In the past few weeks I have seen a super-positive effect of a tool which gives a wonderful approach to practice. It turned around the learning so effectively that I thought I’d share it: Competition.

Without realising it at the time, competition helped me during childhood as I compared what piece I was up to in a book with friends, or what exam I was up to and how I did relative to others in a music competition. But I also developed a sense of competing with myself as I was learning new material. So I thought I’d muse in this blog about both personal and interpersonal uses of competition.


 Interpersonal Competition

  • Maybe I’m wrong, but being competitive seems to have gone out of fashion in today’s world. Participation trophies and everyone winning is the order of the day. But is it always helpful? Interpersonal competition can be a positive motivator for learning and does not need to be the negative force it is often perceived as.
  • Some learners absolutely thrive on this way of improving in their music and will happily do exams, competitions and concerts wherever possible. Others find comparing their level of ability so challenging that they almost freeze in their learning.
  • I got on really well with a girl who came to lessons with my mother. She was the only person who was at the same level as me, but was a bit younger. We had (what I reflect on now as) a healthy competitive interest in how each was doing. We inspired each other to do better without a sense of the other being a threat. (At least that is how I remember it.) We naturally compared how we were doing and then made adjustments to change the outcome next time. I don’t think I would be where I am today without it.
  • It is important to find that place where someone else’s achievements don’t cripple your learning through self-doubt and you can just get on at your own pace. I have a sister who is 10 years older than me and very clever musically. I have always been in awe of her because of her musical skill. Her dedication to practice was second to none too! But as time went on I developed areas of my own musical skill-set that made up for self-doubt.
  • A few thoughts about competition between siblings:
  1. Sometimes it works well to have siblings who are learning the same instrument learn from different tutor books, especially if they are close in age. If there is more of a gap in age, using the same tuition system can work fine though.
  2. Siblings learning different instruments can work really well if they start learning at the same time. This is especially good for twins. I’ve had one learning cello and the other violin which worked really well. There was enough difference for there to be good encouragement from one to the other.
  3. Be aware of different learning styles with siblings. Some may learn by ear better and others may read better first. Help those children develop a recognition of strengths as being different, rather than feeling inadequate in the areas they have to work harder at.
  4. If there is an unhelpful competition going on between siblings, encourage them to compete with their own learning and mark their own progress in some way.


Personal Competition

This takes us back to the tool I mentioned at the beginning. Basically, it is using visual guides and reward systems worked out between parent, teacher and pupil to help the learner view their own personal progress as competition.

I’ve mentioned before how I use an abacus as a helpful way to show repetitions in practising. Check that here if you haven’t seen it:

Repetition of learning something perfectly gives a sense of satisfaction, like a reward.


Rewards, from small to large

Since I put out the last blog I have used an abacus in a number of lessons for new, young learners as a way of focussing on every little task needing to be done so that the pupil can visually check their work and improvement. Most would reach about 25 beads across by the end of the lesson. It was so simple and yet so effective. Some parents have taken it from there and used the star chart or punch cards at home.

The amazing change in attitude to practice as a result has reminded me afresh just how much rewards motivate, whether small – like beads on an abacus, through to saving up tokens for a great reward like going to a musical concert. It is worth taking the time to think through what will work for your child because rewards are a significant way for your child to compete at their own level of achievement without having to compare to others.  The more they improve quickly, the more they want to move on to the next thing and gain the ‘prize’.


I thought it might be useful to think of competition this way because every learner faces the issue at some point along their musical journey. Instead of being a massive negative that puts someone off learning music for life, let’s press through to make it work best for them whether in a personal way, interpersonally, or a what usually turns out to be a healthy combination of both.

Have you heard of the 5 love languages? 

When I first did, it was profoundly helpful in understanding how those close to me expressed their love. It also opened my own eyes about my own love languages. I fully acknowledge the work of Gary Chapman who first wrote about these love languages as I reflect on how they affect the way we teach and learn music.

None of us relate to just one love language, but we can quickly see the one that stands out among the others as the main one.

Let’s look at how these may offer a varied approach when helping those in their music learning.


Acts of Service

I can’t go past this one without mentioning my husband Robin (if I can get my comments through his edits!) He has a real gift in loving our family by all kinds of acts of service—from cooking for us every night to editing my blog, and much in between.

For the musician an act of service could be performing music in some way to bless others.

  • It can be as simple as playing a piece to the parent who wasn’t at the lesson.
  • Maybe it is to prepare a few pieces to do a performance for grandparents .
  • Or always to have a piece prepared to play for guests who come to visit.
  • It might be to get a group together to perform at a retirement community.
  • Performances could be individual or in groups of instruments.

