Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Practice Incentives

Let’s Talk Turkey, a practice contest

What’s one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in a private music studio?

In a word, practice.  I find that most of the time, students have a hard time getting their practicing accomplished.  Oh, they love to play, but practice?  No way!  I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only teacher that experiences this struggle.  And to be completely honest, I remember not wanting to practice when I was in school, either.  But you love your students, they have oodles of talent, and if they actually practiced, well, they probably would be amazing.  But in this world we live in, in my opinion, students are highly overscheduled.  Between sports meets, play practice, church events, band camp, and more, there is little time and energy left for them to spend any amount of time with their instrument.  So I am constantly looking for ways to motivate, inspire, and teach them how to practice.  Here are a few recent ideas that I have come across.

Contests.  Some students thrive on contests and competitions.  The trick is finding a contest that all your students can participate in, no matter what their level.  Right now, I am running a five week contest called “Piano Olympics.”  I know there are other teachers capitalizing on Olympic Fever, but here’s my take.  Each week the student can earn one point for attending their training session (a.k.a. piano lesson), one point for accomplishing their personal training goals (ah – practicing according to the agreed upon expectations), one point for their five finger challenge (learning the scale for the week), one point for memorizing a piece of music (it could be anything we have ever worked on), and one point for completing their bonus challenge (a worksheet or game that we do during the lesson).  Each week they can earn a total of five points.  Twenty points or more nets them a gold medal, fifteen to nineteen scores a silver medal, and less than that is honorable mention, because I want everyone to be recognized for something.  The medals are actually little plastic medals from Target and you can put anything you want on the inside.  Last year, I did a contest called, “Let’s Talk Turkey” which was similar in structure, but focused on Thanksgiving.  Students that are contest driven will do the work just to get their points.  I like to keep it simple and of course, fun. 

Prizes.  Some students just love prizes.  Don’t you? So I have a prize box with little goodies in it – leftover happy meal toys, party souvenirs from the party supply store, piano pencils, etc. Some students are eager to dig through and get a reward, while others aren’t too interested in a trinket, but will drool over a smelly sticker.

Music bucks.  This is a clever program that I have yet to try, but I like the idea.   Basically, students earn faux dollars during their lesson, for practicing, for musical knowledge, for attending, etc.  They can accumulate their ‘dollars’ or spend them at the ‘store’ for things like music supplies, music books, toys, games, etc.  I think I would name them “Bach Bucks” and print out fake money with Bach’s picture.  Prizes can be a little bit more elaborate since they wouldn’t necessarily get one every week.

Practice log.  For the technologically minded student, they can go onto their Music Teacher’s Helper student account and log their practice times as well as leave practice notes for the teacher.  It’s a great feature, although my younger students don’t spend much time on the computer yet.  For some, seeing their practice accomplishments is great incentive to keep practicing.

Specific instructions.  Rather than give my students a time limit for practicing, I would rather give them specific instructions.  It helps them feel like they accomplish something rather than sitting at their instrument, staring at the clock, waiting for the torture to be over.  Instead, I give them a very concrete set of instructions (like, practice this song 3 times hands separately, then 2 times hands together).  Students feel good when they can complete their work.  This is especially good for younger students who are very concrete in their thinking.  Requirement for lessons.  Some teachers just make a certain amount of practice required in order for a student to continue taking lessons.  And for some, it works great, although it’s not really my style.  I don’t like to put that much pressure on a student or their parents.

Recitals and juries.  The thought of having to play in front of others, not to mention the thought of being judged by others, is enough to get a student to practice.  The pressure of a recital is a great motivator for some, especially for those who love to put things off until the last minute.

Just for the love of it.  I have some students who just love piano so much that, most of the time, they practice diligently.  They don’t need awards, rewards, or accolades; they are self-motivated, happy with their progress, and just love music.

Shhhh….Your Piano Teacher Thinks This Is Practice… a new book I intend to add to my collection.  It’s a collection of engaging piano activities and exercises designed to end the piano practice battle.  You can see it at

It takes all kinds of students to have a successful studio, and so I like to vary my incentives and rewards in order to reach them all.  And while I wish they could all practice, every week, I know that life can get in the way.  So we do the best we can, inspire and motivate to the best of our ability, and spread the love of music in every way possible.  And that is far better than practice anyway.

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1 Comment

  1. » STG News Desk – 08-21-2012

    […] Good article from the Music Teacher’s Helper blog about giving your students incentive to practice – […]

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