The Best Route to Motivation


Question: The word "best" sounds a little boastful, are you sure you know which route is THE BEST when attempting to motivate students? Answer: I agree. I always question anyone who claims to have the "best" solution to anything; but, as I was preparing this post about my fall studio practice incentive (part two of the"Why Not KISS IT and Make it Better" post) I was reminded about something that I make clear to potential parents and students during an initial interview. I firmly believe that it is NOT my duty to make anyone practice--in other words--to motivate them.

Q: Mmm...that seems counterproductive. So, what do you view the duty of  a piano teacher to be?

A: Experience has taught me that getting angry, showing frustration, threatening, bribing, implementing fancy motivational programs, standing on my head or any such fanatical antic does not improve home practice. Instead I hold fast to this job description to motivate:

find the music students enjoy and equip them with the skills to play that music and to create their own. 

If I'm successful at these tasks, practice and most importantly progress occurs. Hooking students into a cycle of strong practice habits to ensure progress on favorite composed or original pieces develops happy, intrinsically motivated students, which in turn creates satisfied parents which generates student retention, enthusiastic referrals, and new customers, in other words--a full studio.

Q: If that's "all"  it takes, why would you post an article describing your latest studio incentive? 


A: Let me explain...I'm puzzled why I didn't think of this when I first began implementing progress scores in my lesson notes. This score reflects my assessment of how much progress was demonstrated over the past week. Here's the scale:

  • 5 = WOW: exceeded my highest expectations, all goals were met and then some

  • 4 = EXCELLENT: all goals were met and progress made by consistent practice

  • 3 = NICE: most goals were met but some were not, due to lack of time, goals stated were unclear, goals set were too difficult to meet...

  • 2 = OK: some goals were met, but practice between lessons was not sufficient for much progress and parental supervision is advised

  • 1 = HO HUM: looks like last weeks goals will be repeated as little or no practice occurred and little progress made and parental supervision is required.

With one number parents can see the measure of their pianist's efforts at home; however, I've noticed students, too, take great pride in the number received. In fact, in some cases this number serves as parent leverage for home privileges and more. Here's what I've implemented this year to bring even more significance to that crucial number:

  • After the students receive a progress rating they are asked to keep track of the scores on a sheet provided by me in their binder.

  • At the end of this session (in about 13 weeks) all numbers will be tallied.

  • The pianists with the highest progress score total in the studio will receive special recognition.

Here's the chart for what students can expect to receive:

  • 55-65 points =a $5 gift card, music book of choice (up to $5), or free code for an app (or something cool)

  • 42-52= $1000 in Music Money (click here to learn more about TCW Music Money)

  • 35-41 points = $500 in Music Money

  • 14-34 points = time to re-evaluate practice schedule

  • 0-13 points = time to find something better to do besides piano lessons :-(

Q: Can we get back to the initial question, why include this post about a studio incentive if you don't believe motivating students to practice is your responsibility?

A: Although this may seem that I'm using fabulous prizes to enlist practice, I see it differently. With this incentive program, students are not recognized for the most practice hours but for the MOST PROGRESS made. At lessons I remind them that extreme progress is evident when using smart practice strategies, carefully following assignments, going above and beyond what is assigned and as a result creating a musical performance of a favorite piece in less than expected time.

Q: How do you use TCW's Music Money and claim NOT to use blatant bribery?

A:  I'll admit, I do award Music Money for numerous successes and tasks completed; but, one of my favorite ways to use Music Money is at lessons. Once a passage is reviewed hands alone, working hands together can be tricky. This is when I make an offer:

"Twenty bucks if you can play the first measure hands together with zero errors."


Eyes light up, focus is heightened and more often than not, the bank pays out $20. Placing bets on students' success carries over to their practice between lessons as I encourage them to imagine that same pressure of "zero errors" at the home bench. In fact, I challenge practicers that if they can play a passage perfectly the first time, they don't have to practice it again that day.

In my recent post about using the KISSING IT strategy, I mentioned how I use Post-it arrows to identify tricky spots. If those tricky spots are "healed" by the next lesson, the pianist receives $5. I could go on and on with examples of how I pay off students for even the smallest achievements. Students work hard for cold cash and take delight in meeting any reasonable challenge.

Q: So, what IS the best way to motivate students?

A: It boils down to two tasks for the teacher:

  • find the music students enjoy

  • equip them with top-notch practice strategies to build strong skills

So pianists can

  • play music they like and

  • create their own.

This latest studio incentive is a celebration of progress earned by hard practice. Practicing is much more tolerable when strategies are devised and the music is appealing so ultimately, it's all about the music--the reason for signing up for piano lessons in the first place! Check out the "Looking for Intermediate Repertoire" Page. It's not well-organized yet, but as I find them, I add links to relevant music resources for those hard-to-shop-for students who outgrow or resist method books.

One more thing, I created documents to be placed in the front of my students' binders for easy reference about  studio information, practice tips, special dates, AND a place to record practice scores.  A HUGE thank you to Susan Paradis for providing such a lovely template for these important papers!

Here's a PDF of the documents: Binder Documents 2013



Do you agree with this view on motivating students? Would love to hear your thoughts!

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Interested in learning how I use the iPad to motivate?

Order my book The iPad Piano Studio: Keys to Unlocking the Power of Appshere.

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