Six Simple Tips for Teaching with Stickers

Teachers have often used stickers as rewards, but there are more innovative and helpful ways to use them. Here are some surefire ways to start using stickers to perk up your teaching.

#1 Same and Different

In this piece, a student needs to notice that the second phrase begins just like the first and then something different happens.

The second phrase begins like the first but changes at measure 6. Ask the student to find the first note that's different and put a sticker there to remind them about it.  Postcard Sonatina  is a wonderful "first sonatina." It uses Middle C Position and C Major Five-Finger Position with interesting articulations.

What to say to your student:

  • The first line and the second line look pretty similar to me.
  • Are they exactly the same?
  • Can you find the first note that’s different?
  • What sticker might help you remember to do something different there?

Guide the student to place the sticker to make it easy to see the difference. In this case, we placed the sticker where the right hand had played the first time. Seeing the sticker reminded the student that something was different.

Therapeutic use — helping their eyes see and process the difference.
Diagnostic use — troubleshooting a challenging moment before they play.

Pro Teaching Tip: Take the time to have your student discover things for themselves. Seeing and describing differences is an important skill. Stickers can help bridge the gap between imagination and reality.

#2 Changes in Tempo or Dynamics

Students are often so busy looking at the notes that they don’t have the energy left to process the words and symbols that are on the page. Using stickers can allow them the time to pay attention to tempo and dynamics.

What to say to your student:

  • How does the beginning of this piece go? (Gently, like a foggy morning.)
  • Can you find a place where it says to play a different way. That’s interesting. (You’re supposed to slow down.)
  • Are there any other places you’re supposed to slow down?
  • That’s a lot of different ways you have to play. What kind of sticker might remind you to play more slowly? (In this case we used a snail, a slow animal.)
  • What sticker might you want to put at the beginning to help you remember to play gently?
San Francisco Morning, from  Attention Grabbers Book 2 , has a beautiful, sweet sound. Learning to slow down is a skill in itself. Notice that the words are in English - slowing down (not ritard.)  What sticker might a student want to put at the beginning to help them remember to play gently?

If the student forgets to slow down, this affords you the friendly opportunity to say, “Remind me…what did this snail mean?” (Ever-so-much more pleasant than, “Why didn’t you do the ritard in measure 14?!”)

Why would this particular sticker help a student remember to play slower here?
Why would this particular sticker motivate a student to play slower here?

#3 Things to Remember

Sometimes you just have to explain something.

There’s no way a student can intuit the meaning of a coda sign.

Once you’ve explained it, give them an opportunity to use stickers to interpret the sign’s meaning.

Excerpt of  Groovy Movie  from Elissa Milne's  Little Peppers  book.
Excerpt of Groovy Movie from Elissa Milne’s Little Peppers book.

What to say to your student:

  • What kind of stickers could we put between the Coda sign and the Coda to remind you to skip to there the second time?
"Skipping to the Coda" might become monkeys throwing bananas. In Groovy Movie from Elissa Milne's fabulous  Little Peppers  book.
My student Iliana chose monkeys throwing bananas to help her remember to jump to the Coda the second time through the piece. What a brilliant choice!

“Skipping to the Coda” might transform into monkeys throwing bananas in Groovy Movie from Elissa Milne’s fabulous Little Peppers book.

There aren’t any right or wrong answers. That’s one thing I like about this method of teaching. It’s about associations and internalizing concepts, not about doing something in a specific way.

Mady's two-robot-sticker solution.

When my student, Mady, had another common problem – she kept forgetting to use her 2nd finger in a passage from Bells Across the Lagoon, a lovely piece by William Gillock. I gave her a choice of stickers and she chose a pair of robots. Then she wrote in the fingering herself. Problem solved.

#4 Sneaky Rewards

Isolate a discrete task. This is part of keeping learning in the Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding Learning.

  • Succeed
  • Reward
  • Modify the task

First, I use a post-it note to visually isolate the first measure of the piece. 

