Halloween's Magic

Leo has always loved Halloween. This year he out did himself!

A Halloween Recital can be just the boost you and your students need heading into the winter months. Because Halloween falls so early in the fall semester (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) it takes a little planning. You'll have to hit the ground running in the fall, but it's completely worth it.

The studio fireplace decorated by the students this year.

If you've never done a Halloween recital before, pencil one into your teaching calendar for next year. Spend the year tucking away pieces that amuse and charm you and in October you will be ready to have a recital experience that will :

  • Give your students of all ages a practical, substantial and light-hearted performance opportunity early in the year. This is especially useful for new transfer students and absolute beginners.
  • Afford your students a myriad of ways to explore sounds and modes in an appealing, nonjudgmental way.
  • Engage your students' imaginations and free you, the teacher, from concerns about assessments and auditions. 
  • Expose you and your students to the wide range of of fabulous Halloween music. 

Added bonus: It's hard to get worried about one's performance when dressed as a shark.

New kid in the studio meeting the other girls her age.

New kid in the studio meeting the other girls her age.

At our first master class of the year, we decorate the studio for Halloween. It's an excellent way to build community within the studio as younger and older kids help each other transform the usually much more conservative studio space.

Mary working on the cobwebs in 2015

Mary working on the cobwebs in 2015

I schedule the recital on the Sunday afternoon before Halloween, whenever that may come. We follow it with a big potluck supper. (Another chance to build community.) 

The twins in true Halloween spirit.

The twins in true Halloween spirit.

Here are some highlights from my studio's 2015 Halloween Recital. What will yours look like next year? 

Pieces in the Video:

Sabine and Iliana in 2014

Sabine and Iliana in 2014


Be sure to check out my new  Holiday Wish List for 2015 .

Be sure to check out my new Holiday Wish List for 2015.

Decorating in 2014

Decorating in 2014

Swimming with Dolphins

Clementine's assignment book with the  Owl Incentive Chart  and stickers for her to use at home.

Clementine's assignment book with the Owl Incentive Chart and stickers for her to use at home.

I wrote about creating an incentive program for my student, Clementine. This was the sheet that I made for her to use at home. Four successfully checked boxes meant she could put an owl sticker on her Owl Incentive Chart.

A week ago she literally could not play this piece.

Yesterday it sounded like this: 

Clementine exhibits several common student traits:

Swimming with Dolphins  is a Primer Level piece in Middle C position with an easy teacher accompaniment. Excellent first recital piece.

Swimming with Dolphins is a Primer Level piece in Middle C position with an easy teacher accompaniment. Excellent first recital piece.

  • Clementine plays very slowly - but it doesn't feel slow to her. She is busy and working hard all the time. The notes of the accompaniment help fill in the length of long notes. If a student is playing this slowly, a three-beat note can feel like it's an hour long.
  • Singing the words to the song helps her with the rhythm and continuity, as well as motivating her by engaging her imagination. (What would it be like to swim with a dolphin?)
  • Playing an accompaniment along with her aids her rhythm development more than any other single thing I can do. Music is just like any other sport. If you play with someone better than you, it rubs off.

I find I do much better as a teacher if I assume nothing. I take the time to show each student how to make a practice plan. At first, it's simple and basic because all I'm trying to do is develop awareness of what practicing is. If I only reward things done perfectly, my student will not try to find their own errors and fix them. In fact, the opposite will be true. My student will learn to ignore errors.

If I reward finding errors, and teach my student how to deal with them, the stage will be set for successful learning.


What's Enough

In the time since I first wrote about creating an successful incentive program, I've had a nagging question.

If I believe in intrinsic motivation, why do I have a chest full of prizes?

I find the book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes absolutely brilliant. 

So why do I need to use charts and stickers and music money? I think I finally understand how to reconcile these two seemingly opposing views. 

Tiny, incremental bits of learning are hard to quantify.

Clementine listening to a fellow student at a Saturday Master Class.

Clementine listening to a fellow student at a Saturday Master Class.

Clementine is seven years old and loves music. She loves to sing the lyrics to the songs so much that she often forgets to learn the notes of the melody.

