I teach five young Indian boys. And others, of course, but these kids are a special group all their own. Their parents are all friends. They all know each other and are all somewhere between 6-8 years old. They all know they take piano from me and are constantly comparing either “who’s better” or “who’s ahead” in the lesson books. Allow me to introduce them to you:
The first is one of my first students at this studio. He’s a sweet kid, soft-spoken and curious, but doesn’t process or make connections quickly. He still struggles with even rhythm, certain note names, and he zones out after about four bars. But he loves playing piano and makes an honest effort. We’ll call him Tortoise.
Next is the oldest of the crew, and he is fast. Thinks fast, processes fast, plays fast, reads fast. He is quick to grasp a concept but has no patience for mastery. He is fairly talented but lacks dedication needed to be better than “good enough”. As a foil to Tortoise, we’ll call him Hare.
The next is the blue kid, Hare’s little brother. I inherited him from my predecessor. He doesn’t care too much about playing piano. Every instruction or suggestion is met with skeptical questioning (why do I have to lift my wrists? it’s not any easier this way), but ultimately resignation with a shrug. He’ll do what I ask, but only when I ask it (I asked him to sit up straight probably twenty times yesterday) and probably give me some resistance. We’ll call him Shrug.
Finally, the twin brothers, also inherited from my predecessor. The first is very clever, even shrewd. He speaks in a determined whisper (at least in lessons) and asks questions. Mistakes make him more determined. Not as fast as Hare, but more stable. He processes concepts well and actually enjoys the process of becoming better and mastering something. Always asks if he did better than his brother (he does). We’ll call him Clever.
His twin is the polar opposite. He doesn’t understand the concept of “inside voice,” nevermind playing piano. As far as he is concerned, anything that needs to be done should be done with brute force. If he gets a flashcard wrong, he will shout other letters (within the musical alphabet or not, either way), assuming one of them will be right and his volume will make it so. Any reinforcement of a passage will obviously be made better by playing louder. Always asks if he did better than his brother (he doesn’t). We’ll call him Smash.
Of course none of them practice. Sure, Hare will sit down and run through a few pieces, but it’s just as likely he’s looking at the wrong entry in his notebook. So, none of them practice (I know, I know, parents, but that’s obviously not working either).
Nearly every lesson, Shrug, Clever, and Smash ask me if I have any candy for them. I don’t. I never do. “But Predecessor gave us Blow Pops all the time, why don’t you?” in tones ranging from whiny to accusatory. Because I don’t give out candy for free, that’s why. You don’t get rewarded for showing up.
…But maybe you could be rewarded for practicing.
So I started brewing plans for a practice chart. Some kind of earned rewards points system. I don’t want it to be Halloween every lesson, so it’ll have to be an accumulated number. And I don’t want to reward lack of practicing, so there will be a minimum threshold to earn points. (Points will obviously be those little foil star stickers.)
I came up with this:
-Parent keeps a log of how many days you practice per week, signs off on it.
-Only days with 20 minutes of practice or more will count.
-Points are tallied at every lesson. If you practiced 3 days or less, you get no stars. You took more days off than not.
-Four days’ practice gets you one star. You practiced more days than not, but only barely. Four is bare minimum for points.
-Each day’s practice after four gets you an additional star. So five days gets two, six gets three, and seven days maxes out at four.
I like this plan. It progressively rewards what I want them to do and doesn’t if they put in less than acceptable effort. I also wanted to introduce an additional incentive among the five competitors: whoever accumulates the most stars (over a given period, I hadn’t decided yet) gets an additional reward. I just hadn’t figured out the reward threshold yet. I was debating with ten, twelve, fifteen stars. I honestly hadn’t given it much thought.
After clearing the plan with the parents – I don’t want to give their small children sugar without asking, those kids are already hyper enough – I approached the kids. The twins were first.
Me: So I know you guys don’t practice much (they shake their heads in affirmation), I was thinking of setting up a practice chart where you could earn points and get rewards.
Clever: What kind of reward?
Smash: BLOW POPS
Both: BLOW POPS OH MY GOSH BLOW POPS YOU SHOULD GIVE US FIVE BLOW POPS ALL THE BLOW POPS EVERY LESSON BLOW POPS THOSE ARE MY FAVORITES EVER MOM SHE’S GONNA GIVE US BLOW POPS, BLOW POPS
They didn’t even care about the system I wanted to set up. Blow Pops. That got their approval.
Next lesson up was Shrug.
Me: How would you like if I set up a practice chart, and you could earn rewards for practicing?
Shrug: Blow Pops?
Me: Sure, Blow Pops is fine.
Shrug: Predecessor used to give them to us at every lesson. She had a practice chart and every week if we did good she’d give us one.* (suspiciously) What kind of practice chart are you going to use? Like those ones…? (clearly referring to something specific)
Me: Why, did you have a chart in mind already?
Shrug: Well no I mean but they already have those made up and (I didn’t quite follow him here, but he indicated his distaste for certain charts over others, I don’t know how he has this much experience with them at six years old)
Me: I was just going to make my own.
Shrug: (extremely skeptical) Seriously? But you have to (again, didn’t follow, but throwing me some serious shade)
Me: I’ve been playing piano for 25 years, are you doubting my ability to create a practice chart?
Shrug: Oh. Okay.
End of conversation.
*I have my own professional doubts about Predecessor’s practice charts and their accuracy, but that’s another post.
Shrug’s brother was next.
Me: So I’m thinking of making a practice chart where you can earn points and get rewards, probably Blow Pops.
Hare: So how does it work?
Me: (explain the points system)
Hare: Okay, so how many points do we need to get Blow Pops?
Me: (seeing this is a reasonable kid interested in the workings, I involve him) Well, I wasn’t sure. I was thinking ten or twelve…
Hare: (eagerly) Make it five. (quick reconsider) No, eight.
Hare: Yeah, four a week.
Me: I like it. (this kid’s good!) I was also thinking of making it a competition between you five, whoever gets the most at the end of two weeks gets another Blow Pop. If there’s a tie, the top scorers each get one.
Hare: Oh, good idea! They’re always comparing each other to see who’s better. (excluding himself because he is actually clearly better than all of them)
After that, Tortoise. Shrug had already got him all hopped up on the idea of free Blow Pops.
Tortoise: Do you have Blow Pops?
Me: No, I was going to set up a practice chart so you could earn them. (I explained the system)
Tortoise: (shock at the minimum of four, but then excitement at the earning potential) Yeah… yeah sounds good. (cautiously eager) Do you have any Blow Pops?
Me: No, I do not have any Blow Pops. You can even search the room.
Tortoise: (searches room) Awww man. I love Blow Pops. Shrug said his teacher used to give them out for free.
Me: She probably did.
Tortoise: Why don’t you give them out for free?
Me: Because I believe you should have to earn them.
Tortoise: Earn them… hmm. Oh man, Blow Pops are so good.
So, starting the first week of January, they will be competing for Blow Pops. They might also get better at piano, who knows.