A few weeks ago, I was working with my Advanced Intermediate group in their studio class. I had forgotten to put away a few things from my last lesson of the day, which happened to be with a beginning student. So, there was a rather large pile of stickers sitting on the table in the middle of the room.
“Stickers!!!!” my students shouted. (I would like to point out that every student in the room that evening attends HIGH SCHOOL.) “We love stickers. You never give us stickers anymore, Mrs. Romano,” they group pouted. I replied that I didn’t consider stickers adequate motivation for high school students, and they countered that stickers are INDEED good motivation. So I’m giving my high school students stickers again, and it’s working. (They do have to work a little harder to earn them than they used to.)
I’m a big fan of little motivational trinkets, and also rather intricate motivational schemes. I used to not be. Before I had kids, I would have never considered bribery an appropriate motivational tool. “They should do it because they want to,” I chimed. Repeatedly.
And then I potty-trained my first child. I will not mortify my preteen son by publicly discussing the process, but let’s just say that in the end, there was a Fisher Price airport and a pack of match box cars involved for completing, er, certain tasks.
The problem with getting students to do something because they want to, is that often, they don’t know they want to do it, until they’ve done it. (I will pause a moment while you go back and untangle that last sentence in your brain.) Motivational tools WORK. In my studio, we’ve had the Winter Goals Make-Your-Own-Pizza Challenge and the Summer Goals Ice Cream Sundae Party, for instance. Each student picks a specific goal, and writes it down on a sheet that is posted in my studio for all to see. (“Just get better at flute”, for instance, is NOT a specific enough goal. The goal might be to learn all major scales in all octaves, produce a clear, clean, projecting tone in the third octave, or to perform a particular piece cleanly and musically.) Next to their goal, they list their favorite pizza topping (or cookie or ice cream flavor or topping). A parent hosts the party. A date is announced. Each student brings their favorite topping. The students MUST be able to demonstrate mastery of their new skill BEFORE the pizza (or whatever) is created. One student, who was having difficulty identifying notes placed on ledger lines, practiced identifying them on a music theory web site. At the party, the other students had a great time quizzing her by pointing to super high notes in their own music, and watching her quickly identify and play the notes. And much fun and pizza was had. And my students all got better.
I’d like to say these ideas are mine, but I highly recommend Bonnie Blanchard’s wonderful book Making Music and Enriching Lives (Indiana University Press) to any teacher looking for ideas.
My latest brainwave, inspired by the Goal Party idea in Bonnie’s book, is The Fall Candy Corn Scale Challenge. It is incredible what a student will do for a piece of candy corn. The way this works is that each student has a Mason jar with his or her name on it. (Trust the Domestic Flautist, a southern girl, to bring Mason jars into it.) Each time the student plays a correct scale, they get a candy corn in their jar. Double tonguing something or playing a chromatic scale gets them a candy corn pumpkin. The kid with the most candy corn in their jar by the time of our Fall Musicale wins a box of Apple Dumplings, which I’m purchasing from a local high school to support their band and choir programs. There is an elementary, middle, and high school category, with the required scales for middle and high school matching the Virginia Band and Orchestra District Band Audition requirements. (NOT a coincidence, of course.)
This has resulted in students begging to play their scales in lessons. I will say that again. They are BEGGING to play scales. And we’re having Scale Bees in studio class, and no one complains except for the one kid who doesn’t like candy corn, and even she’s not complaining much because she DOES like Apple Dumplings.
So, I encourage to you engage in all the bribery you have time to concoct. Your students will benefit. And so will you, as you will be freed from filling the role of “the nag”. All for the price of a couple of bags of candy corn, or stickers, oooh, or maybe candy canes . . .