Motivating young students

July 23, 2007 at 07:12 PM · I'm sure this isn't an original topic, but does anyone have any fresh ideas on motivating students to practice?

A few of the ideas I'm considering this fall for my studio are:

*a new song book for all students

*a treasure chest, so when a student reaches a certain goal they get to pick something

*Adding duets to their studies so they can play with me and other people

*a fall recital

*burning a few CDs of fun violin pieces to lend out

I use stickers also, but sometimes those get old.

I have a few students that are especially difficult to motivate to practice and would greatly appreciate any ideas.


Replies (26)

July 23, 2007 at 09:04 PM · The past couple I've years I've given them "Super Stringer" Awards and a piece of candy every time they practice 500 minutes. That works for some kids, but I proposed the idea of maybe doing "practice bucks" for every X number of minutes/number of days they practice - I haven't decided yet. The kids who earn more bucks will get an ice cream party at the end of the year - they seemed pretty excited about this.

With the school year looming ahead, this is a great topic!

July 23, 2007 at 09:28 PM · I am thinking of something like, only instead of bucks, like, points received in a lesson. They'd either get 1, 2, or 3 points at a lesson, and they will know the criteria. After maybe 30 points they would get to choose a little prize or something.

July 23, 2007 at 09:27 PM · I teach the four volume series "Beautiful Music for Two Stringed Instruments: Two Violins", by Samuel Applebaum. These duets are just great. They could work in an individual situation, with you playing the other part, or a group situation.

Also, something I recently started is a "Treasure Chest". The student picks an inexpensive "treasure" (AKA Dollar Store cheapy) if they knock off a significant piece, or a book. The bendable pens with colorful feathers have been a big hit. Much to my great surprise, the adult students have been really excited about this..."Wow, I just finished a Dancla "Air Varie", and now I get a Yo-Yo!"...Who knew?

July 23, 2007 at 11:56 PM · I just put together a treasure chest tonight with found objects at home I don't want....

Some movies, picture frames, stuffed animals, books, burned CDs. That should motivate them!

July 24, 2007 at 03:38 PM · take them to a concert! if you can, get them to meet the artist or a violinist/instrumentalist of the orchestra

July 24, 2007 at 03:56 PM · The treasure chest sounds like a winner! I remember when I was a kid, the thought of being able to pick out some sort of toy or candy after a job well done got me soooo excited. Same when I went to the dentist- if I was good I would always get to choose some stickers afterwards. Actually, I don't think I've grown up all that much because the thought of doing that now still makes me giddy. :D (Except now I guess I'm old enough to go out and buy myself a's usually a bit more expensive though, hahaha.)

I would say, for the harder eggs, ask them what candies or stickers they like. Maybe if you have stickers that appeal to their interests, that will reinvent the reward for them. Ooo, or what about a colouring book? :)

August 6, 2007 at 12:43 AM · I reward my students with what I call "Music Bucks". It is nothing more than monopoly game type of paper money up to $5 or so after every successful lesson. They look forward to receiving the fake money because they can buy prizes off of a prize list (i.e. gift certificates to a movie theatre, mcdonalds gift certificate, pocket radio, etc etc.) I know it sounds silly, but it really works!

August 6, 2007 at 01:29 AM · Chocolate.

Worked every time for me. :-)

August 6, 2007 at 02:37 AM · This is an excellent post. I'm starting my new job here in Norman and I'm looking for some suggestions. Here's what I'm planning on doing:

I'm going to have five elementary schools (5th grade beginners). I'm going to put them in a set number of groups (depends on the total number in each class, but if I have a class of, say, 20, I'd probably do 4 groups of five kids each).

I'm going to keep a "points log", giving points for groups whose members exhibit good behaviors and/or show improvement (points will be taken away from a group who misbehaves). At the end of the semester I'm going to have a special suprise for the group with the highest number of points.

My question is: What should the reward be at the end of the semester? It needs to be something more significant than just some candy, but not so expensive that I'll be broke (i'm not sure how much money I get from my school district for school things). Any ideas would be appreciated.

