The ONE thing that guarantees solid home practice

While some may think an incentive program would be the one thing that guarantees solid home practice habits, others might say that strong parental support is key to consistent practice. Some use the fear of failure as a way to motivate students. Others believe that repertoire has everything to do with how much students practice.

All of these can trigger practice and basically aim to instigate one MAJOR change: a change in behavior. But, are they guaranteed to work?

Chee-Hwa Tan playing a duet with a student at the University of Denver Piano Prep Program

Once students sign up for lessons, they’ve made a commitment that was not on their calendar before. It may mean they have to hop in the car after school and eat a snack on the way to lessons on Thursdays instead of play with friends.

In addition, signing up for lessons means that students must squeeze in practice–every day (we hope!)

This new daily task will take time away from other activities like homework, video games, hanging with friends, skate boarding, etc.  Piano lessons require time and energy and usually a shift in priorities for the entire family. It’s all about a change in behavior.

This means you are not only teaching piano but you are also training students and their families into a new lifestyle.

Why this article and why now?

Incentive plans with wall charts and parts and pieces have rarely been part of my studio. I have a strong aversion to them as I just can’t keep up with all the score keeping and moving parts. In addition, I want students to be motivated by the music they play not by what they can earn. I want to grow intrinsically motivated students–just like you!!

Truth be told, I do have an incentive system in place and a few years ago, I streamlined it. I’m still high-fiving myself on this idea. Read all the specific details here.

To sum it up, I use Music Money in lessons to inspire practice habits and smart answers AND questions and as students gather cash it eventually is collected and recorded on a studio credit card. Once enough money is saved on the credit card, students receive a gift card of their choice. The reason why I stick with this year-round incentive plan is that Music Money is ideal for immediately bribing efforts at lessons and gamifying practice strategies.

For example:

Play this line 3x and the 3rd time needs to be perfect. If it’s perfect you earn $20 bucks.

If my students answer a question correctly, I’ll often say:

$5 for being smart!

Some may think that this bribery is merely extrinsic motivation. I agree but, the immediate reward activates students’ focus and leads to bite-sized successes. Does it destroy the chance of nurturing intrinsic motivation? I don’t believe so but, I wasn’t sure why until I listened to a TED talk by Tali Sharot. Before you listen to it, read on.

Do parents need incentives, too?

Last year I began a new position as the Coordinator of the Piano Preparatory Program at the University of Denver. Along with Chee-Hwa Tan–Head of the Pedagogy Department–we lead a group of graduate students in teaching students ages 7-9 in group and private instruction.

The graduate students claimed some of their students in the program were struggling with making progress because home practice was sparse. So, I instigated a small incentive program in which:

  • Students keep track of practice days and could earn up to 7 points each week.
  • Teachers award points for evidence of use of practice strategies prescribed by the teacher the week before.
  • Teachers give a progress score between 1 and 5 based on what progress was made between lessons. Learn more about progress scores here.

Students responded positively to the incentive program and it made a significant difference in home practice and progress. So this made me revisit my aversion to incentive programs for this coming year. I still wondered if extrinsic rewards could minimize intrinsic motivation but, I decided we needed to continue a system so I came up with one called “Piano is a Journey.”

The program was kicked off this fall at our Parent Orientation with an overview of the a road-trip theme plan. Each student family was given a pill box. Parents were instructed to keep the pill box by the piano and fill it with candy or money or anything that their child would like. Every time their child practices, he/she can earn or eat the prize or “pill”  of the day.

Every week, the graduate students add up the amount of practice days recorded by each student with the points given for use of practice strategies and the progress scores. The weekly totals are added up at the end of the term and recorded as miles. We can then see how far each student has “travelled” on their piano journey.

Some may earn enough miles to reach Bachville, some will go further to Vivaldi Village while others may end their journey at Mozart Tower. The ultimate destination: Beethoven City.

Once mileage is added up, students may choose a prize from Bachville or Bachville and Vivaldi Village or Bachville, Vivaldi Village and Mozart Tower or…It all depends on the amount of miles earned. Those who make it to Beethoven City get to choose prizes from all four cities.

A TED Talk with Three Principles for Practice

Even though setting up this program took time and effort, it appears it may be worth it after I listened to a recently discovered TED talk by Tali Sharot mentioned earlier.

When Music Money is awarded for playing a section with zero errors, or when students choose a candy from their pill box at home after they’ve finished practicing, both are immediate rewards. Sharot says these immediate rewards are essential to changing behavior now AND, more importantly, in the future.

Immediate rewards plus social incentives combined with positive progress monitoring are the three principles required to change a behavior.

Listen to this 13-minute TED talk to learn why. Then review the notes below where I recap the ideas and apply them to practicing piano.

A Summary

Sharot begins with sharing that on average, warnings have very limited impact on changing a behavior. Humans seek out and focus on positive information–like how our stocks are doing when the market is strong.

Our brains remember positive information and have the ability to learn from good news much more than from bad news or threats. Children and teens are the worst at learning from negative feedback. This means they are less likely to learn from warnings on cigarette packages, bad grades, etc.

For example, saying

“If you practice, you will be able to play that favorite piece you heard on iTunes.”

will more likely result in a change in behavior (more practice) then saying:

“If you don’t practice, you won’t get any better at piano and I’ll have to stop giving you lessons.”

According to Sharot’s research, there are three principles that drive the mind and behavior:

#1 Immediate Rewards

We value rewards that we can get now more than in the future. Although we may care about the future, it’s so far away! We all like rewards that are tangible, something sure rather than something unsure in the future.

Her theory draws on this question:

What will happen if you reward people now for actions that are good for them in the future?

