While I am convinced kids don’t really need gimmicks in order to enjoy piano lessons, they do love the Chip Game. And in the summer, we play the Chip Game a lot.

There are two reasons for this. First of all, without the pressures of an upcoming recital or performance class or other deadline, summer lessons are simply more relaxed. They can be, I often think, a time for real teaching. I love summer lessons.

Secondly, I require a certain number of lessons in the summer term—either five 60-minute lessons or six 45-minute lessons. Many, if not most of my students, opt for the five-lesson option, which translates to longer than normal lessons. In other words, more time for the Chip Game.

The Chip Game starts, of course, with the Chip Bowl, a bowl of 17 poker chips on my bookshelf that includes a chip for each note name: C-sharp, B, A-flat, D-flat and so on. We use the Chip Bowl multiple times in every lesson: to draw a key for a scale or chord progression, to pull out five notes that the kid must use exclusively in that week’s composition assignment, etc. All good, but the Chip Game is more fun.

It works like this: for every chip, there is an assigned game or activity or task. For example, if the kid draws an F chip, then we play Name That Tune. The A-flat gives us Blocks; the E chip equals the Shape Cards. The G chip means the dreaded Worksheet (no one likes that one), but B-flat is “Your Choice” (everyone’s favorite). Depending upon the size, age and level of the kid in front of me, the chosen activity varies somewhat. “Blocks” for a Little One might mean spelling a Five-Finger Position; for a high-school kid, it could involve a harmonic minor scale. If the student in question is a beginner, the Key Signatures assigned to the D chip might only translate to counting the numbers of sharps or flats in the key signature of a random piece of music (I like to use the music I’m working on for this because the Little Ones get a charming thrill from looking at “Miss Amy’s practicing”), but for more advanced students drawing the D chip Key Signatures might mean creating the Circle of Fifths in minor keys. You see the wide range of options available I’m sure.

Now what I know about the chip game is these are all creative activities or theory or musicianship drills that we do all the time in one form or another. But because these same tasks fall under the umbrella of the Chip Game, it is suddenly so much more interesting. I think this is because the kid feels some level of both control (I get to draw the chip and determine what we do next!) and surprise (who knows what chip I will pull out?).

I am happy to give them both the control and the surprise. After all, it’s summer.