Extrinsic Motivation with the Piano Studio Challenge Board

Extrinsic motivation sounds like a bad thing, right? We should want our students to be intrinsically motivated to practice piano!

While this is true, I think extrinsic motivation has it’s place too. For one thing, it can serve as a placeholder until a child’s intrinsic motivation for piano develops.

I really enjoyed listening to Anita Collins’s thoughts about this on Tim Topham’s podcast a while back. She had the scientific data to back-up what I already thought, that intrinsic motivation is fantastic, but that it often needs some help to form.

Motivation board piano studio

Piano studio wall of fame

Even when starting piano lessons was completely the child’s own idea, and they love practicing their pieces, if left to their own devices something will usually be neglected…. Whether it’s scales, technique, theory or repertoire; there’s always something that could use an extra sprinkling of extrinsic motivation for encouragement.

I used to come up with these various incentives, different things that would last a few months, and then I’d start a new one. Then I had the idea of a more consistent program, and the “challenge board” was born.

Note: I have updated my challenge poster since publishing this post. You can find the updated one here.

What’s included on my Challenge Board?

Of course I couldn’t have every area of piano playing covered on the board, I had to pick and choose the most important. By “most important” I really mean “most likely to need an extra push”.

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’ll know that I think improvisation, composition and games are super important…but I don’t exactly have to beg students to take part in those activities!

The five areas I decided to cover were:

  • Consistent practice
  • Scales
  • Note names
  • Chords
  • Transposing

Challenge board

That last choice might look a little odd, but we apply transposing to our technique exercises so really those are just incognito technique challenges.

How does the Challenge Board work?

Each challenge has specific guidelines for how it is completed, and an outline of all the challenges is included in the student’s folders. When a student has completed the challenge, they get a sticker for the front of their folder, and their name goes up on the board. The names are on magnets, and the posters are attached to a metal whiteboard.

40 Piece Challenge

If you haven’t heard of the 40 Piece Challenge, you should have! It was started by Elissa Milne in Australia, and has spread around the world because of it’s simplicity and effectiveness. I use it most with my teenage intermediate students, especially when they’re stuck in an exam rut.

100 Days of Practice

This was started by the Piano Explorer magazine. I think it’s pretty self-explanatory! The point of this challenge is habit creation, making piano just a regular and consistent part of the routine.

I’ll be using this one mostly for students in their first year of lessons, to get them off to a great start. Of course it’s also important how they practice, but this is a good lesson in persistence.

If you want to make that practice more effective, you should try these practice step stickers. You could even weave it into your challenge requirements.

Scale Challenges

I’ve blogged about my scale levels before, and the idea for them is really where the challenge board sprouted from. I wanted my students to keep practicing scales, not just for exams but as a regular part of their routine.

60 Second Challenges

These flashcard challenges were inspired by Susan Paradis’s ‘One Minute Club’. I altered this idea a little, to make three levels but the idea is essentially the same. Students have to name and play a certain number of notes in under 60 seconds, three weeks in a row. You can find the levelled flashcards and time log sheets here.

Challenge board close up

Are you looking for a way to gameify reading by intervals? You might want to check out the ‘Interval Wizard’ cards, the fast way to learn to read for beginning and struggling students.

Download these Posters

If you would like to download these posters to use in your own piano studio you can download them here:

If the files don’t load immediately, please wait as the file sizes are quite large due to all the graphics.

What do you do to motivate your students?

Do you believe in extrinsic motivation like me? Do you go a step further and offer actual prizes as motivation? Or do you believe that the music itself should always be the reward?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this fascinating topic.

24 thoughts on “Extrinsic Motivation with the Piano Studio Challenge Board”

    • Nope, what you see is what they get. They earn their place on the board, and the sticker for the front of their folder. The stickers work kind of like scout’s badges so they’re building up all their achievements. I find if you really sell it, and make it sound cool, the recognition is enough.

  1. Nicola,
    I printed out poster #2 at my local copy shop with great results. I have been wanting to try a chart-based incentive this year and yours fits some of the goals I have–plus it looks great! I took an old frame I wasn’t using and put sheet metal purchased from the DIY store in back of the poster. Voila! A magnetized chart! I think my students will love it.

  2. I love this! I’ve been doing some similar activities with my students. One question- what is your metric for determining success with the Chords and Transposing levels? Are they similar to the other challenges? I was wondering, as these are 2 areas I try to incorporate into what we are doing in lessons, however, they are definitely areas in which I could get better! Thanks!

    • I’m still working on refining those Kristen, it’s a similar system. I’m just not completely and totally happy with it yet which is why it’s not linked here. I’ll post it once it’s perfect! 😀

  3. Hi Nicola

    Looking for the levelled flash cards on the 60 second challenge. The link is coming up with an error. Is there somewhere I can find them?

  4. Hi Nicola,

    I like your idea of having a more permanent Wall of Challenges!

    I used to have different incentives/projects/challenges throughout the year too and I would make the posters, instructions and all the necessary things needed for it. It’s okay for awhile, but without a consistency, it is hard to keep up when things gets busy or hard for myself and my students to keep track of what they’ve done. Your Challenge Wall got me thinking about combining different projects/skills/challenges together and motivating them to choose their own. It really does make a difference when they are motivated and will take ownership of their own learning & development as a musician but of course in a fun way and with their peers too!

    Also, having something visual on a wall helps everyone get a big picture of what’s going on, who’s doing what and a motivation to get your own name on one of the challenges.

    I first started not using any prizes because I didn’t want them to just do something for the sake of winning prizes. Then I went through a phase of trying out earning music money to win a practice prize (a tool or item that will help them in their practising). Then I’ve also put them in teams so it’s not a personal competing, having them completing projects and colouring circles in to win a special treat in one of our term-end activities like an extra ball of ice-cream or toppings at the year end party. This past year, they had to complete a few challenges in order to colour a slice of pizza and the team with the most gets a pizza party where we made our own pizza (community-building, which is one of my values for my studio).

    I think music or something related can be the prize in itself and prizes related to music and practising are good too. If our music teaching and curriculum we teach are interesting, practical, challenging and fun, they will enjoy it. Extrinsic prizes such as stickers or recognition are good visual reminders of things they’ve worked on during the year. Little treats are nice occasionally and a thoughtful party is also a great way to bless them because food always brings people together & helps build community in the studio. So I’m a mix between providing intrinsic and extrinsic motivation a thoughtful way for our studio. =)

  5. Hi Nicola,
    Love this! Can I ask a few questions about how you do the challenges?
    1) do you let the students choose which challenge they’ll do?
    2) Do students ever try to do more than one challenge at once?
    or is it kind of a studio-wide, ‘we’re all doing the scale ninja challenge’ type thing?

    Getting inspiration for January!

    • 1) No, in general I decide when they do the challenges. Some are “opt-in” like the practice challenges (because if they’re not committed to it I can’t force ’em) but all I run when I choose to.
      2) Yes, they would quite often be working on a scale or chord challenge which take longer, and also a 60-second challenge for example.
      Hope this helps!

  6. Hi Nicola,

    I noticed that the poster in your video is different than the one here. Is that poster available too? I like the thirty practice bullseyes one and some of the new patterns too. 🙂


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