She's only beginning to understand what practicing is. Like most children, she thinks that "doing something right" is the desired behavior and a mistake should be ignored and forgotten as quickly as possible. Acknowledging an error seems like a pretty bad idea to Clementine.

This is where some kind of currency comes in. I need a way to show Clementine how to practice. A tool to measure and reinforce. It's not that she is thinking about prizes, we both just need some help.

Yesterday, we didn't even use Music Money because I needed something she'd never seen before. We started simply. I made a practice chart for her with little boxes to check off. If she made a mistake and went back and played that section correctly she could check off a box. Playing one page of a piece without error also got a checked box. It was a pretty messy page . The thing that actually made it work was the little Owl Incentive Chart. (I gave her the choice between Pirates and Owls. She chose Owls. I'd bought the Pirates specifically because I thought she'd like them. Go figure!)

At first, she thought that she could get a sticker each time she played something correctly. This is typical. The idea that there was a reward for making a mistake, catching it and fixing it was new to her. (Though I'd explained it before - it hadn't stuck.)

I explained that each time she filled in four boxes she could put an owl sticker on the chart. At first I gave her seven owl stickers to take home. As she bought in more and more to the process, I kept giving her more stickers to take home. ("Wow - you're catching onto this so fast I bet you're going to run out of stickers!")

We pretended that we were at home and did a practice session. She dutifully stopped when she made a mistake and repeated the measure correctly twice. Box checked. It didn't take long to get her first owl sticker. And then her second.

After a few minutes of box checking and owl stickers she looked me right in the eye.

"Can I practice when I get home today?"

I played it cool.

"Yes, Clem, you can practice when you get home today. And you know what? You get double credit for practice done when you get home from your lesson because it's the most important time to practice."

Clem's eyes lit up. I'll bet all those stickers will be on the chart when she comes back next week. Mistakes will have been made and corrected. Learning will have happened. Will it be perfect? Unlikely. But we've started something. She is beginning to understand how to make a goal into a set of tasks.

So much of what we do as teachers is cerebral. Simply saying, "Do it again!" over and over is not a rich and meaningful experience for our students. (Try keeping a tally of the number of times you say "Do that again" in a day. You might be shocked.)

Half the time they don't even know what they did wrong - how in the world can they be expected to stay interested?

Kids need to know when they've done enough. As teachers, we need to decide exactly what's enough.


How to make an incentive program that really works

The best exercise is that which you do. The same applies for incentive programs. They can be elaborate, planned and refined, or they can be haphazard and random. You know what? If you have one, it will work. It will help some of your students focus on their tasks.

Mini Owl Incentive Chart  -my personal favorite.

Mini Owl Incentive Chart -my personal favorite.

I'll show you the way mine works below, but know that it is not without its flaws. I'm not always consistent - either in what the rewards are or with who gets them. Some students remind me, "Shouldn't I get some music money for that?" and others wouldn't dream of reminding me. Some don't think about music money until the recitals. 

If you're not in the mood for something elaborate, you can use something pre-made like these adorable Mini Owl Incentive Charts. They come in packs of 30, and you could use one for each student. Choose something that you'll give them as a reward, and you're done. The Owls are my favorite, but they also come in Pirate, Out-of-this-World (kind of a space-theme), and even Hungry Caterpillar. There is something for almost any age.

Kids like prizes. Having an array of different kinds of prizes used to seem daunting to me. Then I realized that it didn't matter that much exactly what they were, it just mattered that there was some way to recognize their efforts. Even kids from the wealthiest families like to get prizes.

(Once I was teaching a child from one of the wealthiest families I've ever known. It's a family name that you would recognize even if you live in Unalaska, Alaska. As recital prizes, I'd presented each student a set of pencils imprinted with their name. One student's older brother, age twelve, rushed up to me after the recital. "Where did you get those pencils?" he demanded. "I HAVE to have pencils with MY name on them!"  He seemed quite flummoxed when I explained that I'd specially ordered them for my students. Since he wasn't a student,  I didn't order any for him. That's when I realized it isn't about the stuff. It's about feeling special. But I digress.)