Single Measure of Sawdust

“James, can you play just the first measure with a beautiful hand position?”

This took a few two tries, but when James finally played it correctly, James got a sticker on that single measure.

Two Measures of Sawdust

“James, that was great. Do you think you could do the second measure correctly?”

Usually this goes a bit quicker. Measure by measure, James accrued stickers until there was one on each measure. He will not be asked to do more than one measure at a time right now.

“Wow! Did you just play every single measure with a beautiful hand position?”

“Yes,” James says, proudly.

“OK. Well, in that case I have some good news and some bad news…The good news is that you know how to play every single measure with a beautiful hand position. The bad news is that I KNOW that YOU KNOW how to play every single measure with a beautiful hand position.”

This elicited a look of horror.

From  Piano Town Primer Technic . 

“Oh no,” thinks James. “I’m going to have to REMEMBER to play it this way?”

At this point I dangle a carrot — anything I think will motivate James.

“If you can play this piece perfectly next week, you can have $100 in music money!”

Stickers placed by the student have special credibility. If they put them on themselves, they’re more likely to remember their purpose. Sometimes it takes a reminder, but they’ll remember.

The goal is to have James play each measure with a strong, curved fingers without collapsing his first joint. Proving to him that he’s already done it successfully makes it logical to hold him accountable a week later.

Note: If a student has particularly wobbly hand position, I might make this task even smaller. Last week I assigned only one measure of this piece, played correctly, to another one of my students.

The important thing is that the student understands the task is first. Only then will she be able to achieve it. As a teacher (just like as a parent) you want to build on successes. Even the tiniest success can be expanded on.

#5 Ladybug Reminders

Popcorn Clouds  is available in  Attention Grabbers Books Three .

Some of you may be familiar with the use of Ladybugs to help with hand position. You can read about it here if it’s new to you.

Having a student decorate the beginning of the piece with ladybug stickers may help them remember to use their best “ladybug” hand position. Have them add a sticker or two in place where they might forget to keep their hand healthy and stable.


#6 Spotlighting Hand Position Changes

Symbols representing different heights of animals might help a student remember to move down the keyboard. Remember though, they might want to use something entirely different!

Symbols representing different heights of animals might help a student remember to move down the keyboard. Remember though, they might want to use something entirely different!

Helping students feel comfortable moving around the keyboard can be difficult when the 8va symbol is in play. It’s a wonderful symbol, but it’s cruel as well. Just as a student gets used to reading notes going up and down, an 8va symbol will rear its head. I used just this symbol in the piece Secret Agent.

A close-up of the passage from  Secret Agent . 

A close-up of the passage from Secret Agent

Beginning students often need visual reminders to change hand positions. Be wary of using things that make sense to you, but might not to a child. “Here, you’re moving to G Position, let’s put a G-iraffe there!” may seem logical to you, but a child isn’t necessarily thinking about how “Giraffe” is spelled when they look at a giraffe. (It might be more logical to them to move to “N Position” because of its long NECK.)

That’s why it’s always best to have the student involved in the entire process. 

In fact, students should always be involved. Period. In the selection of everything, in the interpretation of everything, and in the assessment of how it’s going. 

If you can accomplish those goals in your lessons today…give yourself a sticker!

Good luck Teaching with Stickers!

  1. Diagnostically
  2. Therapeutically
  3. As Rewards

Music discussed and recommended in this article:

Postcard Sonatina is a wonderful “first sonatina.” It uses Middle C Position and C Major Five-Finger Position spiced up with interesting articulations.

Bells Across the Lagoon, a lovely piece by William Gillock from his collection called Miniatures.

San Francisco Morning, from Attention Grabbers Book 2, has a beautiful, sweet sound. Learning to slow down is a skill in itself. Notice that the words are in English – slowing down (not ritard.)

The stickers I use for these purposes are a different size and style than I use for “reward” stickers. I use tiny stickers that are extremely expressive. Tiny animals, faces, fruit, almost anything goes. I tend to like the Japanese stickers the best.