Studies show that giving people immediate and attractive rewards makes them more likely to quit smoking and start exercising because these habits are associated with a reward. These new habits then become a lifestyle.

#2 Social Incentives

We are social people and we want to see what others are up to.

Highlighting what other people are doing is a strong incentive for motivating action in the right direction.

Remember the compliance of hospital employees to wash their hands once they saw the numbers go up?

Remember the British government and how many more people paid their taxes because they added an extra sentence in a letter: “9 out of 10 Britains pay their taxes?”

#3 Progress Monitoring

The brain does a really good job at processing and remembering positive information of the future MORE than negative info. So, highlight the progress and not the decline of what can happen in the future with a changed behavior.

Give people control of how to change their behavior by letting them choose rewards and various routes or opportunities for progress.

How can these three principles be applied to establishing better home practice habits for our students?

#1 Offer immediate rewards in lessons when a student accomplishes a required task correctly. Be specific and train students to hear when things are correct and when they are not. Learn more here.

Encourage parents to reward home practice with whatever works–extra screen time, candy, playing catch with Dad. These small, extrinsic rewards will keep students on track towards becoming intrinsically motivated lifetime musicians.

#2 In light of the power of social incentives, employ a studio-wide incentive plan that shows progress of others. Perhaps like what I describe in my program above or a 40-Piece Challenge Wall Chart?

Keep in mind, it doesn’t need to be a major competition or complicated in order to inspire students. Let students see where they stand as practicers among their peers with group lesson performances and theory games. Let them rise to the challenge of doing better by witnessing the progress and success of others at recitals or festivals.

Another idea, share with parents what the average practice days per week is in your studio and indicate to them where their child falls. Are they above or below average? Remember how the electric bill on the fridge motivated Sharot?

#3 It’s our job to help students see what they will be able to do with their piano skills in the future.

The brain seeks ways to control its environment which can be a very important motivator. Allowing students to choose repertoire, choose what to start with in a lesson, decide how to practice a piece, etc. can give them the sense of control and ownership as they learn.

Double check tactics on how to motivate change in students and remember:

Fear induces inaction

Thrill of a game induces action.

This third principle is where intrinsic motivation fits into the equation. Young pianists need to see and hear what it’s like to excel at the piano and what they can accomplish if they keep practicing. Check out my Get Inspired! Episodes as they do just that!

Final Thoughts

These principles will be essential in my communication with parents during our upcoming conferences. Sharot’s talk offers substantial credibility for my present incentive program–the pill box and the mileage tracking.

In addition, I will be sharing with them the average “practice mileage” and if their child is above or below or right around average. Most families are committed to the program but, some have not yet made a dynamic shift in practice habits at home. This may give them the boost they need.

Sharot shares that immediate rewards which change a behavior can have a lasting effect for about 6 months. This means you may need to switch it up a bit to keep things interesting. It doesn’t need to be elaborate but, I do believe that demonstrating AND practicing innovative practice strategies that include immediate rewards in lessons will continue to motivate. Read more here.

If you’ve got high school students and/or adults, you may not need all the bells and whistles of immediate rewards. By this age, they want to be on your bench.  That being said,  don’t discount their need for inspiration as they can get in slumps, too.

Something I’m trying over Thanksgiving Break:

To keep students practicing and because we have a recital soon after the break, I’m going to hold a drawing: Anyone who sends me a video of their piece during break will be automatically entered into a drawing for a $5 gift card of their choice.

Important Takeaways

It’s vital to provide immediate rewards for tasks completed within lessons. In addition, establish some type of incentive plan that helps students think about how their habits now, will help them be the pianists they want to be in the future.

Highlight what and how others are doing through group lessons, wall charts,  performance opportunities and friendly competitions.

Motivate through the thrill of gamification and not fear and threats.

Get parents to reward daily practice that will result in big and positive changes for their child in the future.

Let students control what repertoire they play now (within your expert leadership) and what they get to play in the future.

The process of changing behavior of students so that home practice becomes a daily habit depends on what YOU do at lessons.

Don’t under estimate YOUR job description. You are not only a piano teacher, you are a behavioral scientist changing someone who never practiced piano into a dedicated practicer. You are a personal trainer and a habit maker setting up students and their parents for a new and musical lifestyle.

Check out this book

Around the same time that I encountered this TED talk, I stumbled across a new book called Atomic Habits by James Clear. As Sharot states, when a behavior is changed, its essentially establishing a new or different habit.

If you want to help your students build new or better practice habits, this book is a MUST READ. Clear’s laser focus on this subject is golden and I can’t wait to apply what he says to piano practice and even in my own life as one who continues on the path of a tidy teacher.

I feel another post about this coming soon…

This is a pretty long post for the ONE thing that needs to happen to ensure strong practice habits. But, as we all know, changing a behavior–good or bad–takes some time.

It’s my hope that you find the information to be enlightening, encouraging and validating.

Please share your thoughts and comments below. And, feel free to share this with fellow teachers and your studio parents, too!

Here’s to rock solid home practice.

-Leila

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Leila Viss

Creative Pianist, Piano Teacher, Organist, Blogger and Author of The iPad Piano Studio

2 CommentsLeave a comment

  • What a great video and tie-in to teaching students! I just made a note to get my 30 piece progress posters up on the wall of my studio rather than keeping them hidden on a shelf. Thanks for the helpful insights and spurring me on to new actions with my students!

    • Thank you, Marie. I know I kept you in mind as I researched this topic. Interesting how much highlighting what others are doing can trigger changes in behavior. Another vote in favor of group lessons!

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