Get top-notch student preparation with piano lesson weekly challenge

What would piano lessons be like for you if you didn’t have to give the usual reminders? You know the ones I’m talking about: cut your fingernails, remember to practice, finish your theory, sit with good posture. And more: count out loud, use the metronome, and then you cycle through the list again. And again.

This used to be me, too.

A couple of years ago I posted my lineup of candy jars on Facebook. My light-hearted comment read:

“All ready for this year’s candy challenge to reward my students for good lesson preparation. It’s amazing what a little motivation will do! Motivated kids are productive kids, and productive kids are happy kids. We get a lot done in a year all because of the chase for a few candies each week!”

A former student commented, “Can’t even imagine what I would have accomplished if you’d thought of this years ago 😂 It’s never too late to come back to lessons is it? Haha.”

There’s so much truth to her comment. In one simple, inexpensive incentive with the tiniest little rewards I’ve managed to accomplish many, many things with my students. I’ve always used my candy incentive as a motivator — as a small reward system.

The small rewards in turn help students to remember to keep doing them. No more broken record with the same standard messages piano teachers usually issue over and over! Once this incentive is up and running for the year, my students and I cruise along with a marked upward trajectory and well-formed good habits.

Moreover, my students now get weekly feedback on their progress in a way they can easily understand.

The candy challenge

There are five possible candy colours* that can be earned in a lesson, and each colour symbolizes a specific good habit, effort or work I want to reinforce and reward.

  • Red = Prepared for lesson (clipped fingernails and all books remembered).
  • Orange = Practice goal reached and recorded (individualized for each child).
  • Yellow = Theory complete (includes flash cards), sometimes a keyboard harmony exercise.
  • Green = Posture good through lesson.
  • Purple = ______ (Fill in the blank. The final colour is unspecified and can be adapted depending on what the child needs to develop.)

*Depending on the kind of candy there could be other colours (sometimes pink, sometimes blue). The goal is to try to have five different ones.

How we keep track

I’ve built the five goals right into my piano lesson sheet. I print these in my Piano Playbook (I blogged about it in DIY Piano Dictation Book: your professional communication tool), one page per week.

You’ll notice in the upper right hand corner a rectangular box with five circular watermarks. These are for the five student goals, which are checked when the candies are earned in each lesson.

In the bottom right hand corner is the area where a student can keep track of their practice days. The lesson sheet is available as a free printable, here.

How the candy challenge works

At the beginning of the lesson, I set out all five candies on the piano beside the student’s piano books, in order. Sometimes I’m so organized that I have piles of five candies ready before lessons even start for the day, and at other times I fish them out of the candy jar as each student arrives.

In the opening minute of the lesson, the student finds pages in their music books, I ask about their week and we catch up with each other on a light, personal level. While we talk, I check for two things: 1) clipped fingernails and 2) all books. If these two things are good, I add one checkmark on the student’s lesson page for the first candy (usually red).

Second, I look at practice days. This goal is set at the beginning of the year and is revised through the year as the student advances. I custom-design each student’s goal according to their family’s ability to support them and how busy they are. Some children can practice five days a week. Others simply can’t. In custody agreements if a child spends time between two households and one doesn’t have a piano, this has an impact on their reasonable practice goal. The important part is that I design a practice strategy the child can meet. Then, it’s up to the student to fulfill it. The second candy (usually orange) is earned if the student has reached their practice goal and has written their practice times or checkmarks in their book.

The first two candies don’t take extra time, they are simply integrated into our regular hello routine. Then, as the lesson progresses, I keep track and check off more little accomplishments.

We tend to look at theory homework next (usually yellow). This one is easy to reward, as it is based on completed work. When I assign work, I’ll point to the candy and say, “This is the assignment that will earn you the yellow candy.” It helps. Several things count as theory. There can be written theory or composition work, flash card work, or applied theory when a student plays and says out loud what they are playing (scale finger numbers or chord names like ‘chord one’).

