Motivating music students - the FUN way!
Tuesday, November 29, 2022
Below this brief introduction you will find a list of 20 ideas I have used to motivate piano students – especially teens – to play the piano. This list continues to grow and I will continually add to it and update this list. I hope these ideas help you as they have helped my own piano students I have taught over the years.
My name is Jerald Simon and I am a piano teacher and composer. I have been teaching piano lessons full time since 2006 when I created my company. Since then I have composed several piano pieces to help motivate piano students and have also published 21 music books, 10 albums and 2 EPs with several singles, one poetry book featuring 222 original motivational poems I have written, and 3 motivational/self help books. My primary focus has been to create this website (musicmotivation.com) as a resource for piano teachers, piano students, and parents of piano students.
Many piano teachers, piano students, and parents of piano students ask me how or why I began creating my “Cool Songs” (musicmotivation.com/coolsongs) in the first place. It began with my “Cool Songs for Cool Kids” Series (Primer Level and Books 1, 2, and 3 and soon to be a Pre-Primer level for very little or young children), and my “Cool Songs that ROCK!” Series (books 1 and 2). To be honest, however, it actually began long before any of those books were created.
I began teaching piano lessons part time in 2003, I was newly married and was selling pianos in a piano store. I didn’t start teaching full time as an independent piano teacher until 2006. Between 2003 and 2006 I had a few different sales jobs I did as well, while continuing to do things on the side for my music career. In 2006 I created my music company, Music Motivation®, at first for my piano studio and for me as a performing musician. It has since been registered and set up as a record label and a music publishing company. I then felt motivated to come out with two books back to back. The first book I ever created was “An Introduction to Scales and Modes.” It is an in-depth tutorial of basic scales and modes in all key signatures. After that I came out with my second book, “Variations on Mary Had a Little Lamb.” This book has nine different arrangements I created using the children’s song, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” These are some of the arrangements in the book: Mary Took Her Lamb to a Swingin’ Jazz Club, Mary’s Lamb Had the Blues, Mary Took Her Lamb to a 50s Rock Concert, Mary and Her Lamb Live with Indians, etc., etc., and so on, until the last arrangement of: Mary Took Her Lamb to a Funeral.
These first two books were created to help piano students learn the music theory and the practical application of the music they were playing. As a result of these two books, my piano studio more than doubled. I was soon teaching, I believe, around 88 piano students (ironic, don’t you think), and at my most busy time had almost 100 individual piano student lessons – one on one. The majority were teenage boys (ages 11-19), and most of them wanted to quit piano lessons. Piano teachers and parents of piano students would send me their students who essentially wanted nothing more to do with the instrument. The parents and teachers said they didn’t want their students to quit and asked me to try to motivate them to keep playing the piano (I guess that is what I get for naming my company Music Motivation®). The students would not play from any method book past or present and would never suggest music they wanted to play. I needed to figure out how to reach these students and connect with them. I asked each of them what kind of music they enjoyed and asked them to bring it so they could work on it. The majority would not do it. Nothing worked. Finally, as a last ditch effort, I then asked them to challenge me to create or compose a piano solo for them during their lesson. They all found this very entertaining. I would tell them to choose a style of music, key signature, and the time signature and then I would compose something on the spot. With some pieces, such as “Game Over” from “Cool Songs for Cool Kids” book 1, they even said I could only use four notes. It was a game for the students and a challenge for me. With each of these students, I composed a piano solo during their lesson time and even notated it in Finale. At the end of their lesson I printed off the music and sent it home with them. I challenged them to learn the piano solo and then let me know what they thought. I told them I would compose a new piece the following week during their next lesson for them.
It worked! The following week, the students returned and I asked them if they had tried to play it. The majority of these students had not only tried to play it, but had perfected the piece and said they were ready to challenge me to compose a new piano solo. I would accept their challenge and tell them they would need to play what I composed. I asked the students what they honestly thought about the music and almost without exception, the students said they thought the music sounded “cool.” They told me they would play the piano more if they could have more “cool” sounding music like the piano solo I had composed. I appreciated their positive feedback. I told them I would emphasize the music theory in the “cool song” because they need to know their music theory, but I also told them I wanted them to have fun learning these “cool songs” each week. That is how it all began. All of the “cool songs” I had composed in each lesson were later compiled into “Cool Songs for Cool Kids” books 1, 2, and 3. Because of the great feedback of these books, I then created “Cool Songs that ROCK!” books 1 and 2 for older teenagers that were a little more advanced. I have my students play through all of the “cool songs” I create so I can receive their feedback . They know what they like and what sounds “cool” to them. I listen to and now receive feedback from many piano teachers, piano students, and parents of piano students around the world who tell me what they would like me to compose as well. Have fun with this music!
I primarily teach teenagers and adults piano lessons. I have a great connection with these two groups and have found this to be the best niche for me. In teaching so many teenagers who at times have not been too excited about the piano, many of whom wanted to quit and wanted nothing to do with the piano, I tried to focus on how I could help the piano students have fun playing the piano so they would not quit. I wanted them to learn the practical application of the music theory I was teaching. I discovered early on that method books did not work for the teenagers I taught because they wanted more freedom and independence (it’s that stage when they begin to discover their own identity and independence as it is). I believe this is true of most teenagers who play the piano or any instrument for that matter. As a result of my experience in working with teenagers, I have found a few helpful tips that have worked with my own students and would like to share them with you if they will help. Some may work and others won’t – it all depends on the teacher and the students. Different teachers have varying strengths or areas of expertise and I encourage piano teachers to focus on what they do well and how to apply their excitement and enthusiasm for playing the piano to motivate and inspire their piano students to have fun, learn, grow, and do and be their very best. Here are some ideas I have found that have worked for motivating teenagers to play the piano. This list is not complete and is not in any specific order. Try one or all of these. If things are going well for your piano students, keep doing what is working for you! These are suggestions and ideas I have found work very well with teenage piano students.
