Motivating younger students to practice — how do you do that?
My new year’s resolution this year was to get my younger students learning more quickly by motivating them to practice much more between lessons.
This was initially started by setting their goals, getting parents on board to help, and by weekly assignment ‘to do’ lists. Many helpful sheets are available online to fill in to help with all of that (*).
In my opinion, all of these are very important in order to start creating a suitable practice environment for the year. However, practicing their instruments between lessons was a challenge for most of my younger students.
Lack of motivation to practice has been an issue for many years, even with parental involvement. It is often a battle to get a suitable amount of practice time each day to see a marked improvement between lessons. Unfortunately, most young children are already over-scheduled, with many competing activities for their ‘spare time’, over and above homework from school.
Motivating them to practice daily was going to be a big challenge in today’s world. So this year I wanted to see if that on-going problem could be solved. Frankly, rewards such as ‘stickers or small gifts’ for students seem to be no longer enough. However, students still request stickers as a ‘well done’ for pieces completed.
A few of the younger students chatted with me to tell me how they were motivated to learn when studying. They told me about all kinds of reward charts both at home (from parents) and at school (from teachers). Students particularly liked to see their achievements compared with their peers up on the wall at school. That all seemed to make good sense. So I focused on finding a solution to find something that would appeal to many ages, for both boys and girls alike.
Motivating students — creating great practice habits:
Our modern world seems to need instant gratification for a task. It has seemed almost impossible to find a way to ensure consistent great habits are being created when practicing an instrument.
Having chatted with some of those younger students to find out what they enjoyed playing with, it seemed that earning small rewards building up to a greater reward worked best. This set me on a path to evaluate what I could purchase easily (as easy as stickers). That needed to be really inexpensive in itself, but would be a great motivator for my students.
So I came up with this …
- Firstly set some ‘rules/guidelines’(**) on paper and email parents in advance to get them involved (this is accompanied by a sheet of ‘practice guidelines’ for parents).
- Invite the younger students to a ‘free 15 minute open session’ on a couple of possible dates. Explain the rules and explain the concept, to get them on board and explain the idea.
- Create the ‘name tags and coloured lanyards’ to put up on the wall board with the students’ help. They choose the colour and help to make them.
- Create sections along the board for commitments to practice – 15 minutes a day is ‘Team Yellow’, 30 minutes a day is ‘Team Green’, 45 minutes a day is ‘Team Blue’, etc. A special tag is created for each student who practices the most minutes for the week (per Team).
- Start with a larger ‘coloured marker bead’ for the minutes the student has decided to practice. Important: they choose the number of minutes, from 15 minutes to over an hour. Students already made a commitment to practice a number of days per week when setting their yearly goals.
- Add beads onto each lanyard each week at the start of a lesson. This depends on the number of days of practice a student achieves each week (signed off by a parent).
Additional motivating ideas
Hang special tags on the lanyard for extra achievements such as:
- ‘Piano Maestro, Star of the Week’
- ‘Note Rush – level up’
- ‘Note Rush – under a minute, level 5’
- ‘Scales Challenge level reached’ (starts in April)
More tags will be available for my students, depending on what we are working on for the term/semester. We are also adding a ‘sight-reading challenge’ from May.
And the response from students/parents so far?
It has worked surprisingly well. Parents are really very happy to see their youngsters are practicing, quite often without even being prompted to do so. They are excited to see the progress being made in such a short space of time, just from a few beads!
My students’ parents no longer have a battle to get their children to practice. I do sincerely wish I had come up with this idea a long time ago…!
This works well for very young students (under 5) up to early teens, for both boys and girls. The choice of beads ranges from ‘sparkle’, ‘animals’ and ‘foam blocks’ to ‘footballs’ and ‘letters to build their name’.
After just one month, quite a few students have been happily come into lessons with a new enthusiasm. They are now saying “I practiced every day this week again because I want to earn the special ‘crystal bead’ (for practising every day for a month)”.
Competition is now also growing as students see each others beads growing showing they are working/practicing really well.
At the end of the year, students will be able to take their lanyard home to show others the year long achievements they have made. I anticipate that they may want to continue with a new lanyard again next year. We will see…. fingers crossed.
It is really very rewarding to see so much progress made already, in only two months so far.
What will this idea have cost me, their teacher?
Happily the cost of this incentive for the whole year will have been less than a 15 minute lesson fee. This is the cost for each student, in total, for the year. For me, this is a price well worth paying in order to create great habits for younger students, and happier parents. A great deal more is achieved musically, with fun along the way. FYI: As I already charge a ‘books and materials fee’ for the year in addition to the lesson fees, the cost of the beads will be taken from that.
We are all (parents, students and myself) excited to see such a great result in such a short time. Think what might be achieved if this momentum continues for the whole year!
Of course, this practice incentive may wear off after a while, but by then hopefully the practice habits will be well ingrained. Students will be seeing the fun side of practice and their goals met!
Would this idea be appreciated by your music students too?
Please do let me know if you have any ideas to share after reading this (***).
(*) Details of the goal sheets etc. are available to anyone who would like to request that in the comment section below.
(**) A page of ‘Guidelines’ for this practice incentive, showing beads awarded per practice day, is also available.
(***) A recent response to this idea was from a parent saying that they would like to use this idea for their child who is also needing some motivation to do their ‘Kumon’ sheets.