

3. Student Options – giving the students various objectives from which to choose encourages ownership of their goals and an increased sense of responsibility in their practicing. This might entail setting a specific repertoire-related goal, choosing from a list of technical challenges, or selecting a piece of music to sight-read, etc. The key is to somehow incorporate these individual options into an overarching theme that involves the whole studio. For example, in the Go For The GOLD! incentive, during each of the 5-week sessions, students had a list of extra activities they could do on their own to earn additional points for their team. Watching the team points accrue week-by-week on the wall served as plenty of motivation for the students to be constantly looking for ways to earn more points!

4. Rewards/Prizes that Contribute to Musical Growth – In many ways, the primary reward my students experience is that of having reached new musical heights or excellently learning and playing fun repertoire. The excitement of these incentives is driven more by the process and the experience than any tangible prize. “Prizes” might include attending a symphony rehearsal with me, going on a special invitation-only musical tour, or taking a trip to a recording studio. Whenever I do give tangible prizes, I opt for items like music dictionaries, a composer fandex, a gift card to the local music store, a customized gift I’ve designed especially for them (like these music manuscript books), etc.

Hopefully these are some helpful tips for those working on developing their own practice incentives. Can you tell I’m still absorbed in planning my studio practice incentive theme for next fall? I always love to hear ideas from others, so if you’ve got some ideas, please share! Are you planning any new incentives for the fall? What practice incentives have you found to be the most effective in the past?

Planning Next Year’s Practice Incentive

Things have been a little more sparse around here because I’m trying to plan next year’s practice incentive. Trying is the operative word. 🙂 For those of you who have been here a while, you know that each year I plan a big studio-wide practice incentive based on a particular theme. I really love coming up with new ideas each year, but it takes a lot of brainstorming, writing, planning, re-thinking, and preparing. I officially reserve the month of August for this purpose, but I like to start jotting down thoughts and letting various ideas percolate earlier in the summer so that I have plenty of time to solidify my plans and purchase and prepare all necessary supplies.

Something that is especially helpful to me in my planning is a set of questions that I ask the students on the Year-End Evaluations:

  • What did you like about [last year’s] theme?
  • Is there anything you didn’t like about [last year’s] theme?
  • Do you have any suggestions for future theme ideas?
  • What areas would you especially like to focus on improving next year?

Combined with input from the parents’ evluations and some of my own ideas and objectives, we usually end up with an engaging and motivating theme for the year. I have in mind what my theme title will be for next year, but I can’t say yet because I know that some of my students follow this blog and I wouldn’t want them to get the inside scoop ahead of time! 🙂

Monday Mailbag – How to Handle Non-Practicers

I am wondering about having a contract with my students, expecting a certain amount of practice commitment from them. I have one family, in particular, whose children seldom ever practice. This has been going on for approximately four years now. I have mentioned this to their parents and to the students. They always say, “Ok, we’ll have them practice more.” Nothing changes. I’m tempted to ask them to leave but I don’t want to hurt their feelings. Perhaps, if I had them sign a contract as the school year resumes, with guidelines to what I look for in their progress, I could let them go if they don’t meet those expectations. What do you think about that?

This is a tough situation. I will say that you are more patient than I am, though – I don’t think I would last four years in that sort of a situation! Here are some things I suggest. Some are preemptive; others are responsive:

  1. Conduct an initial parent and student interview and make it clear what the practice expectations are. Have them sign a commitment to practice consistently at that time.
  2. Have the student keep a practice record each week.   I develop custom pages to correspond to our practice incentive theme each year, but here is a sample Assignment Page/Practice Journal. I write the assignments in the open area on the left and then the student places check marks for each item in the column for the day that they practice it. They total the number of minutes they practiced at the end of each day, and at the end of the week, the parent signs off on it.
  3. Conduct Year-End Evaluations with the students and parents at the end of each school year. This helps the student and parent honestly evaluate their practice habits, and gives me a starting point for discussing changes that need to be made in order to ensure that more consistent practice habits are enforced.
  4. If during the year the student begins to slack in their practicing, alert the student and parent that if they don’t honor their commitment to practice consistently, you will have to let them go and make their spot available to another student. I know this is really, really hard to do! I’ve had to do it a couple of times, and one time I did have to let a student go because he just wasn’t practicing or progressing.
  5. If you would rather approach this from a different angle, you could try incorporating a fun practice incentive into your studio, or you could schedule regular group performance events that might motivate them to practice more consistently. Try to tap into the interests or opportunities that will motivate those students. The hard thing is that you’re working against four years of them establishing a pattern of not practicing, so it will be difficult to counteract that. Part of the motivation that drives practicing is experiencing the exciting rewards of consistent practice habits. If you can provide the impetus for them to experience that, even for a couple of weeks, that may be enough motivation to keep them going.
  6. Finally, I would say, yes, definitely have them sign a contract or do something to ensure that you’re all on the same page as far as practice expectations. Then you’ll have something concrete to help both the students and parents remain accountable for that commitment.

If anyone else has thoughts on how to handle non-practicers, please jump in and share them!

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

MTNA Conference 2010

MTNA has announced their 2010 conference:

Take a trip down Route 66 as MTNA heads to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for this year’s National Conference, March 20–24, 2010, at the Hyatt Regency and Albuquerque Convention Center! This year’s conference highlights include:

  • Evening concerts by pianist Kevin Kenner and cellist William De Rosa, the American Pianist Association Fellows and the winners of the Canadian and United States Chopin Piano Competitions
  • MTNA Student Competitions
  • Pedagogy Saturday
  • Educational sessions
  • Teaching demonstrations and master classes
  • Industry showcases and Exhibit Hall demonstrations
  • Nearly 100 exhibitors

Since I didn’t get to attend the Atlanta conference this year, I’m thinking about trying to make it to Albuquerque in 2010. Anyone else making plans to attend?

