When a child first begins piano lessons there’s often an initial period of excitement where everything is fun and new. Your child wants to practice because they’re eager to be able to play the piano. But then there comes a time when the novelty wears off and the very long and slow road of music learning stretches out before them. How can you help your child want to keep going on days when practicing the piano doesn’t seem that rewarding right now?
Two Kinds of Rewards
Basically, there are two kinds of rewards for doing things, intrinsic and extrinsic. An intrinsic reward is something that comes naturally through doing an activity, while an extrinsic reward comes from an outside source.
For playing the piano, the intrinsic reward is that it is really fun to make music. This is the reward we want our children to anchor to. Once they feel that playing the piano is its own reward, they’ll practice and learn new songs because they want to. But most children don’t start out feeling that way.
While waiting for the love of music to take over, sometimes parents need to supply extrinsic rewards for piano practice. I am fully in favor of this, if it is done right.
First of all, extrinsic reward systems for practicing the piano should be short-term. There are two reasons for this. One is that reward systems tend to become less effective over time. Another is that the main goal of the reward system is to establish good habits. Once a habit is established, a reward isn’t needed as much.
To create an effective reward system, choose a specific goal for your child, something you can measure. Maybe you’d like your child to have a better attitude about music practice. You can make a chart with five empty squares, and tell your child that every day they come to piano practice with a smile, you’ll draw a smiley face in one of the squares. Then, when every square has a smiley face, the two of you will go out for ice cream together.
Here are some ideas for ways to reward your progressing piano student:
- Small toys for young children
- Occasional treats
- Tickets to a musical event or film
- Instrument upgrades
- Sheet music for a favorite song (be sure it is at the right level)
- Music apps and games
- For an advanced student, their own recording equipment, or even professional recording studio time
Once your child has reached this goal and enjoyed the reward, you can target something else. Vary the reward to keep things more interesting. You might even ask your child to help you choose what the reward will be.
Get Over the Slumps
Create special reward campaigns for a limited period of time during common motivation slumps. As piano practice becomes more of a habit, the intrinsic reward will take over and keep the momentum going. Times when students need a little extra motivation include:
- At the beginning, when first starting lessons
- After school vacations
- When practice has temporarily stopped due to other activities
Remember, the goal of the reward campaign is not to “pay” your child for practicing, but to give them a little extra boost until they’re enjoying piano enough to want to do it on their own.
After you’ve been using short-term reward systems for a while, and your child is used to the idea of practicing the piano every day, it can help to keep them in the habit when there’s a daily reward of being able to do a favorite activity once piano practice is complete. If your child loves to play video games, or go outside with their friends, simply require that piano practice be finished first.
Set regular intervals for celebrating your child’s piano accomplishments. These milestones could be working hard at piano for a certain number of weeks or months, or learning all the songs in a piano unit.
- Hold an in-home piano party for family and friends
- Film a piano concert and post it on Facebook or YouTube
- Hold a holiday music party
- Have a celebration dinner
- Go on a special outing to a concert or show
Effort Before Talent
Remember to praise your child’s effort more than their talent. Of course there’s nothing wrong with letting them know they have a special gift, but focus your praise and attention on things they can control.
For the Love of Music
Once again, reward systems for piano practice should be short-term so that they can continue to evolve and adapt to the needs of your child. As time goes on, you’ll be able to gradually phase out the extrinsic rewards as the intrinsic rewards of playing the piano take over.
Remember, for almost all children, one of the greatest rewards is having the attention and approval of their parents. So, never stop letting them know how much you love hearing them make music!