My hope, as a piano teacher, is to eventually teach my students to love music, to love it so much that their motivation for practicing is that they want to become better, that they love making music. I want them to practice so they can perfect that challenging piece, so that they can experience that great feeling when they have really accomplished something wonderful.
But sometimes students (especially the young'uns) need a little bit of extra motivation and incentive now and then. Now of course, you don't want them to solely practice just so they can get that prize - but what if they wouldn't even practice otherwise? Isn't it better for the student to practice consistently just so they can earn a prize, than to not practice at all? Rewards, prizes, and other incentives definitely have a place in early music study, and when used wisely can be a great help in training young musicians.
As a young piano student, my teacher gave us points each time we passed off a song. Each time our card of points was filled, we received a coupon for a free ice cream cone. How exciting it was to fill out those cards! Sometimes students need something like that to show them how much they have accomplished. And to be perfectly honest, for some reason my sisters and I hardly ever redeemed those ice cream cone coupons (I know, weird huh?) - we had this huge stack of them in our piano bench (why didn't we redeem those?? that is so ridiculous). Even if you use a card or chart and students receive stickers for passing off certain assignments, having that visual representation of their progress can be very motivating for some students!
As a teenage piano teacher, I challenged my students to practice a certain amount each day and to record their practice time. In the summer when they came prepared to their lessons and had done their practicing, I used to take them out to our big freezer after their lessons and give them an Otter Pop (mmmmm...I can taste it now...). Students love getting small rewards, and a cold treat on a hot day might just be the motivation they need! It can be something very inexpensive (stickers and Otter Pops are definitely affordable, especially if you buy a lot at a time!), and it adds a bit of fun to the whole practicing thing!
My parents are very wise, and they instituted a great incentive program for my siblings and I: if we didn't do our practicing, we were required to pay for our piano lesson that week! Holy cow, what a great incentive for a teenager with little income. Obviously this incentive would have to come through the parents, but it can't hurt to suggest it.
Often in my teaching I have done a similar thing to my first piano teacher, in that I have Piano Point Cards for each student. Students receive different amounts of points for different activities: passing off a piece, reaching their practice goal (more on that later), performing a piece for somebody, memorizing a piece, arriving on time to lessons, attending a recital, etc. The great thing about this kind of system is that you can come up with your own categories for things you want to stress in your own studio. If you prefer that students complete assignments rather than practice a certain amount, then give points for assignments completed.
Another incentive program: hold a practicing competition. A whole new element is added to practicing when the student knows that they are competing against their peers. Sometimes a little healthy competition is just what your studio needs! Be sure to pick some good rewards for the winners, and make it lots of fun!
When deciding on what rewards or prizes to award to students, why not use music-related prizes? For example, a fun piece of sheet music (such as a fun pop song or duet) or a small gift certificate to your local music store is double motivation - not only will the student practice hard to receive it, but once they receive the prize they will want to go home and practice the new piece! Awesome.
Another idea: give out studio awards at a year-end recital. Make sure students know you are watching and paying attention to who practices hard, who improves different aspects of their playing, who has a good attitude, etc. Give out fun certificates and perhaps some small prizes.
My favorite story about practice incentives is from my little sister (my three younger siblings also have taught piano lessons!). When she was a teenager, she once had a student who would not practice. Week after week she struggled to motivate this kid to practice, but to no avail. So one week she asked him what his favorite candy bar was. He told her what it was, and she said, "If you practice this week, at your next lesson I will give you your favorite candy bar. If you don't practice, I'll eat it in front of you."
Well, the next week the kid showed up and had not practiced again! So my sister proceeded to eat the candy bar. Way to follow through! hehe
What incentive programs have you used in the past? What has been the most helpful? What do you think motivates your students the most?