Recently I heard from a former student who is now herself also a teacher of beginner students. She told me about a new incentive system she put in place to encourage students to practice more: they get ‘normal’ stickers during their weekly lessons, and at the end of the month, if they have been practicing extra hard that month, they get a big ‘special’ sticker. She asked me what I thought about the idea. The short answer is “No, it is not a good idea”. The long answer is as follows:
Do I believe in rewarding students? Absolutely. Many of my students are very young, I am always sticker-shopping: grocery stores, pharmacies, craft stores, office supply shops, there are stickers everywhere if you look! Even my family who lives overseas is sticker-obsessed on my behalf, whenever they see beautiful, cute stickers, they think of my well-behaving students and those stickers make their way to my mailbox. My sticker collection is international: I have stickers from Taiwan, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, and of course, USA!
We all need recognition and love to be praised. I do not know anyone who does not feel good when being spoken highly of. Children especially thrive on positive reinforcement. Most music teachers adopt some form of reward system to recognize student hard work: stickers, check mark beside the song title, ink stamp, smiley face, you name it. For a young beginner student, getting a sticker after working on a piece gives them a sense of accomplishment. The stickers can also serve a practical purpose; they help the busy teacher to keep track on which pieces have ‘passed’, and which ones are still to be worked on. Every child is different; some children like their stickers to fill the front page of their books, to them ‘more is more’, quantity is what matters; some children are specific, they only like animal stickers, or stickers of a certain color or shape. Some children like to wear stickers on their shirt; some children like to put stickers on their hands; some children like to put stickers on their forehead! Some children go home and carefully peel the stickers off the back of their hands and collect them on their desk, night stand, or bedroom door. Of course, children are very smart, they grow tired of the same stickers, much like they grow tired of old toys, and are always excited to see new stickers on the piano. But as the student progresses, they eventually become ‘immune’ to stickers, and no matter what shiny big stickers you may have to offer, they will no longer be inspired by them. So what do you do now?
A good teacher needs to know the balance between reward and discipline. This balance can be quite different from student to student; some students will work hard just on their own without much incentive, some students are more sensitive, and require more patience and encouragement, while some students are ‘tough’ and can be ‘pushed’ from an early age for rigorous training. Ultimately, all students thrive on ATTENTION. This is the key. Children have a ‘sixth sense’ – they know when someone pays them attention and truly cares about them. Attention does not always have to be given in physical forms. I believe rewarding students in many different ways. Here are some of the ways I reward my students:
1. Stickers – How I award stickers depends on the student. For the very young beginner student, they may get a sticker after playing as short as one line of music. As they progress, it gets harder, they may have to play 2 lines perfect, a page perfect, or even the whole piece perfect. Some students do not care for stickers, while some students will remind me if I forget to give them stickers because we are so busy discussing aspects of their playing!
2. Small Prizes – Example situations of where I have given students small prizes include: end-of-book award (when they have finished learning an entire book – big accomplishment for a beginner), memory award (when they have memorized a certain number of pieces), achievement award (scoring high marks in auditions or competitions), consolation award (once I gave a young student a teddy bear with a note because she did not win a competition and was devastated, on the note I wrote “You were the best” – to me she was). These small gifts are given from the heart, whenever I feel a particular student deserves special recognition or needs special attention. They are never given just because a student ‘got bored’ with normal stickers.
3. Recitals – I have always believed in recitals. Students can learn an enormous amount from performing in front of an audience – stage presence, public speaking, dealing with nerves, communicating themselves through music, and appreciating others to name just a few. The younger they start playing in recitals, the more experienced they become as a performer and the more natural and easy it is. It is a lot of work to organize recitals: venue, programming, printing, refreshments, awards, and of course making sure the students are ready for performance. Even when I did not always have big student numbers, I made sure studio recitals are a regular part of my studio calendar, even if I had to play for the majority of the recital myself, or I hosted the recital at my home because student numbers did not warrant hiring an outside venue. Children love to ‘show off’ what they can do. Recitals give them an opportunity to receive extra attention from their family members; they are the star of the day in their own family and they feel special.
4. Audition/Competition Opportunities – I reward talented and hard working students by giving them extra opportunities to succeed. This means as a teacher I have to be part of many different music organizations, as each group runs their own program of recitals and auditions, and I want to make sure that my students, when ready, have every opportunity there is out there. My professional membership fees form a big part of my studio expense, but they are worth every cent, as every group has something to offer to my students.
5. My Time – We are not just talking about lesson time. Even as such, I do try to give a little extra time to my students whenever possible (for example the next student has rescheduled, or when preparing a talented student for audition or competition). I do not ‘overlap’ students – every paid lesson is private and one-on-one (our monthly group class is complimentary – students play to one another in a master-class setting and receive comments from me and their fellow classmates). Recently I heard about a teacher charging 30 min lessons but having a different student come every 15 minutes! Whenever I browse through or check out a music score or book, I think about my students – which student would benefit from this book, which student needs to work on that book. My students are always on my mind. I pay great attention to selecting the right course of study for each student, based on their current level, interest, and technical and musical needs.
6. Professional Development – I believe the biggest reward I can give to my students is improving myself and becoming a better musician and teacher. I am always learning, practicing, reading, listening, attending workshops, teacher conferences, concerts – all of which is part of my strive to deliver the highest standard of teaching possible. Paying attention to my own growth as a musician means my students will ultimately benefit.
I reward my students with the above, they reward me with their smiles, a hand-drawn picture, their progress, their success and accomplishments, and most important of all, their love of music. It is the best investment!