Running a Practice Competition

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by Philip Johnston

Running a Practice Competition

There’s more to a practice competition than stickers and stopwatches. We show you how to create an event to fire up your whole studio with this IMT megaguide.

trophyNO MATTER HOW CREATIVE YOUR LESSONS there will be times when everything feels just a little…ho hum. Where this week feels just a little too much like last week, and nobody seems to be particularly excited about next week.

The best defence against the same-old-weekly-grind is definitely offence—to create an Event that will get your studio buzzing, and your students practicing.

Studio recitals and workshops can do the job, but nothing works quite so dramatically as a competition. Choose your prizes, create the pre-competition hype…then light and stand well back. If you get this right, you’re in for some serious practice fireworks.

So how do you set up a competition like this? What are the little extras that can make such a big difference? And how can you get it all done without blowing your budget and creating more work than you can handle?

IMT takes you on a tour of the possibilities below.

(1) Hyping the lead-up

Major sporting events or rock concerts don’t just happen—they are announced well in advance so that anticipation becomes a promotion force in it’s own right. It’s the reason that Pixar show trailers for their new films long before the film itself will be released.

roundkeyboardALPHAStudio recitals and workshops can do the job, but nothing works quite so dramatically as a competition

So how far in advance should you be heralding your Practice Championship? Compare the following two statements, and then ask yourself—as a student, which would you be more excited about?

  • “Sally, there’s a practice competition starting today. Here’s your sheet to fill in your times…”
  • “Sally, in September of this year, there’s going to be a Studio Practice Championship. I’ll be letting you know more about it as we get closer, but it’s going to be huge.”

September, thinks Sally. But that’s six months away…it MUST be huge if we’re being warned about it already.

And so the Championship is already larger than life, simply because it’s something she has to wait for.

Follow-up teasers

To keep building the excitement, every few weeks, release a little more information about the competition itself—never the full picture, just a new piece of the puzzle.

So you might dedicate one page of your next studio newsletter to outlining the prizes on offer. You could even include photos, if you really want the students circling September on their calendars already.

Then a month after that, you might take some time in the lesson to explain some of the many different ways to win.

A letter home a month after that might give the dates for the competition, asking students not to schedule trips away during that time if at all possible.

Then there might be a newsletter featuring a profile on some of last year’s winners.

By the time the competition arrives, anticipation will be at fever pitch. Which means that when you finally do say “Sally, the practice competition starts today. Here’s your sheet to fill in your times.”, it’s all she’ll be talking about in the car on the way home…most of your students will practice as soon as they get home.

(2) Limiting the window

With the surge in practice that your Practice Championships will produce, it might be tempting to think about having a competition permanently in place. Resist this temptation though—you’ll strip the competition of the very thing that gives it its impact, and your practice goose will quickly start laying ungilded eggs again.

It’s the reason that the Olympic Games is not an annual event. The fact that it only happens every four years adds enormously to the sense of occasion and drama—nothing would devalue the concept of a Gold Medal faster than knowing that another chance to get one is just around the corner.

So limit your practice championships to being a biennial event at most, so that you can hype it in advance, epilogue it once it’s gone, and imbue with an air of mystique while it’s here.

(3) Creating prize categories

The problem with having a single prize is that once students realize that they’re not on the leaderboard, there’s little incentive to keep working. So instead of just handing out a prize for “most practice”, the aim is to have many, many categories of prizes so that your students have plenty of possible rewards to aim at.

This means that even if they’re being left for dead in the overall total, they still have reasons to keep participating. Try some of these:

  • Best single day of practice
  • Most consecutive days of at least 30 minutes
  • Most practice over a weekend
  • Highest minimum practice recorded
  • Most practice by a beginner
  • Most days overall of 90 minutes or more
  • Most practice by a Wednesdaystudent
  • Fewest days of 10 minutes or less
  • Great start: Student who did the most practice in the first week
  • Highest total for the Double Week
  • Greatest improvement since last practice championship

You’ll think of plenty of your own, but with so many possible prizes on offer, when the time comes to announce the awards in your newsletter, lots of your students will feature on the honor roll.

