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Monday, March 7, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: Practice Incentives

"The paradox of patience and discipline is that it requires both of them to develop each of them." -- Thomas Sterner, The Practicing Mind

Let me share with you a fun technique we have been using at my studio, and it's been a great hit with parents and students alike. Recently I was shopping at one of those education stores that carry a lot of home education products -- curricula, tools, charts, books, and stickers. Just about everything a teacher could ever want or need. I picked up some new charts for my wall along with some supplies. I also picked up two "incentive pads," which are little charts with about 30 squares on them (6 rows of 5 squares). At the time I purchased the pads, I didn't have any definitive purpose formed in my mind for how to use them.

I hung the large wall chart on my studio wall and put the names of most of my students in the left margin. If a student showed up to a lesson or group class, they got a point on the wall chart. At the weekly lessons, I asked each student how many days they practiced during the week. For every three days' practice, I gave the student another point on the chart. If the student practiced 5 days, they only got 1 practice point. The student would need to practice all 6 days to earn 2 practice points. My purpose at the time was to come up with a way to visibly record my students' efforts to attend group classes and lessons and to practice on the days in between lessons.

I had one little student who was not making much progress on a new song. I knew she wasn't slacking in her practice. Instead this particular student sometimes hesitated to learn new material if she sensed that it was a challenge. I had been trying to think of a way to encourage her to get past her mental "mountain." I tried two tricks. One was to take a $1 bill and staple it to the bottom of her new song. Then I marked the part of her song that had the "Dollar Spot." I told her that in order to earn the dollar, she would have to perfect the spot. It wouldn't be enough to just play the spot passably well; she would really have to play it just about perfectly -- completely in tune with the correct notes and bowings. In this case, my Dollar Spot was the Bb section of Gavotte from "Mignon" by Thomas in Suzuki Violin Volume 2 (song #9 in book 2). I told my student that when she finally mastered the spot, I would remove the staples from the dollar bill and hand it to her. The student could then put it in their case, but they would have to return the next week and play the spot for me again. If the spot still held together correctly, then the student would then be able to put the dollar bill into his or her pocket and spend it later as they chose.
My student's eyes got pretty excited about the possibility of earning a dollar, and she started immediately working to learn it. I will tell you that it took her about a week to have the notes pretty much under her fingers, and then another week to get the passage completely learned. I'm a taskmaster about the dollar spots. I will not let a student pass the dollar test unless it is completely in tune. As any Suzuki violin teacher will tell you, this section of the Mignon Gavotte is difficult for students to master, because it is a major skill that unlocks the ability to "unfurl" the left hand position. It is crucial to teach students this new finger pattern (Bb scale fingering) and help them to stretch between the index finger (Bb on A string) and ring finger (D on A string).

That was one step to encourage my young student. The other step was to use the incentive pad. I find that the Bb scale is a useful tool to learning the finger pattern needed in the Mignon Gavotte, along with Perpetual Motion from Book 1 but transposed into Bb starting on the first finger. I grabbed an incentive pad sheet and filled in the student's name. I wrote Bb scale as the assignment, and told her that when she brought back the completed sheet, I would give her an extra point on the wall chart. The next week, the student brought me her completed sheet and was very excited to watch me give her the extra point on the chart. I also tacked the completed sheet onto my studio wall with a push pin.

The little student asked me for 2 incentive pad sheets for the next week. I picked a few more little tricky spots. I may have given her the new finger pattern in the next song, Lully's Gavotte. After another week, and two more extra points later, my student asked for 3 more sheets to complete. Meanwhile, other students were catching on to the extra points I was putting on the wall chart and to the completed charts I was tacking onto the studio wall. I started getting a lot of requests from other students for some of those charts and extra points.

Then I wrote out a lesson plan for two families, which involved playing 5 things every day. I wrote what things they were to do on the back of the incentive pad sheet. When the student did the 5 things on the list, they could check off the 5 boxes in the row with stickers or pictures or check marks. If they did the 5 things every day, they would get the extra point on the studio wall chart and the satisfaction of seeing their chart put up on the studio wall.

I went to the education store today and bought 10 more incentive pads of various colors and designs. My studio wall is looking pretty colorful now.


  1. Paula - You may just go broke! $1 spot indeed! I may go broke with you. I've got one student in particular that I'll pull out a dollar today! Can you post a picture of the incentive pad???

    Smiles! Diane

  2. Whoops just saw this! I'll get right on the photo thing! Sometimes the parents provide the $. One parent who quit lessons even returned the $. Haha! I wonder if it would work on the university level?

  3. I had two 7 year old boys who were not practicing and I used your University student idea that if they did everything on the list they got an A. They need about 5 check marks for each assignment. Practice has increased and so has their attention in the lesson. I put an A+ on each completed page. I now have a 4 year old and am trying to think of how your incentives ideas can be constructed for her.

    1. Although I use handbooks now, some of my little ones still like the incentive charts. One cannot underestimate the power of stickers! What about giving out a sheet of stickers (or cut a sheet into strips?) as a reward for a completely filled out chart?