August 6, 2007 at 01:08 PM · If you go with tangible "rewards", you want to give some serious thought to what you reward. I ran a treasure box (of household clutter and inexpensive school supplies) to reward my school students for successs on a set of management items including arrive promptly (they had to keep track of a rotating schedule and leave classrooms), bring instrument, music, practice record, have short fingernails. I did not reward success on various assignments with prizes, but did use stickers, which look like a reward but are also an easy reference for the teacher. Sue

August 6, 2007 at 02:07 PM · Marty, your idea sounds good, but you might want to consider some sort of system for rewarding individuals for good behavior/improvement rather than have it be entirely a group thing. I remember being in elementary school and being really frustrated/disapponted when I would miss out on rewards/good grades etc.. because of another member of a group not pulling their weight. I'm guessing you want your students to learn to work together which is important, but it is also important that if an individual is always well-behaved and works hard that they are rewarded and their efforts are not overlooked because of a classmates bad behavior or lack of effort.

As far as specific rewards, I'm not sure what would be the best for a class situation, but my first private teacher had a basket of prizes such as little sticker books, music pencils, paper dolls, etc.. which were given after 5 weeks of practicing every day (we put a sticker on a chart every week at the end of a lesson if we'd practiced every day the week before). With my own students a small piece of candy for every weeks worth of practice (15min. a day five days a week) seems to work about 50% of the time.

August 7, 2007 at 01:03 AM · I started a discussion on the same topic several months ago, but unfortunately, I can't find it now. I got some very good input. I had a 7 year old student who loved coming to lessons and playing his violin in my home, but he wouldn't practice in his own home. I tried all kinds of things in conjunction with his parents. What finally worked is that he was given $1 for every good performance at a lesson and he could save the money to buy something he wanted. Neither his parents nor I really liked this approach, but we decided to use it because it was the only thing that worked. In June we had a big surprise. He is practicing a lot at home and enjoying it. He's also making good progress. The difference was that when he was in school, he had so much homework to do that he just couldn't stand putting extra time into practicing his violin. He actually likes practicing, and he does lots of it when he's not in school.

I like the treasure chest idea. I think I'll d something like that for my students. One of the things they could do to earn a prize would be to practice for x number of hours.

August 7, 2007 at 01:17 AM · Hello all,

Ever since reading the book Punished by Rewards(Alfie Kohn), I have been put off by tangible rewards like stickers, candy, money, etc. Should we really "bribe" our students into practicing? If they keep on getting the same rewards, would they keep wanting bigger and better rewards to continue their progress?

However, I'm TORN. At times I want to go back to giving out stickers etc. for those "special" cases, but most of the time, I've been able to get my students to practice without the rewards. I love seeing their reaction to their accomplishments, seeing how proud they are of perfecting a piece or a technique. I guess their reward should ultimately be the accomplishment from practice. My philosophy is to get them to love music for the music, not the stickers and rewards.

However, should I be going against centuries or millenia of getting kids to do the things you want them to do?

The things that have worked for me are:

1: Enthusiasm

2: Getting them to listen to music, get them to watch soloists, give them a musical "hero" to admire

3: Get them involved with art in general, giving them an encompassing art education through music, drawing, dance, history, sculpture, architecture, etc.

4: Relating to everyday life activities, like playing sports (running drills, forms, etc.), telling stories, brushing one's teeth

August 7, 2007 at 07:29 PM · I've always found the key to student motivation is parental motivation. If you can get the parents to help out (not just sign off on a practice log), then the kids are much more likely to go far.

There's a colleauge of mine that has the best motivational technique I've seen, but you have to be a little crafty and willing to invest some money: She sewed red felt vests for all her students, and makes buttons with the names of the tunes that they learn. When they've learned the song (and all the requisite technique, of course!), they get to put the button on their vest (a la girl/boy scouts). Then they wear the vests as part of their concert dress, and it looks pretty snappy! Plus, the reward is not just the button, but showing proudly all they've learned!

If I didn't have 100+ students, I'd do it in a heartbeat!

August 7, 2007 at 08:39 PM · Jillian is correct about parental motivation. I feel it's a teamwork between parents, student and teacher. There needs to be a strong bond, loyalty, and trust with each other. Provided that the parent or parents don't interrupt the lesson, I require them to sit in on the lesson so they can see that they're getting their money's worth and hopefully get more involved with home practice. Some of the parents of my top students really like my approach for them to stay in the lesson because they see it as an opportunity to spend more "quality time" after they come home from work.

August 7, 2007 at 08:42 PM · Hello;

Punished by Rewards also impacted my teaching strategies.

