Do you use an incentive program in your piano studio? Incentive programs can be a useful way to motivate and encourage students to be diligent and productive with their practicing. More importantly, an incentive program can help emphasize the behaviors or goals the teacher expects from the student. Below is information about how I designed an ongoing incentive program for my students.
Growing up, I recall my piano teacher implementing a number of different programs while I was taking lessons — unfortunately, she never stuck with one long enough for me to earn a prize very often. A good incentive program must be simple enough for the students to understand, and cannot be too time consuming as to take up a lot of the lesson time. It needs to be easily attainable, otherwise students will give up on ever earning a prize.
Most incentive programs are based on the number of minutes or days that the student practices. A weakness of this approach is that the older students might be more likely to win prizes more often than the younger students, which doesn’t seem very fair, especially since the younger students are the ones who can most easily be influenced through the use of an incentive program. In addition, this approach does not guarantee that the student practicing productively – that is, troubleshooting and solving problem areas, rather than mindlessly playing through their pieces.
For the above reasons, I designed my incentive program to be based on the number of pages of music they master. For example, if a student “passes” a three-page song from their Lesson Book, they earn three stickers. Each page completed form their theory book also earns them stickers. Stickers are also awarded for each page of music memorized, each page of counts written into the music (1…2…3…4…1…2…3…etc.), or any other task that I determine. No matter what the activity, it’s simply 1 page = 1 sticker.
I place the stickers onto index cards that have the students’ names written across the top. The index cards are organized in order of my schedule (Monday students, Tuesday students, etc.) so that it is easy to flip to the next student when they arrive for their lesson. The index cards can be stored in an index card box or in an index card binder (I bought mine at the dollar store and I use a hole puncher to create refill cards).
When a student earns 30 stickers (3 rows of 10 stickers) on their index card, they may choose a prize from the the prize box at the end of the lesson. I use small stickers that fit well onto the index cards. I also allow students to put a larger sticker directly in their books for the piece of music that is “passed.” Once an index card is filled, we start a new one.
My prize box is a clear purple, plastic shoebox decorated with music stickers. I regularly restock the prize box full of inexpensive trinkets – such as little notepads, colored pens (usually 2 or 3 rubberbanded together), bouncy balls, matchbox cars, keychains, animal puzzle erasers, trinkets from thepracticeshoppe.com, etc. (see here or here for photos of prize box items). I generally limit myself to spending a dollar or less per item. I often find items at the dollar store, the dollar section at Target, or in the party favor aisle.
I have been using this incentive program for over five years now. I have found it to work well because it encourages students to practice with their minds fully engaged, consciously working towards the goal of “passing” their pieces. It is flexible enough to work for both beginners as well as intermediate students. The goal of 30 stickers is easily attainable, even for the younger students. It is simple enough that it works ongoing throughout the year, with very little investment of time on the teacher’s part.
If you want to alter this incentive program to suit your advancing intermediate students, I would create a second prize box with different prizes: for example, $10 iTunes gift cards. If you feel it is too easy for your advanced students to earn 30 stickers, you could increase the goal to 40 or more.
Having this incentive program in place helps my students learn to have the same priorities as me: progress and expressive music making.
What kind of incentive program have you found to work for your studio?
Update: Years later, read about the small tweak I made to my incentive program that makes it EVEN EASIER to maintain! Check it out here.