Edit: read at the end for a follow up to this concept.
I never planned on teaching piano. Such a joy fell into my lap three years ago, two years after graduation with a BM in Music Theory and Composition. It was my old high school piano teacher that gave me the opportunity. She set me up with enough students to begin my private lesson adventures. I am a changed man; one who has apparently picked the wrong music degree. Turns out I love to teach.
I should have majored in child psychology as well as music education though, for each child I teach is different than the next. Half of my job is figuring out how to motivate a student towards practice. You cannot grow as a musician without practice. This means playing the piano while the teacher isn’t in the room. I’ve done a number of things to help in this, everything short of bribery.
Then I came across a curious case… two boys from different families who had a natural love for music… but were not practicing it. I would get on to them, their parents would get on to him, and still they wouldn’t budge! I would expound upon their inherent love for music… they would sincerely agree with me, yet no changes occurred to support that agreement. There are other kids of mine who have a minor case of this bug, loving music but not practice it.
At last a solution has presented itself! Oddly enough, it has come from the video game industry. I’m rather fascinated with games, debating on many forums concerning their future. While perusing the web for some gaming news, a single recurring theme kept popping up. This is the idea of gamification, which is, implementing video game mechanics into the real world.
New ideas can be scary; this one needn’t be. We aren’t talking about changing the apple here… just how we experience that apple. Gamification gives us a fresh view on life, or in my case, piano lessons.
Extra Credits, an internet show that focuses on the development of games, recently spoke about such a use in education. I highly recommend you watch the five-minute movie, especially if you are a teacher. They covered three elements that any teacher can learn from. Being a private teacher gives me leeway to test this new line of thinking.
For the past few months, I have been using the same motivational tricks found in World of Warcraft to motivate my students towards better practicing habits.
Grading scale vs experience points
Since I teach kids in private lessons, far from the school environment, I have been reluctant in using their grading system. My main strike against it is how its motivation is based on a fear of failure. In America, every student begins with an A+. In order to maintain that grade, they must do everything perfectly. One or two mistakes, and the perfect score become unreachable. Average students cannot escape their mediocrity. No matter how much work they do, they’ll receive a B at best.
My students should practice out of a joy and love for music. The grading system should complement this mentality. It should hone their skills through encouragement in learning a new piece. Extra Credits recommends that you grade from the opposite direction. Instead of starting with an A+, give them a zero and let them earn points as they go.
Playing through a new piece for the first time is an important part of the learning process. If the student is not focusing on learning the music while I’m there, he or she will not be able to practice it when I leave. My job in seeing them once a week, is to teach them how to teach themselves. The leveling point system reflects this, rewarding students for the amount of focus they give in playing a song.
The video game World of Warcraft is designed in levels. Every monster your character defeats give you a experience points. After a certain number of points, you level up. You grow stronger and stronger with each level earned. The next level will take more points to reach than the last. This will make you move on to find monsters more worthy of your skill. Instead of killing smaller animals in level 1 (which give you a few experience points) you have to start going after larger creatures (harder to kill but more experience points earned). This encourages the player to explore the world as he or she grows to meet its challenges.
The same concept applies in learning the piano. You’re not killing monsters though, you’re playing songs. A beginner starts with songs that are rather simple. As they progress and grow, the songs become harder. I am using a leveling system to reflect this growth. Over the long run, students can earn thousands of points that will earn them many levels. Thus they will have two numbers to show their progress: the total number of experience points earned and the level they have reached.
Right now, I have set the first level bench mark to 1,000 points. Once it is reached, they receive a prize and move on to the next level. The parents are more than willing to take care of this part for me. This means I don’t have to agonize over finding the right prize since: I don’t have kids and don’t know what they would want, the prize can be more personal coming from parents who know what they would want, and it gives the parents something to motivate their kids with while I’m not there.
In retrospect 1,000 points may be too high for a beginning student. I’ll have to work this out as it comes up.
Putting this concept into practice
Every new piece begins with zero points. The grand total of points they can earn for a piece will depend on the skill of music they are playing (in WoW terms, the difficulty of the monster they face). Right now I have set the lowest level, beginning music to 25 and 50 points. Any mid-level, single page songs are 100 points. Higher skilled, two-pagers are worth 200 points. A masterpiece, like a Beethoven Sonata, could be worth more than 1,000 or more points (though I don’t have any students at that level yet).
All of this is variable, a simple tool used to encourage students in practice. You have to find the golden mean here. Give them too many or too few points, and they won’t even try. They must feel challenged but not discouraged in their venture through World of Piano.
For example, let’s say I am teaching a piano song worth 100 points. My student has never seen this piece in his life. He must use what I have taught him to overcome it. After a brief look-through, he then sight reads it to the best of his ability. I will be grading him on how much focus he gives the piece. Mistakes are to be expected, but he will earn more points on how well he confronts them. If the first play-through is poor in comparison to the skill I know that he has, I’ll give him 7 points. If it is a wonderful play-through (not perfect, mind you, this is his first time) then I’ll give him 15 points. If it’s tremendous, he will earn 20.
On the second play-through I’ll give him a chance to earn another 10 or 15 points. By the end of both play-throughs, he has the chance to achieve up to 35 points, all of it counting towards the total score of 100.
I have tried this over the past few months and it has shown immediate results! One of my trouble students earned about 32 points with 3 play-throughs (he begged to play the song a fourth time!).
When I come to our lesson next week, the real test begins! If he has practiced enough to play the whole song with minimal problems, I’ll add to the 35 points so that it reaches 95 or more points. Exceptional playing of notes and rhythms will earn him the full 100. Any effort beyond that, paying attention to dynamic markings and the like, will earn him bonus points beyond the 100.
I am still working this system out. It isn’t perfect but it is effective. The competitive students are out to beat everyone else (comparable to the player verses player section in the game of WoW); the more introspective ones are earning points to see themselves grow better (just like the player verses environment sections in the game of WoW); and the parents are seeing their kids practicing and enjoying music!
This single change has revolutionized the way I place value on my students. Before I could only pat them on the back or give them a high five. Now I can let them know exactly how well they are doing.
This gives my students a sense of agency, that is, a since of control over their destiny. The more agency they feel, the more resilient they become when facing the harder pieces. The more they practice, the more points they earn, the more pieces they play, the more music they learn, and the more piano they enjoy!
Read on for a follow up.
Edit: some of you have been asking for a follow up to my little project here. Last school year (Fall 2011 to Spring 2012) I did a sort of half and half with this style of teaching. The first half of the school year I gave out my piano points. The kids were enjoying it to a degree. Then I had a Winter Concert. I decided to stop giving out points after the concert and see if it was missed. My prediction was that the students would be wondering why I wasn’t giving them any points.
Something else happened instead. Most of my students didn’t ask about the points and seemed to be fine without them. The one or two students that did ask for the points I decided to continue in giving them the points. At the beginning of this school year I asked one such student if my points system encouraged her to practice more. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “It doesn’t help me practice. I just like it when I get stuff.”
Older students (from middle-school on up) were against the points system from the beginning. The most success I had with this was with very young students who had no yet developed a love for music.
So in closing, I’m not sure if this is the best way to implement a point system under my circumstance of teaching (which is private lessons 30 minutes, and once a week). Inspiring them to love music is still the best motivator around. I may still use this point system for very young students but as of now I have stopped implementing it. Of course this isn’t an official study and I am not a psychologist of any kind. If I had them for daily lessons in a school-teaching environment, and this was for a grade, the results may have been very different.