Music Teaching and Rewards and Bribery by Sue Hunt, Music in Practice
Not unless you pay me!

Learning a musical instrument involves a daily regime of highly focussed practice.  This comes as an unpleasant shock to most young children and indeed to many parents.  How can we help ourselves to see practice as a desirable activity and not as penal servitude?

Some of us, some of the time, resort to bribery.

A bribe is a payment that you give to ensure that things which should be done, actually get done.  Think carefully before you resort to this, as bribery payments can become extortionate.  Quite likely all that’s really needed, is more of an acknowledgement and affirmation when you notice good things happening.

A bribe can actually make a task seem less than attractive.  “If Mum is offering to pay me to behave, I’m going to be bored out of my mind.”  “That must taste disgusting, if Dad is paying me to try it.”  Parents who habitually give bribes, often find that they will have to increase the value, as the child grows older and learns how to “Milk the system.”

It is human nature to resort to bribery when things aren’t going well – when we aren’t on the same wavelength as our children.  In doing so, we can find ourselves moving the goalposts, or being manipulated by our children into increasing the payout.  Children who are bribed to behave in a lesson or practice can’t possibly focus, because they feel a constant need to check that the parent is sticking to her end of the bargain.  These same children often actually act out, in order to manipulate the parent into offering a bribe.

Rewards are a very different matter.  A reward is given for things which have been done.  We all work for rewards, which can vary from a few encouraging words of praise to the massive bonuses given to CEOs.  Please bear in mind that working for the sake of doing a good job for its own sake is a very mature skill and has to be taught gently.  With encouragement we can all get there, but we need to learn how to do it.

A very highly thought of colleague, uses a system of rewards for her young beginners.   She believes that it takes a major effort for a 3 year old to focus for a ½ hr lesson.  Her rational is that it takes a very long time for a beginner violinist to get any intrinsic reward out of playing music, so to maintain motivation, they need a system of immediate extrinsic rewards.

Her students are always given one special technical point to work on during the week.  At the beginning of each lesson, the student is asked to say what the teaching point was and then to demonstrate it.  When this has been done, she always compliments the child on good work and gives out a small sweet.  There is no nagging.  After a couple of weeks, the student and parent catch on that it is very desirable to practice their teaching point.

When there is something that needs working on, during the lesson, she has a race to 10 correct repetitions of the task.  As she is careful never to over-face the student, the child invariably wins and is always rewarded with another small sweet and comments such as,  “It’s not fair.  You’ve only been working on this for a week and I’ve been practising for 20 years.  How could you be so good at it?”  What a delicious combination, beating the teacher and getting a treat!

If the child makes a superb effort, she “spontaneously” hands out an extra special candy.  At the end of the lesson, the child will get, as a matter of course, a “lesson sweet,” just for being there.

This system has become an invariable ritual in her studio where I have always observed an unusual level of motivation among her beginners.

This colleague’s husband learnt the violin, as an adult, over 20 years ago.  He still remembers not only getting treats from Dr Suzuki at his lessons, but also why he won them.

I would like to end by quoting Cynthia Richards, who says in her book, How to Get Your Child to Practice Without Resorting to Violence,  “For children, leaving any rewards of practice to be realized only when they finally begin making music sound beautiful, may be one of the things that causes such a high dropout rate among the children studying music.  Each step of progress should be congratulated, and enthusiasm for work on the next step encouraged.”

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