As summer winds down and the new school year begins, it can be surprisingly difficult to get your students motivated to practice again.
Especially if they haven’t had a lesson since May.
A few less-than-stellar habits may have crept in over the last three months… Think of all the lessons you’ll have to spend just to get everyone back to where they were before summer started.
Of course, your students will eventually get back into the practicing groove. When region auditions, college auditions, and recital performances start looming in the not-so-distant future, your student’s motivation to perform well will almost drive itself.
But you don’t have to just wait for motivation to finally arrive. Kick-start your studio’s best year ever by incorporating challenges into your lessons.
11 Awesome Musical Challenges
I’m the kind of musician that gets really excited about challenges. I can think of at least half a dozen times that I got so motivated by a teacher-suggested challenge that I made a TON of progress in only a few weeks.
There are several ways you could approach challenges at the beginning of this semester:
- You could assign each student a challenge that suits their goals and experience level
- Or you could let each student select a challenge that speaks to them
- Or you could simultaneously develop your studio’s sense of community by assigning your entire studio a single challenge that they pursue as a group
There are lots of ways to use challenges to motivate your students. Try something this semester, see if it works, then adjust it in the future. Before long you’ll have a system that suits your studio’s unique needs.
1. (Really Soon) Performance Challenge
Start the semester with some excitement! For a student with a piece almost performance-ready, surprise them with a beginning-of-semester performance opportunity.
Arrange an informal performance at your first studio meeting or host a beginning-of-semester party featuring a few solo performers.
I will never forget the semester that I came back from summer break and my teacher asked me to perform a piece that I had learned over the summer in the first studio class. It was exciting, it got me practicing diligently right away, and it jump-started a successful semester.
2. New Technique Mastery Challenge
Who said technique has to be boring? Turn foundational technique exercises into a challenge!
Make a progressive list of technical skills needed for mastery of your instrument (it might be a pretty long list…). Show the list to your student and ask which of those skills they think they’ve already mastered. Put a check mark next to those.
Then ask your student to pick up to 5 new skills to learn in the next 2 weeks.
During that lesson, teach each skill in detail and show how each skill applies to the repertoire they are learning (or repertoire they hope to learn soon).
Challenge your student to learn each technique and be able to teach it to you at the end of 2 weeks.
Note: Your student may not master their new skills in only two weeks. However, by learning how to teach the skills, they will discover how to continue to develop their skills outside of the lesson.
After 2 weeks, ask your student to demonstrate their new skills and teach them to you. Depending on the age of your student, consider giving a small prize (everyone loves stickers!) for each successfully learned skill. Offer an even more exciting prize for learning all five (movie passes, coffee shop gift card, or a lesson discount).
3. Be the Teacher Challenge
Shake things up and give your students an opportunity to get some teaching experience.
Adjust your teaching schedule so that 2 students have lessons that overlap by 30 minutes. During those 30 minutes, ask Student A to teach Student B for 15 minutes, then switch so that Student B teaches Student A for 15 minutes.
Observe and offer guidance as necessary. You’ll have a unique opportunity to discover what each student knows and on which topics they need additional instruction.
Extend the challenge by asking the same two students to teach each other again at the end of the semester.
4. Theory Ninja Challenge
My students have called me out more than once for being a music theory nerd.
Understandably, they don’t all share my enthusiasm for the intricacies of tuning systems, formal structure, harmony, and counterpoint.
So, I make theory a little more fun by offering level-graded theory challenges. You can customize your unique Theory Ninja Challenge as appropriate for the experience level of your students.
Level 1 could be a Key Signature Quiz like this one.
Level 2 could be a Scale Quiz like this one.
Level 3 could be a Triad Quiz like this one.
If you need some inspiration, take a look through Gene Biringer’s impressive library of music theory fundamentals: Music Theory Fundamentals
Challenge your students to complete 5 levels during the first 4 weeks of the semester.
Make it fun by offering small prizes. Younger students might get pretty excited to receive a sticker for each level achieved. For older students, you could offer a free cup of tea or coffee for every 5 successfully-completed levels.
5. Rhythm Bootcamp Challenge
Make learning rhythm a game. Need rhythm exercises but don’t want to write them out yourself? Check out the rhythm worksheets at composecreate.com. They are excellent and there are plenty to choose from, offering a wide range of difficulty levels (click here for worksheets).
