Gamifying Music Lessons

I’ve been noticing that some of my piano students seem to be motivated by “passing” a piece in their books. I have had a lot of conversations immediately after a student plays through a piece that go something like this:

Student: “Did I pass it?? Please can I pass? PLEEEEASE???”

Me: “Do you think that you played it well enough that you don’t need to do more work on it?”

Student: (without pause to consider) “Yes! Please can I pass it?”

I’m not sure where this fixation on passing pieces came from, as I hadn’t been using that kind of approach in my teaching. Nevertheless, I have noticed this trend of students seeing each page of their books as a hurdle on the way to some future goal. They seem to be gamifying their own piano lesson experience.

Gamification is gaining popularity as an education technique in a variety of subject areas. Simply, this involves applying game logic, mechanics, and reward systems to non-game content. Kids love playing games outside of school, so why not gamify education to harness that motivation in school or lessons? The reason that I had not introduced game features into my own teaching before now can be seen in the table below from Gamification Wiki’s education page: “Being intrinsically rewarding is optional.” My personal teaching philosophy does not allow intrinsic motivation to be an option; I see it as a primary goal of education. Yet, it is counterproductive to ignore what is interesting and motivating students.

Game Gamification
Games have defined rules & objectives May just be a collection of tasks with points or some form of reward
There is a possibility of losing Losing may or may not be possible because the point is to motivate people to take some action and do something.
Sometimes just playing the game is intrinsically rewarding Being intrinsically rewarding is optional.
Games are usually hard and expensive to build Gamification is usually easier and cheaper
Content is usually morphed to fit the story and scenes of the game Usually game like features are added without making too many changes to your content

Therefore, I have started informally gamifying my piano lessons in a thoughtful and learning-focused way that I believe leads to increased intrinsic motivation and student ownership of education. Here’s how it works.

  1. I write a list of three to four categories to be judged at the top of the piece. More advanced students may be asked to determine categories themselves, based on what they see as the most important elements in a piece of music. A typical list would include notes, rhythms, dynamics, and articulation.
  2. The student plays the piece that they have prepared for that lesson.
  3. The student and I discuss each category individually and, together, agree upon a score from one to five points.
  4. A “passing” score for my students is full points or one point off. This must be determined in advance. If the student achieves a score in this range, the piece is not assigned again for the next lesson.
  5. If the student did not “pass” the piece, he or she sets a goal score for the next lesson. As long as they choose a score that reflects improvement, any goal is acceptable. The goal does not need to be to “pass” by the next lesson.

This system has a number of benefits that go far beyond adding some extra fun to lessons.

  • The complexities of music performance are broken down into individual elements. Multi-tasking is a requirement of playing music, but make learning new pieces difficult. By encouraging students to examine elements of their playing individually, they are better able to identify problems and discern ways in which to practice.
  • Students are provided with immediate, quantifiable feedback. A benefit of music lessons is that they typically provide immediate teacher feedback, unlike waiting to get a test or assignment grade. However, music education can lack in quantifiable feedback, being a subject that often doesn’t have a clearly right or wrong response. By adding quantifiable and easily recordable feedback to music lessons, students are reminded of how they performed in their lesson, what was discussed with the teacher, and what they need to do during their practice time at home.
  • Students learn to self-assess. Self-assessment is an important skill for musicians at any level. We do the majority of our work in private practice, so we need to be able to rely on ourselves to provide reliable feedback. It is the responsibility of a music teacher to help students to become more self-sufficient in their music making. As my students and I collaboratively analyze their performances, I model the way in which a musician can look at elements of a performance separately, how to compare a performance to a musician’s potential level of success, and how to use that analysis to create a practice plan.
  • Students set their own learning goals. An important step in the process is having the students determine their own goals for the next lesson. Students will begin to understand their own pace of learning through their goals and the improvements in their scores. Even if the goal is still “passing” a piece, the focus is on improvement and learning.

Gamification is a trendy term right now, but educators may recognize that much of what I’ve described above is not new at all. Basically, this method is applying the old idea of rubrics to piano lessons. Perhaps the only difference from traditional rubric use is that the feedback is instant, just as it would be in a video game. Educators should always be working to incorporate fresh, new techniques into their teaching, but not at the expense of older, successful techniques. Gamification in education has huge potential to increase student motivation, ownership, and learning, but not if it is presented as a way to mimic video games. By combining this trendy new concept with proven assessment methods, we can create a great and effective way to help our students learn.

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