(4) Choosing irresistable prizes

Having the title of “champion” is nice, but if you really want your students excited about winning, then you need some exciting prizes. You need to budget for this, but anything you spend will more than pay for itself—motivated students are students who stay in the studio. So you’re not just buying a prize, you’re making an investment in retention rates.

What makes a good prize? One way to find out is actually to put that to your students. When you first announce the competition, tell them that you’re looking for prize suggestions—you’ll hear some great ideas.

Otherwise, try to imagine the sorts of presents they’d really like to unwrap on their birthday. No socks or underwear here:

  • Mp3 player
  • Voucher from computer game store
  • Book vouchers
  • Book of cinema tickets
  • Family pass to a theme park

Keep this issue in mind as you watch television—you’ll find yourself noticing ads for hot toys and gadgets. If you’ve noticed these ads, chances are your students have too.

roundkeyboardALPHA…anything you spend will more than pay for itself—motivated students are students who stay in the studio…ou’re not just buying a prize, you’re making an investment in retention rates.

Giving them a choice

That voucher from the computer game store might excite the computer game junkies in your studio, but not everyone is going to want that. One way around this is to announce that the prize is “your choice of…”, and then have several options that will appeal to different students. Once you know who the winner is, you’ll know what to get.

Pooling resources for truly amazing rewards

If you want to offer rewards that will really have your students salivating—without sending yourself broke in the process—you might want to consider a multi-studio competition.

(5) Certificates to keep everyone engaged

Even with lots of prizes on offer, not everyone is going to win, which can leave some hard working students wondering whether they’ll bother next time. That’s where certificates come to the rescue.

These awards are available not to “winners”, but to anybody who fulfils certain criteria during the competition. The students would all know what is required to be awarded certificates, and are guaranteed the award once they’ve met the requirement.

So what might be worthy of certificates?

  • Consistency: Anybody who doesn’t skip a single day of practice throughout the competition.
  • Bronze certificate: Anybody who does at least 5 hours of practice in each week of the competition
  • Silver certificate: Same as Bronze, but with a 7 hour each week requirement
  • Gold: For serious practicers. A 10 hour requirement, every week, for the life of the competition.
  • Aggregate targets: For students who perhaps work better in bursts rather than consistently – these certificates would reward certain totals being reached over the lifetime of the competition, without worrying about what happens on individual days.
  • 15 minutes more than last time: Whatever the student’s daily average was in the last competition, they’d need to beat it by more than 15 minutes in the this competition to earn one of these.

(6) The “Doubler” factor

The excitement that surrounds the arrival of the practice competition will ensure an initial surge of practice. But that doesn’t have to be the productivity high-water mark. There’s a way to create a second surge of practice even once the competition is well underway.

The idea is to allow students to nominate one week during the competition during which any practice they do will count as double. So if they record a total of three hours during that week, they get credit for six.

Knowing this, they’re likely to go beserk practicing during those seven days—although they need to think carefully about just when those seven days should be.

If you want more evenly distributed bursts of activity during the competition, then an alternative is to instead allow students to nominate one day in each week that counts as double. So if the student nominates “Thursdays”, whatever happens in the rest of the week, they’re likely to get up half an hour earlier each Thursday to start what should be a series of monster practice sessions.

(7) Creating leaderboards

Once your competition is underway, you can really pour fuel on the fire by making the leaderboards prominent, and keeping them updated regularly.

roundkeyboardALPHA…seeing your own name in print like this is hugely motivating, which is exactly why computer games still have high score tables

One easy method is to have a whiteboard in your studio dedicated to just this purpose. The prize categories would be headings, and underneath each would be the name of the student who is currently in the lead for that prize, together with their stats.