The final two candies can wait until the end of the lesson when my student and I are wrapping up. Throughout the lesson I’ll keep track of the student’s posture. If their sitting position has been good and poised, I check candy four (usually green or blue).

Candy five (usually purple) is individual, depending on what the child needs to work on. For beginners it is usually tied in with hand shape, wrist mobility, elbow position, supportive feet and the overall physical approach to the piano (there is only one achievable goal at a time). I like for my students to develop good habits early. For advancing students, candy five can be for learning to pedal, learning to play with the metronome, learning to count a new way (1-and-2-and for eighth subdivisions or 1-e-and-a for sixteenth subdivisions), or learning or fixing a section of music, or new staff notes; this candy can literally reward anything new or tricky the student is trying to master, and it is custom-designed.

It is always a golden moment when we tally the candies at the end of a lesson and the student realizes they’ve earned all five! We can hoot or have high-fives and we both celebrate. There’s always a smile and a ‘well done.’

How I handle missed candies

The first time I introduced the ‘Skittles challenge’ (as I originally called it), I handled missed candies in a wacky, unpredictable way. If my student slouched on the bench…pop! I’d take the lost candy and gobble it up on the spot! We’d both look bug-eyed at each other and they’d realize they just lost a candy because they were slouching. Then they’d sit up and we’d have a little chuckle. It didn’t take long for students to catch on and sit up regularly, not only at piano lessons but elsewhere. It also didn’t take long for me to figure out that if I kept up the gobbling that I’d get cavities.

Now, I simply remove the lost candy.

What started as a “Skittles challenge” now includes many kinds of candies.

My goal is for this challenge to acknowledge good effort and hard work. I want my students to feel duly rewarded for something they have done well or earned. Because I want it to be a positive learning experience, it is never punitive when a candy is lost. I try to be very kind. With a regretful look on my face I’ll say something like, “I can’t give it to you this time, but I believe you can get it next time.”

Finger nails — I have a reasonable range for feeling finger nails are short enough. If nails are long and unclipped, the first candy isn’t rewarded in that lesson. I have one teenaged student who won’t cut her nails and she cares more about her long nails than the reward candy (or her developing hand), so she and I agree to disagree. She never gets her first candy. But the rest of my students make an honest effort to clip their nails for each lesson.

Books — This is yes or no. Even if one book is forgotten, this candy is lost. Because I didn’t feel finger nails or books alone were enough to each deserve a candy, I lumped the two into the first candy, simply under the umbrella of being prepared for the lesson. If one or the other isn’t ready, the first candy is lost. The first candy is earned with both steps.

Practice goal — This one can be lost if the child hasn’t reached their practice goal (and I’ve found them to be quite honest). If they practice but forget to write it in, I’ll look regretful and say something like, “I do believe you practiced, but I really do want you to write it in so you can see your own progress.” Writing practice times in is part of the requirement for earning the candy. Because my students want to earn this candy, they routinely remember to write in their practice times.

Theory — If theory is incomplete, I’ll point out that they’ve missed that candy and reassign the work or sit for a minute and help them with a question or two to get a little further ahead. Sometimes if we are focusing on other skills and I haven’t assigned anything that can count as theory, I give a free checkmark. I explain that I can’t take the candy away if they didn’t have homework.

Posture — This can be lost if the student slouches. The number of times I need to remind students to sit with good posture diminishes greatly through the year because I’m very keen to observe this in the beginning of the year. My returning students already know. I’m quite soft-spoken when this one is lost, and when we tally their candies at the end of the lesson I say, “You’ve slouched a bit, so you didn’t get this today. Try to have good posture at home this week and I bet you’ll get it next time.” Across the board, posture improves in my studio as the year progresses.

Candy 5 — The flex candy works the same way. When I decide what the student is learning for this candy, I write a small clue under the check mark circle to help them remember through the week. The following week I check what this candy is for near the beginning of the lesson so I remember to watch for it, and to give the student a heads-up on what I’m looking for.