I've seen sophisticated kids go crazy over stretchy mice and cheese

Because of my personal values, the prizes I provide are gender neutral and not full of sugar. This eliminates Princess stickers and candy. That's just me. Perhaps you'll have drawers full of Disney mermaids and Snickers bars.

Here's how I do it. (Yours may be entirely different.)

Sample Music Money Price List

Decide what kind of behavior you want to reward with music money. Here's a sample Price List.

Prize Drawers with Prices








Find a container for your prizes and put it in a place where kids will see it. I use a set of plastic drawers. Mine is in my waiting area. The rule in my studio is "Only open one drawer at a time." Otherwise the $100 prizes will get mixed up with the $400 prizes. 

Then the fun part: fill the drawers with prizes. I'm often asked how I pay for the prizes; I pass the cost along to my students in my materials fee. I buy a great deal of tiny prizes at reduced prices online, but I also shop at office supply stores and raid their clearance sections.

For a few of my older students who have worked diligently, I've splurged and purchased  $10 iTunes gift cards. I used to try to price things at about $100 in music money equals $1 of real money purchase. A better idea is to have an older student help you price things. How much you paid for something, especially if you got a good deal on it, isn't a good predictor of how popular it will be with kids.

$400 prizes: Markers, Magic Treehouse Books, Fake Snake, squeezy toys

Prizes for tweens and teens: Blank journals, magnets and fancy paper clips, desk set.

I give every student $400 for playing in a studio recital. My most expensive prizes are priced at $400, with the exception of the iTunes gift cards which I prices at $1200. (There were a few kids who had hoarded their money AND worked hard!) My rule-of-thumb is that every kid should be able to buy something small every other month or so. Some kids like to get lots of little rewards. Some kids are thrifty and like to save their money. If too many kids aren't spending, I'll have an end-of-the-summer-sale-and-you-have-to-spend-all-your-money-right-now event to get my cash supplies back.

I used to think that every other teacher had a perfectly put-together system for everything. Then I realized that we're all just doing our best. We try to be organized, we strive for consistency, but we all fall short.

Is it time for you to stop trying to design a perfect incentive program? Should you just grab some Music Money, or an incentive chart, a few prizes and start one? I bet you'll be glad you did!

Would you like some help with studio business basics?

Clean Up Your Toys!

Every parent on the planet has said it. We always start with a sweeter, kinder explanation, "When you're done with the Legos, you need to put them back in the container, honey." 

Before long it's simply, "Clean up your toys!" 

I use this idea to help me teach hand position.

I ask Gabriella to "clean up her hand" when she finishes playing a phrase. She is typical of a student who has multiple hand issues: collapsing joints, over-involving her entire hand in every task. (In this example she is supposed to be playing all quarter notes, though you'd never know it.)

I let everything else go and work on this one concept.

By holding her 5th finger down while moving the rest of her hand into position, she also strengthens the outside of her hand. This simple "game" will become an automatic part of her playing within a few weeks. 

 It's so tempting to try to work on everything at once. It's easy keep piling on instructions too quickly.

Instead, pick one specific part of a wobbly hand position and address it.

When I ask Gabriella, "What are you doing?" Observe her response.

"Clean up your toys," she says.

It's a sticky, shorthand way to describe this task.

"Please exhibit fine hand position!" will probably not be as successful.

This is especially true if your student has poor auditory processing skills. Some kids have trouble understanding verbal direction. The more linguistically complicated the instruction, the less likely they are to understand it - much less be able to process and achieve it.

  • If you want more information on the subject of auditory processing, I recommend the book Like Sound Through Water: A Mother's Journey Through Auditory Processing Disorder. It's a lovely memoir of a mother coming to understand her son and the way he experiences the world. I read many books like this - about different kinds of learners and different kinds of minds. I find that they make me a better teacher and a more compassionate person.

Note: I always do preliminary work with the ladybug before asking a child to "clean up their toys."

Do you have a student whose hand position might benefit from a little toy clean-up?