If there is an overall champion prize too, then it’s sometimes worth listing the current Top 10. As long as you update this once a week, whenever students come to their lesson, they will see fresh information—helping them perceive the leaderboard as being fluid. This will give hope to those not yet on the board, and serve as a reminder to those who are that they need to keep working to defend their position.


Even if you don’t normally have a studio newsletter, it’s worth creating a weekly bulletin just for the duration of the competition. It will allow you to include detailed stats, and a top 10 for a range of leaderboards—it will normally be the first thing students ask to see when they arrive at the lesson.

If you have a digital camera, it’s worth including a headshot of the current leader each week, together with any other students who are improving fast. The aim is to ensure that as many students as possible are mentioned—seeing your own name in print like this is hugely motivating, which is exactly why computer games still have high score tables

(8) Team-based competitions

Your practice competitions don’t just have to about solo triumphs—many students will work even harder if they know that their practice times are contributing to a team effort. (It’s one thing to let yourself down, but to have to admit to the rest of your team that you’ve been slacking is something that would make even your most practice-phobic students blush.)

Grudge matches

If you really want to add spice to things, take advantage of natural divisions in the studio and create teams (and associated hype) that will lead to grudge matches:

  • Boys versus girls. Neither group is going to want to let the other dominate here—if your numbers are uneven, then you can always base things on averages.
  • Elementary vs secondary age students. Seems unfair at first glance, but the underdog status of the elementary age students is a powerful motivator…they’d love to show up their older rivals. At the same time, your secondary age students have some upstarts to crush. Plenty of reasons to practice here.
  • Students who have their lesson on a Saturday vs your Thursday students (this allows team members to actually meet eachother at lesson changeover time)
  • Right handed vs left handed. Blue eyes vs brown. Blonds vs brunettes. Long established students vs recent students. Dog owners vs cat owners vs no pets – there are countless ways to create the cliques you need for the competition to sizzle.

Creating a sense of team spirit

If you assign colors to the teams, then you can issue students with their competition kit—inexpensive, but packed with items of their team’s color. So if their team color is blue, their kit might contain:

  • A blue notebook (for recording practice times)
  • Blue markers
  • Blue badge to wear to lessons

They’d walk past the Blue Team Scoreboard to get to their music stand.

Give them a nickname to suit—the Blue Marlins, the Blue Jays, the Blues Scale, whatever—and let tribal instincts propel their practice commitment to new heights.

(9) Strategic Timing

Given that a well-promoted Practice Championship is going to produce torrents of additional practice, but that it will only be running for a limited time, it makes sense to choose that time carefully.

But when is such a burst of practice likely to have greatest impact?

Recital leadup

If your studio has a big annual Studio Recital in September, then a practice competition in August ensures plenty of preparation over those last few weeks.

Better still, it allows you to turn the recital into a presentation ceremony for the competition winners, with the whole event still being fresh in everyone’s minds. (To really heighten the sense of anticipation for the announcement, hide the studio leaderboard for the final two weeks—that way students won’t have any sense of who the winner is until you open the envelope)

Starting the year with a bang

Welcoming students back to a new year of lessons with a practice competition is a great way to have everyone in top gear straight away.

Reinvigorating flat times

If there is a time of year when students are usually a little jaded—toward’s the end the year is always the issue in my own studio—then a practice competition can help put some fizz back in the champagne.

Avoiding clashes

Before you create dates purely based on your own studio’s needs, double check with your students to make sure you’re not considering a 4 week event in the middle of the school exams, or when a third of your studio will be away on school camp.

“Surprise” competitions

This robs you of the opportunity for an extended period of hype, but allows you to respond quickly to an unexpected deadline. So if, for example, you suddenly find out that your studio needs to provide performers for a major MTA workshop in only 8 weeks, then it would make sense to have a practice competition now, even though one hadn’t been scheduled.

Not how you should always run things, but being light on your feet like this allows you to turn complications into opportunities, and practice competitions are a powerful weapon in just about any campaign.