The sticker issue brought up a chuckel. When my sister, (younger, more clever and bold) and I took music lessons we were rewarded with "OK" stickers. This meant the piece was mastered and dropped from mandatory practice. A number of years ago sis told me she solved her progress problem by going to the music store and buying her own packet of stikers. I never thought they'd even sell the stickers to a kid! So naive was I. They still make the same stikers and I can't buy them. Our teacher evidently never caught on, or didn't care.


August 8, 2007 at 12:38 AM · I also don't want to bribe them, but is using stickers really that corruptive and dangerous to their future? Everyone I know of got some kind of stickers as a kid on homework assignments, or visits to the doctor, etc and they're fine.

Of course, sooner or later they're going to have to learn that life doesn't bribe you to go to work, do well on your tests/jobs, or pay the bills. But at a young age, personally I don't think there's anything wrong with earning a toy or some allowance. Sooner or later, you're expected to just do it.

August 8, 2007 at 01:52 AM · I absolutely agree to the parental involvement. The students that do really really well are encouraged by their parents who love music.

I try to educate the parents by encouraging them to sit in on lessons, maybe take notes, and getting them to take them to concerts and other artistic events.

Those non-musical parents probably do not even know how much work it is to learn how to play an instrument. I have several parents who think of me as a babysitter, or enroll them in music lessons as a way to get them out of trouble and pass time...

So maybe educating parents is just as important or MORE important than the kids!

August 8, 2007 at 02:10 AM · Dear Catherine:

I personally don't have any problem with using stickers. Different people may feel differently, but I believe it is a teacher's job to do whatever it takes to motivate the student to achieve their best output. Of course, some students are easier than others in this aspect. I do care very much about the success (both current and future) for all my students, but at the same time I keep in mind that I'm not their parent so I try to stay out of parenting issues. Any issue that doesn't affect the learning outcome of the student, I don't involve myself in that. For example, if a student has behavior problems but is respectful to me and it doesn't affect the lessons, I do not deal with that personal issue of the student/family. If in the future when the student grows up and doesn't want to work hard because they're not "bribed" like when they are young, it should not be your issue and you shouldn't have to deal with additional stress like this.

As long as you do your job to the best you can and the outcomes of the student are good, then that's what you can hope for.

August 8, 2007 at 02:40 AM · It's amazing, the power of the sticker to a bunch of 10 year olds! Actually, even for my former Jr. High kids!

August 8, 2007 at 10:29 PM · Well, one of my adult students once told me that after a particularly horrible day, she went and looked at all her Wohlfahrt etudes that she had learned, and all the stickers she had accumulated in the book really cheered her up. I found that rather sweet.

The reason I use stickers is my first (piano) teacher used them. Remember the little square ones that came on a tiny strip? We would also get a cookie at the end of the lesson. He was an excellent teacher, strict, but kind and patient, and I never felt bribed. Though the best part of any lesson was when his little gray cat "Princess" would jump on his lap while I was playing!

So I give out stickers. Not cookies though. I think I would end up eating them all myself!

August 9, 2007 at 02:24 AM · Maybe that's what music lessons are really for - the parents. It's like taking your dog to training and then later realizing it's YOU who's getting the training, not the dog, so you can effectively work together at home.

August 9, 2007 at 02:43 AM · "Maybe that's what music lessons are really for - the parents. It's like taking your dog to training and then later realizing it's YOU who's getting the training, not the dog, so you can effectively work together at home."


It would be ingenious to enforce Suzuki's philosophy in a western context(understanding that he was preaching to the choir a little because of Japanese focus on family and children).

I think a telling metaphor is in our nation's refocus on men's responsibilities in taking care of their children. And then there's the neurotic Valium dependent housewife who is chasing the plumber(Desperate Housewives and Rosanne).


1. Just do it: educate the parents of their role, integrate them, and hold them to it, and take notes.

2. Don't over-schedule yourself so you can pull it off--less is sometimes better for private teachers as well..

3. Thank God that you may have helped a parent get down on a child's level consistently when successful..

4. Children are as busy today, as adults were beginning in the 70's--get with reality--know their schedules, and piecewise accordingly.

5. Help mom and dad with perspectives:

a. more is not always better: over stimulation.

b. true musicianship requires the more, and more.

c. show them that lifetime learning applies to parents as well, and brings joy and satisfaction; and, being an active part of that reality, and sharing it with none other than their own child is not a childish thing, but a very progressive thing, to be a part of.

