A Practice Incentive Program
by Barbara J. Savage
otivating students to practice can be one of the most challenging aspects of teaching. From year-to-year, and even month-to-month, students can go through extreme swings between wanting to practice or wanting to quit lessons altogether. You need to set an expectation of regular disciplined practice, especially if you have a recital planned. Unfortunately, the more you push a student to practice, it seems like the less motivated they become. Parents can help to remind them to practice, but a student should want to practice, not be told to practice. I have a couple of ideas that might help motivate your students. I turn practice time into a competition. The student that practices the most minutes during a set time frame wins a gift card, but all of the students win in the end. By competing, they discipline themselves to practice, and they get the rewards of learning faster and becoming better performers.
What is the Practice Incentive Program, you ask? First, let me admit something here. I am not above bribing my students to practice. That said, the Practice Incentive Program is an idea I came up with a few years ago when some of my students seem to be lagging in preparing for the Spring Recital. These students actually tended to be quite competitive, so I captured that essence and created a competition between all of my students that the one the practiced the most minutes between the Holiday Recital and the Spring Recital would win a gift card. It worked. They practiced. My first winner was an eleven-year-old boy that practiced over 2700 minutes. I like to present the rewards at the Spring Recital I hold usually at the beginning of May each year.
To set this up, I announce at the Christmas Recital that I am launching the Practice Incentive Program to begin mid-January and end at the end of April. I set specific start dates and end dates. I also tell them that I will be breaking the students up into age appropriate groups so that a 13 year-old is not competing against a 6 year-old. This way parents are aware of the competition. I also re-announce the rules and progress in each newsletter I do from December through May. I go over the rules individually with the student and their parents during the first lessons in January, to make sure they understand and answer any questions. I make sure that they have a paper copy of the rules and understand that practice records must be filled in and signed by the parent for the minutes to count in the competition.
To record and keep up with minutes, I use a weekly lesson plan that I developed myself. Please don’t stop reading here, I know we all use our own favorite form of this, but wait and see just what I do with mine. Each week a new plan is started. It is broken down into sections:
Fundamentals: Includes scales, arpeggios, technique, flash cards, and games that we play to learn the basics.
Lesson Book: Includes the piece they are working on from their methodology book, with room for certain instructions, like: Go Slow
Recital Songs: Includes room again to list the songs and recommendations or corrections for practice.
This form works well to not only remind the student of his weekly assignment, but the teacher can be very specific with instructions for improvement and keying in on exact areas needing more practice or improvement. I record the metronome speeds that they should be practicing at and I can explicitly list the scales and technique exercises they should be practicing each day. I print multiple blank copies of the form, and I fill it in by hand while teaching each student. That way, it is up to date with exactly what the student is doing at that lesson. I have each student keep their assignment sheets in a folder and I can review the weeks past to remind me of what/how they are progressing, as well. I also grade the student’s lesson that week on Great, Good, or Fair.
In the middle column I number each assignment and then to the right I decide how many minutes each day this should be practiced. At the bottom of the page the student records how many minutes they practiced on each numbered assignment. There is a line for the parents’ signature.
Weekly Lesson Plan and Practice Form
The form also helps me teach my students to self correct while practicing. "Listen to your self play" is the motto. Don’t just play the song over and over the same way. Listen. Don’t be happy with strange sounds, wrong notes, or incorrect rhythms. If the student is not sure how to play a part, I have him or her circle the measures so they can remember to ask me about them the next lesson.
Call me: I put my phone number on the cover of all of my students’ lesson books, and they do occasionally call with questions about their assignments.
The form has also helped me in unveiling issues that a student might be having. If I assign scales under the fundamentals category and they are not improving from week to week, it gives me heads-up on what we need to work on. If a student is stuck on the same song week after week with the same mistakes, then I can help them conquer that particular passage. The form is helpful for the student and the teacher.
This form has worked well for my students and I, so far. I haven’t found any obvious parts that don’t work and the best part is I can use it to initiate the Practice Incentive Program!
I did learn that I had to break the students into age appropriate groups. It really isn’t fair to put a six year-old up against a 14 year-old! I also have arranged second and third places if I felt they were really earned. I found that starting the program from one recital to the next works well with my students. If not doing it that way, I would recommend at least 2 months if you have a small studio with under 10 students, and 3 or more months if you have more than 10 students. The goal is to get the students to discipline themselves, but you can’t make it too long or they lose interest. I demand that only forms that have a parent’s signature will be counted, and no fudging. I can tell if they really practiced or not, and I am the one who counts up the minutes at the end of the competition.
It’s all done in the attitude of a fun competition, but the truth is they all win. They win because they can now understand the value of practice time and the rewards that come with it. With proper practice they succeeded in going through their methodology books faster and they also had broader and more difficult repertoires for the recital.