(10) Interstudio Challenge

Teams are one way to create a feeling of common purpose for your Practice Championship entrants, but if you really want to add some zing, consider running the competition in conjunction with another music studio. Your students would be pitted against theirs in a no-holds-barred practice frenzy, with bragging rights going to the studio that prevails.

roundkeyboardALPHA…with competitors in Denmark, Australia, Canada and Argentina, your practice competition is nothing short of a Practice World Championships.

Doesn’t have to be limited to two

Ask around at your next MTA meeting—you might find a dozen other teaching studios that are happy to take part. This opens the way to possibly hundreds of participants, and adds a captial “E” to your Practice Event. Grand practice champion of your own studio is one thing, but also being King Practicer out of studios that represent a total of 45 zip codes is something else entirely.

Multiple studios means awesome prizes

With a dozen studios pooling resources, you’ll also be able to offer some truly fabulous prizes that would have been well beyond your means if you were running all this alone. How much will students practice, for example, when the prize on offer is a Games Console? If each studio chips in $50, you’ve got your console with games and peripherals too…brace yourself then, because you’re going to see some serious practice once you unveil the prize.

Don’t be bound by Geography

There’s no reason that the competing studios have to be local. By emailing practice times you could run a competition against a studio in another city, another state……it could even be another continent. Then, with competitors in Denmark, Australia, Canada and Argentina, your practice competition is nothing short of a Practice World Championships.

(11) Creating a Hall of Fame

This is a great way to allow your students now to compete with students you taught a decade ago.

Once the competition is over, and the winners have been decided, add the names of the victors to an honor board that lives permanently in your studio.

Future students will be able to see the names—and practice times—of past champions. It gives your more competitive students a chance to be the Greatest Ever, while growing ivy on the walls of both the competition itself, and your studio.

Getting it done properly

This is not something you should do using cardboard and markers. This honor board will be a growing chronicle of a highlight of your studio year—it’s going to be an impressive curiosity piece for prospective students, and is worth shelling out a few extra dollars to have it look the part.

Most of the expense will be in the very first year as you pay for the board itself, but thereafter you only will have to pay to have the new student’s names engraved.

Another alternative is to have a gallery instead, where the signed photos of past winners are displayed, together with the details of the results that got them there.

If you have your own studio website, then you can easily create a permanent online Hall of Fame gallery of past competition winners.

(12) Turning it into a fundraiser

With all this practice going on, there’s a terrific opportunity for some fund raising for your favorite worthy cause—which in turn provides an additional incentive for even more practice.

The idea is that your students would collect sponsors, who would donate a certain amount for each hour of practice completed.

Create a special prize

In addition to all your other awards, you could create a special award for the Most Money Raised—it might not necessarily be your hardest practicing student.

(13) Notify the media

Fundraising doesn’t have to be motivated by a cynical desire for studio promotion, but if the hard work of you and your students means that there’s a check of $5000 being handed to a local charity, then you should at least consider contacting the media.

As the larger-than-life check is handed over, the charity wins not only because of the money itself, but because of the additional media exposure. And your studio is noticed by thousands of potential students as they see the photo while eating their breakfast.

And if the story happens to mention the individual efforts of your leading fundraiser-student, that becomes a powerful incentive for next year’s students to better their efforts (everyone loves to see their name in the paper).

Creating pre-competition media interest

If your fundraising is target based (“we’re going to raise $6,000 for Breast Cancer research), then you may well get local media interested as the competition starts.

The best method is to appear side-by-side for the radio spot with someone from the organization that will be benfiting from your work. You can talk about the practice competition, the organization can ttalk about the good work they do, and their need for support—and the radio station ends up with a 6 minute spot that’s a local good news story, with the promise to follow up once the competition is over.

It’s a win for everyone, and a studio promotion opportunity that would have cost you thousands of dollars in conventional advertising.

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