Children need the opportunity to learn that they can genuinely bless others by playing music. It can also take away the self focus of the performance being about them and their nerves if they see it as an act of love to someone else.


Gift Giving and Receiving

My daughter is our family gift giver. She’s always on the lookout for things that she knows will be just right for someone. She loves to receive gifts too and the rest of us need to remember that when we want to show her our love.

If your child seems unmotivated to practise, it may be that they need some physical affirmation through rewards and prizes. After all, we as adults work for a living and get money as a reward for it. Use a reward system for:

  • practice done, even down to small tasks such as counting through a piece or working through note recognition.
  • giving more credit for the practice tasks that take more emotional energy.

Ideas for rewards might include:

  • a click on a punch card towards a bigger reward when complete.
  • a coupon given for, say: a friend staying over, a favourite food or drink, staying up late, a trip to a favourite shop, park or mall.
  • a sticker chart for each successful practice and a physical reward that you have worked out with them when the chart is completed. One of my pupil’s parents took their child to a special concert for this. It was a great motivator for the early stages of her learning.
  • extra pocket money, if appropriate.

If you would like free .pdf copies of a Star Chart, Headstart Piano characters on punch cards for printing, or a piano practice coupon page, let me know and I’ll email them to you.


Quality Time

I have special memories of the times my mother sat down with me as a child to help me with my music. I knew she was very busy, so I valued these times as time with her more so than about the music. She was maybe a little more focussed on me passing an exam than as seeing it as quality time spent. But she told me in later life that she wanted to give all her children the opportunity to earn their own living through teaching music if they chose to. Two out of five of us are doing just that.

Children who come to me for lessons on a weekly basis have my absolute full attention in that lesson time. I am so grateful for the many special children I have come to know like this. Having your child learn a musical instrument gives you a golden opportunity to sit and help them in learning this skill. I can also tell you that the learners who come out enjoying their music are those who have focussed parents who take an interest in how their child is learning. The child probably unconsciously takes on board the idea that if their parent is interested it must be worth something.


Physical Touch

A hug at the right moment can be just what is needed. But physical touch is more than just this. How might this relate to learning a musical instrument?

Playing a musical instrument obviously involves doing something physical with the instrument. Looking back over decades of playing musical instruments I realise that each instrument I play affects me in different ways. As far as the piano goes, I remember as a teenager how I used to express myself with quite loud playing when I was in particular moods. An electronic keyboard with limited touch response just wouldn’t have been the same. I have always enjoyed playing with soft and loud expression on the piano, but the particular tone of the piano makes a difference too. An out of tune piano or one with a dull tone can take all the joy out of playing it.  On string instruments, I enjoy the variation to the tone a vibrato can bring—a completely different sensation to playing the piano.

I have seen adverts for instruments for sale that say “good for a beginner” which usually means they are horrible to play. Why would you give a beginner a bad instrument to play and expect them to enjoy it? The answer is usually “cost”. But you also have to consider the “cost” of the child not getting the best opportunity possible to learn to love music. It doesn’t need to be a Steinway grand but neither do you want that free piano from a friend that has been rusting in his garage since Grandma died. Having an instrument that feels right can help a performer express their heart through their playing. And when you play from your heart it touches other people’s hearts. I’ll never forget the time a dear lady came up to me after I played the cello saying that the tone of the cello seemed to reach a special place in her heart.


Words of Affirmation

This love language connects most to me.  I appreciate words of encouragement and also hope to find the right words to encourage someone else on their journey. It is helpful to have this inclination as a music teacher, but I need to be aware that it may not always work for some pupils. Some of the other love languages may speak louder. For some pupils, the sticker at the end of the lesson is what they are looking forward to. Others may be counting up the days to when they will get a lucky dip prize. Other may appreciate the one-to-one attention of quality time.

At home, when it is practice time, maybe “I’d love to hear you play your latest piece!” may be more helpful than “Get your practice done!” Or, when the practice is finished, a word of affirmation of progress made since last week may be a more positive reinforcement than pointing out things that needed fixing.


Shinichi Suzuki, the founder of the Suzuki Method of teaching very young children music was motivated to see children happy by being surrounded by music from birth. In his book Nurtured by Love he wrote: “If a child hears good music from the day of his birth, and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets a beautiful heart”.

I hope by thinking through the 5 love languages in relation to music learning you can find something there to help foster a loving environment in your home for enjoyable music making.

You can find out more on Gary Chapman’s website here: What are The 5 Love Languages?


<a href=””>Image by DrawingMyDiary</a> on Freepik