Finally, wear three hats: Hat one is for those parents who just want the resume fodder. The child of course loses, but at least have something in place for musical appreciation if they insist on half-doing it. Give them a written record of their successes and failings so when they are twenty and whining, that they will be able to see what could've/should've/would've happened contrasted to their peers who had the real involvement and commitment (thus taking notes, beyond CYOA).

Hat 2 would be rather revolutionary, because it would have addressed the very core of what music is suppose to be about--a language of communication--and as one blogger recently inspired: with connections directly to the heart. That means the teacher is able to keep up with progress, schedule for success (already mentioned), and help create the connections important to parent working with child--a rare thing in our country, though not unheard of.

Hat 3 would be for those kids who just excel anyway. They are out there. (I feel funny when I have to steal beginner's licks from them ;) ). Anyway, I've known people who just practiced because they wanted to(me to some extent, but much more accomplished people as well). It's a slightly different twist and direction, but it would be enabling the parent to keep up and help both in the short term goals and the big picture.

Sooooo, for a child not particularly inclined to practice or showing complacency, try hat 2 first, then revert to hat 1 if you have to, but don't leave them with nothing, and be up front with the parents in the things you document.


Jury all your students with hat 2 on, and let things happen as they may.

August 9, 2007 at 03:45 AM · Motivation is a tough one. Many students are unmotivated, but in my opinion, parents should not negotiate with children about things like practice or homework. I tell my son to pretend he is a great violinist. Sometimes I get old bell telephone videos out of the library and let him watch the classics. He loves it, and will pick one of the greats and pretend he is that guy. Pretty cute! But the job gets done! Duets are great because they must be engaged at all times.

Some children, however, are taught it is OK not to obey their teachers and parents. It may be cultural, or generational, but in my world view children should be respectful and not playing power games with adults. So if they are not motivated, they need to pretend they are out of respect for you and the hard work of their parents to send them to lessons with a good teacher. If a child works hard, give them a sticker! Rank needs some privileges, even if your 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 they love it. Children are not entitled to money, or stickeres as a negotiating point however. Unfortunately, many children are simply spoiled.

The truth hurts...but they don't cooperate because they are allowed not to cooperate.

If the child is disorganized, that is a different matter. Give them a list to check off. This is better than saying practice fo 30 minutes. The list must be done no matter how long it takes. BUT IT MUST BE WITHIN THEIR ABILITY. At a young age, they can not tell what else they need to do so they can become easily discouraged. They like to see the list shrink. Also, it helps to move very quickly between tasks. This is "direct instruction". Don't have big lags between scales, etudes, songs, because some children have a difficult time starting and stopping tasks. Of course every child will say "I hate this. I want to quit" Ask them, "Quit and do what all day?" This is power trip plain and simple. Ignore those types of comments, it has nothing to do with violin at all.

August 9, 2007 at 06:02 PM · Poignant J. Kingston... Very.

August 19, 2007 at 01:17 PM · i think this is a very tough subject and i wish people can find an easier solution that unfortunately is never there, at least no one solution for all.

suppose we suggest all members of get motivated to take up skateboarding for whatever reasons...too far off? ok, how about all members make their own violins to play on? still have motivation issue to get started? don't think carving wood and boiling hide glue is for you? oh come on, be a sport! it is good for you since you already love violin so much!!!

well, that is what many young players feel when given a violin and told to get motivated to practice. that "motivation" is not theirs, but ours. we are trying to impose a set of values upon them. and because of that, often, it is an uphill battle, with or without stickers or other forms of bribes, to get their attention, to lure them into working hard for something they do not quite comprehend. at least not yet, we hope.

for the very very few that can catch the violin bug very early on, good for you teachers. just don't screw them up for us, lol.

for the rest, let's be honest and treat it like an education. going to school is not the same as going to a party (even though these days the distinction is blurred). you go to school on a daily basis regardless. there will be good and bad days, better and worse days, but just be there. find your own motivation in the process.

the other thing is that many violin teachers are paranoid of their students spending time in other interests. the teachers feel that the other interests take time away from violin practice.OMG, OMG, OMG.

if the kids are truely interested in other things as well and the violin teachers show disdain towards them, kiss violin motivation goodbye.

i wish there are more teachers that are interested to relate, to learn from the students, to share violin as part of their lives.

let the students decide how big that part is.

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