Fun and effective weekly piano lesson challenge [Printables]

Many piano teachers enjoy acknowledging hard work with small rewards. This incentive avoids plastic prizes and is simple to keep track of. It focuses on effort and gives students weekly feedback on five points they’re working on developing. Do it with or without stickers or small candies. It has proven very fun and effective, and is one of my most controversial, most discussed and most-shared posts.

What would piano lessons be like without reminders for cutting fingernails, remembering to practice, finishing theory or sitting with good posture? 

In one simple, inexpensive incentive, I’ve managed to get past basic reminders so my piano students and I can focus on more musical pursuits. I’ve used this idea to acknowledge my students for developing and working. And they do work hard for each little sticker or candy they earn.

Students earn up to 5 a week, and work very hard for each one.

There’s more on the pros and cons of using stickers as rewards, or candy, at the end of the blog post. In short, this incentive is not done as bribery, or with poor intent. Students and parents in my studio can opt in or out. This challenge has proven to be a fun way for my students to remember a few things and is done alongside everything else we do musically to develop their intrinsic motivation for their repertoire. To be clear: learning repertoire is not part of this. Candy isn’t used to get students to like lessons or music. When they learn a piece, playing it is reward enough. This challenge is for limited things, and it works, and it’s fun!

Moreover, my students get weekly feedback they can easily understand on their progress on five things we’re working on.

The challenge

There are five possible colours* that can be earned in a lesson, and each colour symbolizes a specific thing.

  • 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.)

*There could be other colours (sometimes pink, sometimes blue). The goal is to try to have five different ones.

It’s easy to 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.

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.

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 in each lesson.

Stickers mark which goals were completed in the week. Notice the progression.

Week by week we track the student’s effort in the five areas. The image above shows that the student (my daughter), went from earning 2-3 in the first weeks to consistently earning 4-5. This shows visually how she started taking responsibility for her own preparation. No reminders, only this incentive.

Some families opt for stickers only, others for both stickers and candies, and my teens have usually matured past this and take care of their preparation without any incentive.

How the 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.

In the opening minute of the lesson, we catch up with each other on a light, personal level. While we talk, I check the first two things:

Red, Being Prepared for the lesson — This includes having finger nails clipped and remembering all books and materials. Because I didn’t feel finger nails or books alone were enough, I lumped the two into one, simply under the umbrella of being prepared for the lesson. If one or the other isn’t ready, the first one is missed. The first is earned with both steps. 

Orange, Practice goal — This is earned if the child reaches their practice goal and records it with checkmarks or the number of minutes (they’re 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 it, and my students routinely remember.

The practice goal is set at the beginning of the year and is revised as the student advances. Each student’s goal is set 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 one parent doesn’t have a piano, this has an impact on the child’s reasonable practice goal. I try to design a practice strategy the child can meet. Then, it’s up to the student to fulfill it.

The first two checks 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.

Yellow, Theory homework — This one is based on completed work. Several things count as theory: written theory, 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’).

If theory is incomplete, I’ll point out that they’ve missed that one 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 sticker or checkmark.

The final two checks wait until the end of the lesson when my student and I are wrapping up.

Green/Blue, Posture — Throughout the lesson I’ll keep track of the student’s posture. If their sitting position has been good and poised, I check number four. 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. I encourage them to sit with a sturdy trunk, like a tree, flexible but upstanding. Across the board, posture improves in my studio as the year progresses.

Purple, Flex Challenge — When I decide how the student will earn this one, I write a small clue under the check mark circle to help them remember it as they practice through the week. At the following lesson I confirm it near the beginning of the lesson so we both know what we’re aiming for.

Number five 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, number 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 check is for 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 total 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.’

Fresh start each week

Compared to other incentives, this one is the fairest I’ve done for several reasons.

  • Each week is a fresh start. With incentives that are tracked over a longer period of time (like the whole lesson year, or several months) one bad week or month can be a long-term setback. With this challenge, the student can get full credit with just one week of effort, each week. A bad week doesn’t have any impact on subsequent weeks.
  • Students don’t compare themselves with other students. There is no wall chart and no student is aware of others’ results.
  • Students take charge of their own preparedness. They want short nails. They learn to keep track of their own practice. They learn to take responsibility.
  • The rewards are consumable and not plastic prizes. People have too much stuff. While food colouring and sugar aren’t my preference either, I still prefer this incentive over plastic.
  • I’m free to simply teach music. We get a lot more done. No more pleading reminders.

How I handle missed candies

My goal for this challenge is 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.” 

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

When I first introduced the challenge, if a candy was lost I’d gobble it 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 (like at mealtime and at school). Now, I simply remove it.

I’m very casual. Removing the candy is enough and I don’t feel the need to be disappointed or upset with a student. I’ve been able to relax about all of my expectations and whether or not they are met. Students recognize that I want to reward their hard work, 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 students prefer little candies. Once home, I put them in clear jars.

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, 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 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 effective with 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 this 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.

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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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