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Shirley S Kirsten

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Paying a Child to Practice Piano?!
by Shirley S Kirsten   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Thursday, September 08, 2011
Posted: Thursday, September 08, 2011

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Reasons to oppose the whole idea!

Paying a child to practice piano?

I was scanning *Piano World’s forums and noticed posts about paying children to do their daily practicing. An assortment of contributors thought the idea had merit.

My first response, without embroiling myself too deeply in the discussion, was to abhor the “practice” altogether. I saw no value in viewing piano playing as a $$$ rewarded “chore” placed in the same column with completing homework, brushing teeth, and putting out the garbage.

Another poster, seemed to tie in being a music teacher and getting wages, with rationalizing the equivalent for a piano student who met his practicing obligations.

The more I read, the less I agreed with any justification for paying a piano student, kaput, finished!

Rewarding learning with cash outlays is anathema, and I had only to read a post by an educator that reinforced my belief.

While I don’t concur with John Taylor Gatto’s unequivocal support for “home schooling” as an alternative to public education, I support his arguments against paying students along their academic learning journey. (The Harlem Children’s Zone, by the way, has enlisted these payments with some controversy)

From the school teacher who experimented with a pay as you learn route:

“So there I was with all this money,” (He had a grant) accountable to nobody for its use but himself…. “Plenty for everyone. How to spend it? Using all the lore acquired long ago at Columbia’s Psychology Department, I set up reinforcement schedules to hook the kids to cash, beginning continuously—paying off at every try—then changing to periodic schedules after the victim was in the net, and finally shifting to aperiodic reinforcements so the learning would dig deep and last. From thorough personal familiarity with each kid and a data bank to boot, I had no doubt that the activities I selected would be intrinsically interesting anyway, so the financial incentives would only intensify student interest. What a surprise I got!

“Instead of becoming a model experiment proving the power of market incentives, disaster occurred. Quality in work dropped noticeably, interest lessened markedly. In everything but the money, that is. And yet even enthusiasm for that tailed off after the first few payments; greed remained but delight disappeared.

“All this performance loss was accompanied by the growth of disturbing personal behavior—kids who once liked each other now tried to sabotage each other’s work. The only rational reason I could conceive for this was an unconscious attempt to keep the pool of available cash as large as possible. Nor was that the end of the strange behavior the addition of cash incentives caused in my classes. Now kids began to do as little as possible to achieve a payout where once they had striven for a standard of excellence. Large zones of deceptive practice appeared, to the degree I could no longer trust data presented, because it so frequently was made out of whole cloth.

“… my children, it seemed, were able to discern how the academic game is played or, perhaps more accurately, they figured out the professional game which is about fame and fortune much more than any service to mankind. The little entrepreneurs were telling me what they thought I wanted to hear!

“In other unnerving trends, losers began to peach on winners, reporting their friends had cheated through falsification of data or otherwise had unfairly acquired prizes. Suddenly I was faced with an epidemic of kids ratting on each other. One day I just got sick of it. I confessed to following an animal-training program in launching the incentives. Then I inventoried the remaining money, still thousands of dollars, and passed it out in equal shares at the top of the second floor stairs facing Amsterdam Avenue. I instructed the kids to sneak out the back door one at a time to avoid detection, then run like the wind with their loot until they got home.

“How they spent their unearned money was no business of mine, I told them, but from that day forward there would be no rewards as long as I was their teacher. And so ended my own brief romance with empty-child pedagogy.”

From, Chapter 13, The Empty Child, by John Taylor Gatto

I couldn’t have said it better, even as it applied to piano students. While they might not be vying with their friends to get a bigger money grab, news of pocket $$$$ accruals in a particular music studio would travel like lightning!

It would become viral and surely shut down a once creative undertaking. A teacher who instituted a bank your practicing model, could lure students away from instructors who had little reserves for such a nifty operation.

Bottom line, the joy of learning would be replaced by deposit slips and account balances.


If children materialize their learning path to make it worthwhile, then give them a set credit cards along with their cell phones and observe them wheeling and dealing their way through life.

As a viable alternative to the “rat race” of competing for cash on the road to piano mastery, how about trying the time old reward of “praise” for a job well done, and here’s where I part company with educator, John Taylor Gatto, who denounces this type of reinforcement because he believes it programs in certain “right answers” instead of stimulating imaginative, creative thinking.

To the contrary, I find that praise given in response to a well prepared assignment, goes a long way to further practicing.
And bestowing sparkling gold “Excellent” stickers or giving a pupil a chance to select a special one from a collection following his lesson spurs music-learning enthusiasm. Add in a few choice “magic bullet” pieces as incentive and you have a more solid motivator for children to play the piano each day. (A separate blog is devoted to pertinent “bullet” repertoire)

Scheduling “theme” recitals that engage a child’s interest, and working in steps on the way to play for these occasions, sets up a schedule to realize performance goals. It stimulates interest in practicing.

Above all, having supportive parents who show an interest in a child’s progress while working with a teacher to encourage daily practicing, promotes a consistent rhythm of music learning.

In summary, cash incentives to practice are off the charts in my piano studio. I can think of no reason on earth to institute a payment voucher or an installment plan pay- off with a quarterly interest roll-over to motivate music students.

Finally, regardless of market fluctuations in the near or distant future my position remains unchanged.


*Piano World Thread: "Paying a Kid to Practice"









Web Site: Paying a Child to Practice Piano?

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