Carrot Vs Stick – Sticker Reward For Piano Playing

With lots of screaming and tears, I was close to stopping El’s piano lessons after one year. There were some spikes in interest, but most of the time, his interest was low, especially if you compare to his extremely strong interest in art.

I knew that he did not like playing the piano because he was experiencing failure. Learning everything else such as dinosaurs, animals, countries, capitals and flags was extremely easy to him. Whenever he could not play the next note correctly, he would get extremely frustrated and throw tantrums.

With the frequent meltdowns, people around me felt I was pushing him too hard. It was easy to let him give up, but I thought that he needed to know that it was alright to make mistakes, and that with practice, he should be able to overcome challenges and become more resilient. By not letting him learn how to fail, I would be doing him a disservice, as Dr Gail Post mentioned in her blogpost about failure as a life lesson. Dr Martha Beth Lewis also talks about reactions to failure by gifted children on piano playing.

Suddenly, an idea came to me. Instead of forcing him to play the piano, I should make him like piano. Instead of using the stick approach, I should dangle the carrot instead. I told him that as long as he earned fifty stickers, he would be able to go to River Safari, where he could see gharials, beavers and pandas. It was a place he wanted to visit again, but I had been too busy to bring him to.

Almost immediately, his attitude changed. He was willing to practise just one time, to get a sticker. Initially, I started with a sticker for each time he practise a song. Slowly, I was able to stretch it to a sticker for one song. He could choose leaves or marine creatures, or even lions and cheetahs. He started filling up his book. For each day of practice, he was able to get between three to five stickers.

sticker reward for piano practiceWith practice, he was able to play better during his piano lesson, and it became more enjoyable. When we had reached around 35 stickers, his playing became much better. His teacher actually recorded him playing the piano without any errors, and sent a video to me. I was definitely extremely happy about that.

el plays piano

Despite this initial success, I knew that playing the piano was just another activity to him, and it was not something fun yet. According to Therese Haberman’s article about gifted children and play activities, she mentioned that getting children to practise the piano or other instruments would qualify as skill development instead of play. El was playing the piano because I made him do so.

On one occasion, I started dancing to the music he was playing, when we discovered one instrument on the keyboard produced multiple notes when played. He laughed, and I played for him to dance. This was what piano should be about – fun, expressive and free.

He had been drawing a lot recently, and then suddenly, he started composing his own songs, just when we were reaching fifty stickers. He drew different beats and wrote his own lyrics. There were some spelling errors but I decided that it should not overshadow his newfound interest.

micheals tset music

He included drawings too to decorate the page. He also played on the piano for me. These were just simple tunes, but the fact was he did all these on his own accord. He even asked for the keyboard to be switched on, when I usually had to ask him whether he wanted more stickers to go to the River Safari before he would walk to the piano.

get yor hets

I asked whether he needed a music manuscript book. He declined. When he played the songs to me, he realised that he needed the staff so that he would know what notes they were. Like what Haberman said, when a child writes a poem spontaneously or composes music on his own, that can be seen as play and relaxation. I am so glad he has found another artistic outlet.


El Practises The Piano

It is still early days, but I am seeing some changes in El’s attitude towards piano. After I had posted the post on how it is a struggle to get my child to practise piano on Facebook, many friends gave suggestions on how they get their children to practise.

I think after the concert, he finally saw the rationale. There were opportunities to perform and entertain. He had stated he wanted to perform at the next concert. With a purpose, there was meaning in the lessons. After telling his teacher, she said she might hold a mini concert at her other home to encourage her students to play more.

I guess he needs to see it as a social activity. Some friends have suggested letting him go for group music lessons, but I do not have the time to go for the lessons together, so I will just continue to have individual classes for him.

I encourage him to practise every day by asking him to play a song a day. That would take less than five minutes on a few occasions. This is a trick that I have learnt. When you want children to do something you want, you give them choices that both point to the same result. I ask him whether he wants to practise the first song, or the second song. Both options mean he will play the piano.

In the beginning, I had to coax him that I would only require 3 minutes of his time to practise a song. His attention span is still pretty short, so as long as he goes through one song relatively well, I let it go. The accuracy and precision can come later.

I am also making use of benefits. If he plays the piano, he can do something. Usually he gets to do almost everything he wants, so it was a little hard to implement at first. However, it worked when the reward was something he wanted to do.

Next, I make use of extrinsic rewards. I give him stickers on a few occasions when I feel that he has played well. He is very proud of them. However, I do not want him to ask for them as ultimately, intrinsic motivation is more important. Just recently, he discovered the type of stickers I had, and he asked for a crocodile and a gazelle for practising two songs. He immediately stuck them on his water bottle. I hope he will not demand them every time he practises.

I also praise him directly, and in front of others, when I discover he has managed to move on to new pieces. He came back with a big sticker on one of his pieces, and I pointed that out. He was very pleased.

He was reaching the end of the book, and there was a graduation song at the back. I went through that song with him, and told him that he was graduating from book 1, and going on to book 2, just like how he has graduated from nursery, and is moving on to k1. My mother told me that he played the song on his own during class, and did not want the teacher to help him. He was also able to move forward to new songs in a week, instead of taking many weeks because he did not practise.

Perhaps, I think it helps also that songs in the book became more tuneful towards the end, as they start playing more notes. He is currently able to play C-G with both hands.

I think the greatest joy when I see him rush to the piano when we go to my parents’ place. He would climb up to the seat, and play. Just two days ago, when I came home from work, I took out his book and expressed delight that he had moved on to the new book. He had learnt two new songs, so I asked him whether he would like to play them for me. To my surprise and joy, he played them on his own.

As a mother, I have to set routines for him. It is really hard because I only see him for a short period of time during dinner, but I cannot shirk my responsibilities. I am constantly learning and improving myself. I am glad for the December holidays because I got to accompany him to the lessons, and see for myself how exactly he was faring. Only then was I able to make changes.

Like I have said, it is still early days, but like what his teacher told my mother, he is like a budding flower. I only wish that I do not get any constant interference from other people that may hinder his progress.

Christmas Decorations 2013

It is Christmas time, and all the shopping malls are decked with beautiful decorations, and they have many exhibitions.

Square 2 at Novena
There is a lego exhibition. Gar was mildly interested in the lego animals.

Gar and Lego Gar and Lego Lion
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