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Motivating Music Students Part 2: How and When to Use Incentives

In Part 1 of our multipart series on Motivation, we discussed how to identify motivation types in each of your students. In this post, we'll dive deeper into the use of incentives and rewards or extrinsic motivation. In the world of music education, extrinsic motivation has always been a touchy subject (here’s a great New York Times article by KJ Dell’Antonia weighing the pros and cons of it). On one hand, people wonder if extrinsically motivated students (especially when this form of teaching continues far into a child’s musical education) are pursuing music for the right reasons. Do they practice because they genuinely want to improve, or are they just practicing for the reward? On the other hand, giving rewards and such to motivate students is (dare we say it?)…easier. And effective, if done right. It can be a great way to capture and hold the attention of younger children, especially when learning areas that are not as fun.

Who responds to incentives

In Part 1, we discussed how to identify extrinsically-motivated students, but also found that age plays a role. We think incentives can be very helpful, especially with younger children. Younger children are often put in lessons by their parents, or want to learn an instrument but have not fully grasped how much work it really takes. When the beginning students are young children, they don’t think about putting effort into something that will reward them in the far, far future. They live in the now. Incentives can help move them through the slow, starting stages. Even certain older students and adults respond to incentives, but the rewards tend to be more specific and less obvious. This is where communication is important.

When to use incentives

Individual incentives are a great way to keep things moving along when things start getting difficult or stale. We've all been there - days where we'd struggle with a part or a new technique, get frustrated, and want to quit (and maybe still do sometimes!). So, using incentives can be a way to help get through challenging areas or to make the slow, learning stages a little bit more fun.

One thing to note is that while these incentives can help tremendously starting out, they should only be used as part of a larger strategy. Using incentives is like using lighter fluid - it can start a fire or jumpstart a dying flame, but it's hard to cook the whole dinner on it. In the long run, incentives can only do so much. If a more advanced student is really only practicing for the prize at the end of the week, they are not likely to continue with music in the long-term. As the student advances, try to instill in them the love of music - which should come more easily as the student gets better. The joy of music is the goal and the ultimate motivator.

Incentive ideas we’ve come across

  • Stickers and small prizes - This seems to be the most common. The teacher will let the student pick out a sticker to put on a completed assignment, or choose a small prize (think 99-Cent-Store rings, bouncy balls, etc.). This can also be a sticker chart where the student gets a prize upon reaching a certain point in the chart, or after a certain number of stickers. It’s inexpensive, both in terms of time and money, and kids love it.
  • Play Money - I’ve had teachers tell me they use fake money or tokens as a reward system: if the student does well or completes an assignment, the teacher gives them some of this "money", which the student can save up to “buy” a prize with later on. For example, you could have a system where 10 tokens buys a small prize (pencils, stickers, etc.), or they can save up 20 tokens for a bigger prize (notebooks, toys, etc.).
  • Studio competition - This one goes hand-in-hand with social motivation. Have one giant studio competition, whether it be a Streak Contest, Most Practice in 30 days, etc., and give the overall winner a grand prize! Obviously, this is much more of a task than simply completing one assignment, so you should have the prize to match to get students interested in this. Present rewards at the next recital. Make the challenge attainable and do them periodically so those that don't participate the first time will try the next time, and provide special prizes for those who win multiple competitions to keep their interests going.
  • Competitions with cash prizes - For advanced students, a good way to use extrinsic motivation is by entering them in competitions with a cash or scholarship prize. Sure, recognition and something to put on a resumé is cool, but for really extrinsically motivated students, a cash prize would be the cherry on top.
  • Rotating Trophy - Purchase an item that can serve as a reusable trophy like a stuffed animal or a musical display ornament and give it as a reward to a different student each week. Take a picture of them with it and let them take it home and put it where they can see it when they practice. Have them bring it back the next lesson and then give it to another deserving student.
  • Praise - A less obvious form of incentives are praise. Think of it as verbal reinforcement: when a student does well, they hear warm, fuzzy words that make them feel good about their efforts. This can be a very powerful motivator. So powerful, in fact, that it can shape a student's self esteem and boost confidence - for better or for worse. All of my previous teachers and friends' teachers did not give out praise lightly. We once humorously compared the best praise we ever got - mine was, "Not bad". But you know what? Those two words felt great. That little hint of their being impressed masked mostly by their obvious statement that they believed I could do better - that was the perfect push for us. Some students, however, (especially beginners) need more praise than others. When you come across these students, I cannot stress enough: proceed with caution. This is like any other sort of incentive. Praise a child too much, too often, and they may come to expect it. Save it for special times, when they have really put in effort and succeeded.
Better Practice has many features to trigger the extrinsically-motivated students. From fun animations after completing an assignment to faciliting competitions, Better Practice makes it simple for music teachers to use. Also these features fit within a larger framework that rewards students with the joy of music in their practice time - something traditionally dreaded by music students. It brings the social aspect of music, the feeling of growth, and the fun of playing together into one easy-to-use app. Try Better Practice today!