Are Your Piano Practice Incentives Fizzling? It’s Q&A Day!

Question: I’ve noticed some teachers have piano practice incentive themes.  Do you encourage practice this way, or do you think steady improvement is enough to motivate students to continue practicing?  I’d like to hear what you think of incentive programs.


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As I write today’s Piano Teaching Q&A on practice incentives, I’m about to begin a new exercise regimen (see pic)… I’ve actually got the DVD paused on the TV and my tank top on.  I’ve been an avid runner for many years… but I’ve also been pregnant for almost the entire last year (was it really only 9 months?!)  Bathing suit season is looming, and while I’m back to running again, it’s time to kick it up a notch.  While I’d like to believe that I’m going to be able to completely commit to doing it every day, I’m realistic and I know that’s going to be difficult. Anything you’re supposed to do daily (just like we want our piano students to practice) is hard to completely commit to.  However, what will make it easier for me (and for your piano students) are three things:

Number one: A way to measure progress. I’ve taken a “before” photo to compare as I set out on this new program (yikes…that was hard to do!) and I have a calendar on my fridge that requires me to check off each day that I complete my fitness tasks.  I’m a “list person” and to not check something off each day will drive me crazy enough to prevent that from happening.

Number Two: Someone to keep me accountable. This would be Trevor…it’s difficult to not stick to my goal when you’re married to someone who runs every single day of his life rain or shine (and where we live it’s a heck of a lot of rain!).

Number Three: A way of rewarding myself for a job well done.  There is a very cute pair of jeans that I regularly salivate over in the store that will make me look not at all like a mother of two.  They’re mine once I reach my pre-pregnancy weight again.

Piano practice is very much like exercise.  People yearn for the results, but results don’t come without hard work.  Daily hard work.  Without 1) a way to measure progress, 2) someone to keep you motivated and 3) a reward for a job well done, the daily quickly becomes every other day, and then twice a week and then…

Encourage Intrinsic Motivation

I’ve always been a firm believer in encouraging intrinsic instead of external motivation.  I’m not big on handing out candy and bribing with stickers.  As a teacher, I hope that my students will practice because they want to.  If their material is enjoyable, their lessons are exciting and they feel supported by an enthusiastic teacher, I hope that practice is something that will come easily to them every day.  But these are children, and intrinsic motivation is a fairly mature thought process. 

Alternatives To Practice Incentive Programs

At your studio, instead of having on-going practice incentives, encourage practice by:  

Measuring “piano practice progress” by regularly recording your students and making student CD’s, keeping an “anytime, anywhere” list of pieces they have perfected, making a big deal out of completing a method book and by regularly going back and reviewing old material to show them how much their skills have progressed (“Remember how this used to be difficult for you?!).  Keep new material at hand all of the time and don’t allow pieces to “go stale”.  There is always another piece that will teach the same concept if a student hasn’t quite “got it”.  Nothing kills practice faster than having the same old song to play every day for weeks on end.

Holding your piano students accountable by creating performance opportunities more often than just at Christmas and at the end of the year.  Use video recording, social media, master classes, small recitals, festivals….anything that gets them practicing for an immediate reason.

Rewarding practice in a thoughtful way.  It means so much more to a student to receive a special certificate in the mail (they never get mail!) than it does to grab a chocolate bar on their way out of the piano lesson.  Create special awards in your studio and bestow them upon your students regularly and in a genuine way.  Kids appreciate being appreciated.  

Occasional Piano Practice Incentives Are Okay 

Occasional incentive programs (like Christmas practice advent calendars) go a long way because they are occasional.  They’re a great way to change things up and keep that daily routine happening.  At our studio we introduce a themed practice incentive about every three months that lasts no longer than 3 weeks.  

With this combination, you are creating good practice habits that will be long-term.  Your students will be practicing for the love of the piano…not for the love of a lollipop…and that’s what we all hope to achieve at the end of the day.

Speaking of lollipops…bring on that DVD!

Looking For More Great Piano Practice Ideas?

In our guide “Piano Hands Shouldn’t Flip Burgers” we dedicate an entire chapter devoted to piano practice. The chapter, “Practice Shouldn’t Be Painful”, like the rest of the guide, will have a profoundly positive effect on the way you teach piano. Click below to learn more.

6 Responses to Are Your Piano Practice Incentives Fizzling? It’s Q&A Day!

  1. says

    After getting way behind on reading blogs, I’m catching up tonight on your blog posts from the last couple of months. Just wanted to say how much I’m LOVING your posts! They are so well written, varied, and full of insight and inspiration.

    As far as practice incentives…I am a huge proponent of them, but I can’t stand trinket/sticker-based awards programs. Instead, I prefer to use incentive themes as a way of building a culture of enthusiasm and excellence in the studio while also encouraging camaraderie amongst the students. The best reward is the accomplishment of musical goals and reaching a higher level of playing. But it’s also exciting for students to know that their hard work will earn them a spot on a trip to a recording studio, or entrance into a symphony rehearsal, or a custom-designed studio t-shirt, etc. Rewards can be very musically enriching and the incentive program provides a structure to help them develop discipline and work toward specific music goals.

    Thanks again for your wonderful blog!

  2. says

    I use an incentive program regularly. The rewards are toys, gift cards, etc. (I’m really liking the ideas above as an alternative). My Music Points program combines reward for practice and for progress and for music enrichment. I’ll just copy my list of what they get points for:

    Perfect Practice Week……………1pt.
    *met practice requirement stated in your
    Lesson Attendance …………………..1 pt.
    *for each lesson attended
    Music Mastery …………………….1 pt.
    *for each song passed
    Long-Term Progress ………………5 pts.
    * for completing a level of method books
    Attend A Recital or Concert…… 2 pt.
    *may be a student recital or professional concert;
    bring the program to lesson to verify attendance
    Learn About a Composer or Style of Music ……………………………2 pt.
    *Mrs. Brown has materials available for this.
    Please make arrangements to get this material
    before or after your class/lesson.
    Perform For a Small Group……… 2 pt.
    *minimum of 5 in audience; at least one person
    must be someone who does not live in your home;
    parent must send a note verifying performance
    Perform For a Large Group…………10 pt.
    *approximately 25, or more, people. This would
    include school talent shows, playing in church,
    our studio recital, etc.
    Perform in a Piano Festival or Competition……………………………20 pt.

    For younger students, who are developing daily practice habits, the “perfect practice” point motivates them to practice daily. I state the number of minutes and number of days they have to practice. For more advanced students (or those whom I suspect are lying on their practice log), I give them a list of things they must accomplish in their practice time…and explain to them that, at their level, the goal is mastery, not achieving a certain number of minutes.

    Students can turn in 40 points for something from my prize basket. Or, they can wait until they have 60 points, and cash in for a $5 gift card (I usually have some on hand to various places like Dairy Queen, Target, Sonic, etc.). Or, they can wait until they have 120 points and turn that in for a $15 iTunes card. (This last one is very popular with the teenagers).

  3. says

    All my pupils aged 14 and under get gold cards:

    I chose when they get them, so for scales, finishing a piece of music, writing music, doing things I did not ask them to do (rewarding independance) and if very young, for being well behaved!
    Once they have 25 they chose a prize from my goody box which NEVER contains food as do not want to associate food with rewards. It works really well


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