Monday Mailbag – Discontinuing Lessons

When you charge by the month and someone wants to quit at some point, how do you reconcile with previous months, or do they just finish out the month?

This is the way my policy is worded:

Dismissal
If any of the following situations persists after I have notified you and provided time to correct it, I regret that I will have to dismiss the student:
The student demonstrates a lack of enthusiasm and willingness to participate during lesson time
The student consistently fails to show diligence and determination in home practice
Lack of dependability and commitment exhibited in persistent absences or chronic lateness
If you choose, for whatever reason, to discontinue lessons, please give at least one month’s prior notice. I will do the same.

You can view my whole studio policy on my piano studio website.

So yes, I do have them finish out the month. It’s basically my policy to never give refunds for any reason. I offer makeup lessons as I am able to, but if you get into offering cash refunds (or even lesson credits) bookkeeping becomes really hairy – at least for me! I’d rather not have to deal with that, and instead do my best to offer my studio families such a great value for their money that it’s no big deal if they miss a lesson here or there. They are still getting their money’s worth because of all the extra things I offer at no additional charge. That’s my philosophy, anyway. Does anyone have any other thoughts on this issue?

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

Piano Camp Lesson Plans

Piano Camp Lesson Plans
This is the daily outline for our week-long piano camp, with lots of hyperlinks to correlating resources and websites. If you’re interested in planning a fun, memorable Piano Camp for your own studio, this will give you the information and tools you need. The outline is succinct and easy-to-follow. It can be implemented “as-is” or adapted to incorporate your own ideas.

To make this even easier to implement, I’ve decided to offer a special deal: if you purchase this outline by the end of July, I’ll also send you for free the 26-page student workbook that I’ve already compiled from the resource links outlined in the lesson plan! Just place your order, and as soon as I receive the notice, I’ll send the workbook file your way!

Piano Camp – A Game and Final Performances!

For our final day of Piano Camp, I decided to switch things up just a little and play a game to start off the lesson.

Since we were focusing on relative keys today, I printed off a copy of my Major Minor Scale Matchup Worksheet on cardstock and then cut it into rectangles with one scale per piece. I distributed the pieces to the students and had them write the scale names, using the patterns from the previous two days to determine if a scale was Major or minor.

Once all the scale names were written, we mixed up the cards and then layed them out for a fun (and long!) game of memory.

Also, today I had each of the ensemble groups perform their piece for the rest of us. For one week’s worth of practice, I think they all did a pretty good job. And I think each of the groups are planning to keep polishing up their pieces so that they can play them at our September Surprise kickoff event. Here are video clips so you can watch each of the performances:


Noelle and Luke play Important Questions, from Simply Silly Duets by Kevin and Julia Olson. Even though Luke still has trouble with music notation, he loved this piece and really got into the feel of it!


Naomi and Isabella play Smile, Op. 280, No. 1 by Ernesto Becucci, from Easy Classical Piano Duets for Teacher and Student, Book 3.


Joey, Graham, and Ryan did a super job working together on Camptown Races, Arr, by Carrie Kraft. But I think they had the most fun planning and rehearsing their special surprise ending! 🙂

Next up, I’m planning to post a Piano Camp 2009 Resource list with quick links to all the resources I used to plan this year’s camp…

Piano Camp – Composer Spotlight!

We just finished our third morning of Piano Camp. Hard to believe we only have one day left! One of our daily activities is a Composer Spotlight. I wanted to highlight some of the lesser known composers, and also incorporate aspects of how they used their music to glorify God. I already had on my shelves the perfect book to accomplish this dual purpose: Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers by Patrick Cavanaugh. So, for about 15-20 minutes at the end of our time, I read the story of one of the composers while the students color the picture of that composer in their workbooks.

I selected Haydn, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, and Ives as our composers for the week. Several of the coloring pages came from this page of the Making Music Fun website. For the ones I couldn’t find, I used detailed portraits and then had my sister convert them into coloring pages using her design software.

Here, Luke and Graham display their colored pictures of Haydn. (I found out how much my students love coloring when I did a Carnival of the Animals Piano Camp two years ago.) After I finish reading the story, I play one of the corresponding radio broadcasts from the Classics for Kids show. I also included the correlating activity sheets produced by Classics for Kids in each of the workbooks. They can work on these if there is any extra time after they’ve finished coloring, or they can do them on their own after Piano Camp is over.

To be continued…

Piano Camp – Ensembles!

Continuing with the Piano Camp theme for the week, here are a few pictures from another one of our daily activities – ensemble playing! I played through a whole stack of ensemble repertoire last week looking for the perfect combinations for the group of students attending Piano Camp this week. We allocoate about 15-20 minutes each day to learn and rehearse their pieces. I make the rounds between each group, but for the most part just let them work on their own. This is always really motivating for them. They work hard to get their pieces down by the end of the week – an exciting accomplishment, to be sure!

Naomi and Isabella are loving this lively duet: Smile, Op. 280, No. 1 by Ernesto Becucci, from Easy Classical Piano Duets for Teacher and Student, Book 3.

These three boys are quite the trio! They all have strong personalities, so it’s definitely a challenge for them to work together, but they are doing a fantastic job! Their trio is part of the Keyboard Ensemble Series: Camptown Races, Arr, by Carrie Kraft.

I paired Noelle with Luke because I knew she’d be willing to help him figure out his notes and rhythms, and because she could easily learn and play the teacher accompaniment. They are playing the really cool-sounding Important Questions, from Simply Silly Duets by Kevin and Julia Olson.

To be continued…