February 24, 2014

The Point System

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I have a regressive teaching technique I called The Points.  It’s a way of not just encouraging students to play the piano but a way of helping them to focus on matters of technique that they would otherwise most likely ignore.  That they otherwise do ignore.

It costs them nothing to have me sit there week after week saying, “Two counts on that note. Half note, two counts. See this note that’s not colored in?  Hold it long enough to say ‘Hold On.’”  But if I say, “You get a point if you remember to hold every half note in this piece for two counts,” then they’ve got stakes. Then they start mining pieces for half notes.

My new six year old student who hits the piano keys like she was swatting flies looked at first to be a hopeless case.  She was resistant to all suggestions or demonstrations.  We hadn’t even gotten to a place where I could assess if she even had sufficient small motor coordination to curve her fingers at all.  But when I said she could have a point for every song she played with her fingers curved, I saw she could shape her fingers into talons on command.

Most of my students like the point system, but occasionally I’ll get one that’s just not interested.

“No thanks,” a ten year old told me.  “But I still want to get stickers.”

Another child, a tiny six year old inspected the prize box and, in the tone of a 40 year old harried mother, said “I don’t need to have stuff like this around.”

Then there is Lacie who just turned 7.  After unveiling the point system to her, I spent ten minutes trying to focus us on her music.

“Lacie, show me what you played this week.”

“What if I play a song with my fingers curved and I sing along.  Will I get two points?”

“Yes. Let’s look at “Petite Minuet.”  Does this look familiar?”

“What if I went back and memorized all the songs I’ve already learned? Would I get points for all of those?”

“Yes. Which hand begins ‘Petite Minuet?’”

“What if I learned something that wasn’t in any of my piano books but my grandma helped me a little? Would I still get a point”

“Yes. Wait. Well, no. You only get a point if you try it without help from anyone.”

“What if I get it wrong?”

“That doesn’t matter.  We’ll fix it and then you’ll get a point for trying.”

“Just for trying?”

“Yes.  Lacie, show me your right hand number two finger?”

“What if I want to learn something by myself but she forces me to let her help and I can’t stop her, will I still get a point?”

Sigh. “Is that really going to be a problem?”

Points can be cashed in for whatever stuff you certainly do not need that I can find relatively cheaply at Archee McPhee’s, the Oriental Trading Company, Dollar Stores, and yard sales. The prize booty is stored in an old suitcase of my mother’s that’s got leather edges, brass hardware, and the kind of spring lock where you push a button and the hasp goes boi-yoi-yoing.  The body is a brown tweed pattern with a specular coffee stain that looks like the land mass of India, the Middle East, Africa, part of Greece and off to the left a bit, the U.K.  Inside it smells permanently of Dorothy Gray lipstick (Edwardian Rose).

Should you be lucky enough to be a student of mine, here’s a sampling of what the points will get you:

Devil Duckies, mini pencil-top Devil Duckies, and Devil Duckie Christmas ornaments. On sale for 5-10 points.
(Clearly these are leftover from a few years back when Devil Duckies were the rage.  My current crop of students don’t know what they are.)

Mini nail polish. 15 points.

Cocktail rings, bling, mardi gras beads. 10 points.

Fortune Telling Fish. 5 points.

Sticky eyeballs. 5 points.

Erasers and pencil grips. 1 point. (limit: 2 per lesson)

Baseball cards. 10 points.

Porcelain tchotchkes. 20 points.

Sometimes the prizes aren’t what matter.    Some students watch their points add up week after week and the points take on a meaning that I’m not privy to. But with all my students who are in The Points, the end of their lesson is signaled with the question: “Do you want to look in the prize box?”

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