Monday, 7 June 2010

Carrot and stick

I have a young student who had narrowly missed out on taking her grade 1 exam with her previous tutor about 18 months ago. Between then and becoming my student last autumn she had drifted, making little progress with a flute that was in need of some attention.

We started looking at the grade material again but I quickly realised she was bored with it, having studied for an exam that never materialised. She needed a new challenge and, having made some great strides (including prevailing upon her parents to get her flute sorted out), I felt she was ready to take grade 2.

That was some time before Easter and the exam has been booked (July) and paid for. Since then, however, she has done almost nothing. The effect of this is to go into reverse; the pieces she could play some weeks ago are now too difficult. Because she doesn't practise, her tone has suffered and she spends the first ten minutes of a lesson looking into the instrument (for blockages!) and adjusting the footjoint in the hope that her flute is somehow to blame.

There was an article on BBC radio this morning about the psychology of household waste collection. It turns out it is more effective to reward people for the amount they recycle rather than charge them for the quantities they send to landfill sites. Any psychology student could tell you that encouragement is more effective than punishment. Buoyed by this fact I gave her all the praise and flattery I could think of. I finished by telling her how much better her tone sounded at the end of the lesson than it had at the beginning. I may have exaggerated the improvement but there's nothing like practice if you wish to improve and she had, after all, just spent half an hour playing the thing.

After she'd gone I congratulated myself on avoiding dire warnings of impending failure if she didn't put in some work. Hopefully she is sufficiently astute not to assume from my positive demeanour that she will walk grade 2. So, carrot and more carrot for my students. The stick, should it be needed, will be wielded by the exam result when it arrives during the summer break.


  1. Hmmm problems could arrive after the dodgy exam result, when the parents come at you with a stick?

  2. Choosing the right time and grade is sometimes problematic, especially if there is little else in the way of social playing to motivate the student, as is the case here. Too easy an exam and they get bored treading water. Too great a challenge and it can get hairy if they suddenly decide to spend more time with their TV.

    I hope any sticks are made of celery!

  3. I once had a boss who described the carrot and stick method as: "if the stick doesn't work, shove the carrot up their a**e"

  4. He sounds like a real gem. I'm sure he gave you plenty of encouragement to set up on your own.