I’m very casual about all of this. Losing the candy is enough and I don’t feel the need to be disappointed or upset with a student. This incentive system has allowed me to relax about all of my expectations and whether or not they are met. Students recognize that I want to reward them, and usually simply try harder next time.

How to set it up

At the beginning of my lesson year, I go shopping at my favourite bulk food store. I look for little candies that have at least five colours. I tried larger gum balls but some students didn’t like them as much. Once home, I put them in clear bottles and display them in my studio. It is very motivating to see them all lined up.

I purchase my candies in bulk.

The cost per student is very reasonable. I divide the candy receipt by the number of students participating. It usually works out to only $3.00 per student (CAD). This is covered by the registration fee I collect at the beginning of the lesson year. If you want to know whether parents are willing to pay for candies, consider how an investment of only $3.00 makes the rest of the tuition they pay so much more effective. It’s the best return on $3.00 they’ll see all year.

Older students

There comes a time when a student matures and they become internally motivated and no longer need candies to guide them along. Once my teenaged students stop noticing or caring about candies, I quietly stop including them in the lesson.

Is it bribery or valid motivation?

A parent weighs in:

“I was a newly adoptive parent of an older child and had read too many parenting books, I think. There was much discussion of internal motivation and not rewarding students, but instead, allowing the child to not seek external reward but instead get some kind of inner satisfaction. Sounds like a great plan, but like anything in life, being a purist is likely not the best approach. When Becky told me about the skittles challenge, all I heard was that I was breaking the rules and that truly successful people were internally motivated. As I gained confidence in my parenting and loosened up a bit, I recognized that one skittle was not going to be the end of the world and that the kids were proud of themselves for getting all 5. The external motivation created the pattern of wanting to do better, which then resulted in a sense of pride in themselves. Mission accomplished, Skittles!” — Chrystal

For every student?

The short answer is no, but it has worked for most of my students. Here are the thoughts of the parent of one student who decided this challenge wasn’t for him:

“The candy challenge started off great for my son. He was excited to show off and share his candies with his little brother. But halfway through the year it seemed to be stressing him out. He was embarrassed to tell us if he got less than five and it was bumming him out. We never made an issue of it and I know Rebekah didn’t either. I think he was disappointed in himself and thought everyone else was disappointed, too. He has high standards for himself and can get discouraged easily. It was becoming stressful for him and we wanted him just to enjoy himself. We didn’t want him to have any negative experiences with music. So, for the rest of the year the candy challenge disappeared. And we think he did awesome and he felt great about about his playing. It ended well with Rebekah being flexible in her approach.”

Clear feedback of progress

Parents of another child have noted that this gives their child easy-to-understand feedback at every lesson.

“The candy incentive has been a positive and fun part of Olivia’s piano learning experience. It is very often the first thing she shares with us when we pick her up after her lesson. It became an easy way for her to translate — to herself and us — what she did well and what she needed to work on for her next lesson. Olivia is learning to accept feedback about her playing —  even when critical — and we feel the candy incentive has played an important role in building her resiliency.” – Rob and Randy 

As a parent, myself…

Have I had misgivings about sugar and food colouring? You bet! (I encourage my students to brush their teeth!) But as Chrystal noted above, five little candies are going to be okay once a week and have proven to be so motivating to most of my students, that I’ve gotten past my misgivings and seen just the positive side.

I usually try new things each year but the candy challenge has been so successful that when I’ve asked my students if it would be okay to stop and try something else, they won’t hear of it!

If you’re interested in finally not having to give constant reminders, why not give it a try? Feel free to let me know what you think in the comment section below.

There aren’t very many candies left by year’s-end. Evidence of many rewards given.

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I appreciate shares, comments and likes. Happy teaching!


Video of the week: ‘Boogie Woogie Man’ (Level 2 ending) from Rock That Train, Elementary to Late Elementary. Can be taught by note and rote with a black and white key pattern.

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