During the first week of lessons, select 2-4 worksheets with your student. Start with rhythms that are familiar and progress to challenging new rhythmic territory.
Supercharge your Rhythm Bootcamp by challenging your student to master as many of the worksheets as they can in 1 week. Ask your student to show off their new skills at their next lesson.
6. Music Video Challenge
You may be surprised to discover that some of your students have pretty impressive video editing skills.
Invite your student-videographers to participate in a Music Video Challenge. Give each participant one month to film and edit a 3-5 minute music video. They may film themselves or another studio member. Encourage participants to be creative, especially with lighting, setting, and editing.
Show the world how awesome your students are by featuring your students’ creations on your website or studio Facebook page.
7. Scales Superhero Challenge
During my undergraduate degree, my teacher assigned me a massive scales challenge. It was pretty intimidating at first, but I was excited to tackle such a large project.
What kind of scales challenge would seem scary but achievable to your students? Every instrument has a unique scales system and each student will benefit from a different level of challenge.
The Scales Superhero Challenge that you create may require more than a week or two to achieve. In fact, if it’s big enough, it may take 4-6 months or more to successfully complete.
Consider reaching beyond what you think your student can handle. You might be surprised when they become true Scales Superheroes.
8. Complete an Entire Etude Book Challenge
This is one of my favorites.
Most instruments have etude books featuring 24, 41, or some other crazy-large number of etudes.
Start a studio tradition of etude excellence by inviting your most ambitious students to tackle an entire etude book. They may need anywhere from a few months to over a year to complete the challenge, so use this challenge as a chance to discuss long-term goals and how to tackle such a large project.
The confidence that comes from mastering a massive work (like an entire etude book) can inspire students to reach for some pretty amazing goals.
9. Practice Every Day Challenge
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. But it’s super cool when your student can say, “I’ve practiced for 100 days in a row!!”
Obviously you don’t have to set 100 days as a first goal. Goals of 10, 30, or 50 days can be just as exciting.
I’m an advocate for taking one day off each week (rest is important!). Consider turning the Practice Every Day Challenge into a Practice for (a certain number of) Weeks Challenge. Then your student can build in 1 rest day per week and still maintain the challenge. Just imagine how much your student will achieve after 8, 12, or 52 weeks of consistently practicing 6 days per week.
10. Pro Practice Skills Challenge
In this challenge, your student will master practice techniques that professionals use to maximize their efficiency in the practice room.
Discuss how to practice efficiently, how to listen critically, how to use self-made recordings to boost your practice, and how to remain focused in the practice room.
Talk to you students about what musicians can learn about practicing from current brain research.
Check out my recent post on how to level up your practice.
The challenge is to master one or two of these practice skills per week. Discuss practice skills during your first studio meeting and watch your students’ progress skyrocket.
Encourage your students to check out the Mindful Practice Mini Course for more on practicing skills. Join the Mindful Practice Mini Course here:
11. Ultimate Practice Challenge
Design a practice challenge that is so huge, so inspiring, that your students can’t wait to take it on.
Make it difficult enough that success requires genuine commitment. Challenges like this enable your students to learn the tenacious grit that they need to tackle difficult projects.
Here are a few possibilities:
- Practice 4 hours a day for 30 days in a row
- Practice scales, with a drone, for 2 hours every day for a month
- Perform a new piece for an audience every week for 4 consecutive weeks
Design your Ultimate Practice Challenge to suit the needs of your students. If a student attempts this challenge but fails, take the opportunity to talk about the importance of learning from failures. Empower them with the knowledge that failure is not a stopping point, but an opportunity to begin anew.
If a student tackles the challenge and succeeds, CELEBRATE! Email the studio, call the student’s parents, have a party…do whatever it takes to show your student that you value their effort and achievement.
Balancing Fun & Work
Musical challenges are fun. They are also most powerful when they require effort to achieve. Here’s how to strike the balance between fun and hard work:
- Pose challenges as opportunities
- Maintain high expectations regarding goals and practice
- Celebrate your students’ successes
What challenges do you use to get your students fired up for a new semester? Leave a comment below or send me an email.
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