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In Praise of Incrementalism

We are getting into the 3rd month of a new school year & it’s feeling … well, not so new anymore.  Routines are set (or not set depending on your point of view).  The weather may be changing, but unfortunately it also tends to lead to dropping many of those awesome routines we have set in place back in September.

Then, I listened to a podcast that go me thinking … how can I help my students (& myself) stay motivated during a time of year that lends itself more to snuggling on the couch with a cup of tea & a good book, rather than sticking with our routines & goals?

Our first studio challenge has been to learn the scales (& depending on student level , chords) of all the major & their relative minor keys on the Circle of 5ths.  While it has had incredible benefits such as recognizing scales & chords in their music, quicker mastery of those technical aspects of their repertoire, & a greater understanding of common finger patterns … for students, it can feel like their progress is slow in coming when there is always another key waiting to be learnt.

It was time to show my students how their incremental gains were leading to big progress!


“In Praise of Incrementalism”

Below are 5 ideas you can use in your studio to show how small progress each week leads to big growth over time.  The overall theme of these tips … document, document, document AND share!

  • Take video & pictures of students to use both as learning tools AND celebrations of success.
    • Learning tools: relaxed vs. tense fingers, arm movement of crossing thumb under, reminder video to watch before practicing, etc.
    • Achievements:  mastered a song, completed a method book or studio challenge, etc.
  • Add a comment to the practice page each week.  Aim for one area of growth you, as the teacher, have seen in the past week.  Then, you can add an area of focus.
    • Examples:  “I loved how you lifted & floated your wrist up the piano for each repeat of the pattern in ‘x’ song.  It sounded like the leaves were playing in the wind!” or “All those extra practice sessions this week really showed in the technique challenge today.  Congratulations on mastering 3 scales & their chords today!”
  • Brag often to parents (& any family members you happen to meet) about their child.  The caveat here is to be honest if something needs to be changed.
    • Bragging:  student is staying consistent with practice, trying new repertoire, applying previous concepts to a new song, etc.
    • Caveat:  “I love the practice schedule you have made together & I have seen that it has really helped Brady make consistent progress!  However, I have noticed that he has not checked the schedule the past 2 weeks & it is leading to many of the same practice goals from week to week.  Could you remind him to check his schedule this week so that Brady can get back to those smiles & self confidence he was developing we both enjoy so much?”
  • Annual growth plans … some teachers love them, some aren’t fans.  For myself, I need a visual to ensure that I am consistently helping my students move forward in their musical growth.  During lessons this week, I pulled up student growth plans & we counted up the number of scales & chords they have mastered since September.  It was just the encouragement they needed to keep practicing these last couple weeks!  (Having a column that automatically counts the concepts as they are marked mastered can also help when talking to parents.  “Samantha has already mastered 10/12 concepts in this area of her program!  Now, we will be applying these to work on the following projects/goals.”  It is an easy metric for them to understand, even if they are unsure what the specific concepts actually mean.)
  • Look back at repertoire.  This is by far my favourite end-of-year activity (or when a student needs a pick me up).  Have a student play one of the first songs from the year & then play a song from the end of the year.  Celebrate the progress made each week that led to that growth!

Now, here is the important part … share this information on your studio’s social media streams!

I will admit that in the past I have put much more effort into my studio Facebook page … but, with very few results.  It was a huge source of frustration &, after checking with families, most of the information wasn’t being used anyways.  After asking many, many other teachers for advice, I decided to really pull back this year.  Instead of at least 4 posts per week, I have aimed for 1 quality post per week.  It has been a great success!  Engagement is up & parents are sharing with their family members & friends.

What has worked this year (compared to previous years) is that (almost) everything is about the students in OUR studio.  Tips usually show student hands (instead of my hands).  Videos show students playing mastered songs or having fun with music games.  Pictures are fun for parents to share as bragging rights.  In tracking to see what gets engagement, I have discovered it’s the students every-single-time.  This week, is a riddle about what our studio & Dalmatians have in common.  (I have a feeling the parents AND students will love the answer.)

Your incremental ideas

If you are interested in the podcast I mentioned at the beginning of the post, head over to Freakonomics & listen to “In Praise of Incrementalism“.  It was a fascinating look at how incrementalism has led to the success of several human rights movements, as well as athletes & many other individuals.  I would also highly recommend “In Praise of Maintenance” … perhaps the topic of a future post here?

How do you encourage incremental growth with your students?  And, how do you share those ideas with your students & their families?  Please leave your amazing ideas below.

Have a great weekend!


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