Yes I do use practice incentives in my piano teaching studio. I know sometimes choosing prizes from prize boxes for completed assignments feels like bribery. And counting points earned through practicing using M & M’s or Sweethearts or Candy Corn runs the risk of encouraging consumption of sugared junk food. Would my students really practice for raisins? Maybe chocolate covered ones! But students of music need clear markers of progress that even playing in a recital doesn’t always define, unless a student were to perform their previous year’s recital piece along side the current year’s composition. (Maybe an idea worth trying!) But would their audience necessarily recognize the increasing maturity of pedaling or the ability to create longer, smoother phrasing as a clear mark of measurable improvement? If we don’t use a graded system like Guild or the Royal Conservatory of Music, how do we give students’ clear but immediate goals and markers so that our students can SEE as well as hear that their practice pays off, each week in every lesson?

In our studio we’ve practiced to raise money for good causes much like gathering sponsors for races like the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure (Breast Cancer). We’ve raised sponsors for every minute practiced to stop the poaching of elephants for their ivory tusks by fostering a Baby Elephant through The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya. We are the first piano studio I know of to do so. We have also created sight-reading projects to raise money for our local Lion’s Club’s We Care for Eye Care campaigns. Both of these practice incentive projects have been enormously successful, particularly because the historic relationship between ivory piano keys with Elephant poaching or eye care are directly related to piano lessons.

But this year we are trying something different, relating to the resurgence of the popularity of the epic Star Wars movies. While watching the newest film in this narrative, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I was struck by the immediacy of the literary construct of Good vs. Evil and how passionate young people (as well us older folks) are drawn into the want of a heroic life.

So far we are having a ton of fun and practicing among all of my students has improved enormously over the dull winter months.

We created a storyboard that goes something like this:

Forty years after the defeat of the Galactic Empire, The First Order bans all music. It is up to our studio to make sure that music is not forgotten so that we can preserve this knowledge and skill until the Resistance can find Luke Skywalker, the last of the Jedi Knights and restore order to the Universe. Add a glow in the dark star to our galaxy every time you bring new music to the Universe. Remember, you are part of the Resistance and it is crucial that you work to protect the important legacy of music until it can once again flourish in the next millennium. Help defeat The First Order and their harmful restrictions of the things that make us human and happy. If you think that this is just a made up play story…think again. Time and Time again, dictators have restricted the kinds of music that can be played or listened to. Even today, in Afghanistan, there are no music schools because of the fear of the Taliban. Your music is important, to the entire world.

Everyone has posted glow in the dark stars on a drape of black fabric stretched across the ceiling of the studio. We already have had mini-recitals where my students play for each other in the darkened studio under their canopy of stars…that they all earned…together. No one’s stars are individualized. They are all different sizes and together, these reflective stars create a galaxy bright enough to perform under. At the most recent mini recital under our stars, I asked my students if they wanted to continue earning stars to place upon our “night sky”.   The answer was a resounding yes but this consensus also came with a plea. “Could we add planets”, they asked. An urge for individual recognition was thus divulged! But with students working collectively to develop our Star Wars practice project further…they together came up with an ingenious plan. Each student has a “ladder of goals” in their practice notebooks. Six rungs. Six, yearlong goals, which students strive to complete, by the end of each piano year. Each year the goals differ slightly…but in general…they are:

  1. Be able to play all 12 major scales…or all 24 major and minor scales…to various degrees depending on their age and length of piano study.
  2. Complete the “30 Piece List” of new music developed by Wendy Stevens and Elisse Milne.
  3. Maintain a Repertoire list of 5 memorized pieces.
  4. Record at least 5 new pieces during the school year and post to their individual mp3 web pages on my studio web site.
  5. Participate in three studio recital events OR complete the 100-day practice project sponsored by Clavier Companion.
  6. Perform or Record a specially chosen challenge piece or complete an entire book of music for a book recital aka Suzuki Book home performance.

When a student completes two ladder goals…they get to choose their planet from a studio-made list of planets from our solar system, the moons in our solar system and the planets in the Star Wars galaxy. Of course, as a result of a student suggestion, we have a name and create your own planet option as well.

When a student completes 4 ladder goals, they take home a styrofoam planet shaped ball to be decorated however realistically or fantastically they want. When all six goals are completed, students will bring in their planets to be hung from our ceiling of stars, first in the studio and then at the end of year studio.

We’ve just started the planet portion of this practice project. But students are already driven to choose a planet of their choice. Pluto is popular for some reason! But Saturn is a close second! And everyone is intrigued by the idea of creating his or her own imaginary world in outer space. But this outer-space is based on working together to create a galaxy of a courageous world, where heroes reign, music is king and effort is grand.