Here are the 20 ideas I personally use to motivate my own piano students in my studio. I hope these help you motivate your own piano students. If you have any ideas you’d like to share with me, I’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to contact me.
1. Ask teenagers what they want to play. It’s simple, but true. Teenagers don’t want to feel like they are being forced to do something they don’t want to. If it is their idea, then they are more excited about it and follow through with what they have decided to do. Every piano student is different! Find out what makes them unique and that will make all the difference in how you teach them and also in how they learn! Spend the first few minutes of each lesson connecting with your piano student. What did they do at school? What are they learning? What are their interests and hobbies? Do you know what they want to be and do when they grow up? What makes this student different from everyone else? Along this frame of thought, your piano students want and need a personal piano teacher. It’s okay to be a little informal and have FUN with students. Don’t be all business when teaching. I have seen far too many teachers be a little too professional to the extent that there is no room to be personal and they cannot connect with their students. The students, in return, don’t feel a connection with the piano teacher. Connect with your students on a meaningful level. Be professional, but be a friend and mentor to your piano students.
2. Find out what music your teenagers listen to and ask if they would like to learn their favorite music – with or without sheet music. Every month they should select and work on a piece of their own choosing that is something they listen to and enjoy. Sometimes simply listening to the music on their phone or iPod encourages and motivates them to play the piano every day (notice I did not say practice). Help students learn to play the piano every day and set daily goals to accomplish and improve. It’s about progress. Keep moving forward!
3. Along with the previous suggestion, ask students to come up with at least three to five weekly goals and monthly goals. These musical goals can give them direction. Sometimes students need an overview or game plan to give them the direction they need. I created a personal road map for my own piano students that I call the Music Motivation® Mentorship Map (you can download a copy by clicking on the image of the map at the bottom of this post). Along with this music map is the checklist of exercises (scales and chords) I encourage my piano students to learn from my book Essential Piano Exercises. It’s something I created for my own piano students to give them a sense of direction and what I hoped they would work on and learn each year. I often call it a road map because it points them in the direction we are heading. Simply having them take a few moments at the beginning of the month to write out what they personally would like to accomplish that month will help them learn to direct themselves. It’s not about the teacher telling them what to do and giving them hundreds of little step by step procedures. It’s about a music mentor guiding them so they can direct themselves and learn to depend more on themselves and less on the teacher. Again, this is not teacher directed, this is helping the teenagers tell you where they are and where they would like to go musically. You can also encourage them in setting goals in other areas of their life as well.
4. Teach the following styles: Pop, Rock, Jazz, Blues, Ragtime, Country, Big Band, Show Tunes, New Age, Hymns, Techno, etc.. An occasional classical piece is fantastic, but most students at this age are wanting to learn to play music they can perform for their friends. It’s what they know and love. High school age students tend to do very well with classical music and enjoy it more, but, for whatever reason, Jr. High School age students – especially teenage boys, do better if they temporarily focus on other styles of music and have an occasional classical piece here and there then the other way around. I have had several students come to me who were adamant about quitting piano because they “hated everything to do with piano.” It was not true at all! They did not like the classical pieces they were playing. That was all. Helping students play many varied styles of music and learn to appreciate all styles. Most of my piano students who “hated” classical music when they were in Jr. High School begged me to play classical pieces in High School. It’s only a stage and phase, but they do come around eventually and enjoy playing classical pieces again. We just can’t lose them in the process! I personally love playing classical music and was classically taught. I enjoy playing all styles of music and want the students to become familiar with all styles. More often than not the students are not familiar with a certain style because it is not what they listen to at home. This becomes a perfect opportunity to gain a little musical experience with different genres and styles.
5. Teenage piano students enjoy changing things up! I think we all do as well. We all need to change things up every now and then so we don’t remain stagnant. With change comes new growth because we are being pushed to do things that stretch us and help us (hopefully) become better. If we don’t accept change, we will remain as we are. Without change we cannot progress and improve. Do some of the following all the time and in a way to keep them on their toes. Your students will never know what you will do next. This helps them stay engaged, and it keeps the piano lessons interesting for you as a teacher/parent, and for the piano student as well. Change the format of what is taught and how it is taught. Here are some ideas and suggestions:
6. Encourage teenagers to add other instruments to their music using Garage Band, Logic Pro, Pro Tools, or another software program – there are many choices and options available.
7. If you have encouraged and helped teenagers compose their own music, notate it, and orchestrate it, then encourage them to try to sell their own music. Talk about motivation! When a piano student can set up a simple blog and sell a PDF download of their own composition or upload their music to iTunes, Amazon, SoundCloud, or any other number of online music stores, they get really excited and motivated. It’s fun to see!
8. Ask your teenage piano students to mentor younger piano students you teach. This helps them take on responsibility and they learn so much when they teach. Along these lines, if you have siblings you teach, during the younger piano student’s lesson, ask if their older sibling will sit on the bench with them or in a chair next to them and “Be the Teacher” for 5-10 minutes or so. They can then see what their sibling is not doing that they should be doing and can help correct problems like wrong notes, timing/counting, dynamics, etc. In teaching their younger sister or brother, they learn so much more in the process. The teacher really is the one who grows and learns the most.
9. Film your student as they play a piece and then, with permission, share it on a social media site. Especially if or when they have played a piece well, this is a great way to highlight or feature the student. It gives them an audience and they feel a sense of accomplishment.
10. Have your students film themselves at home and create their own YouTube page (again they will need permission from their parents to do so). They feel like a “cool” rock star and celebrity when they film themselves and share their piano performance with family and friends. It’s also nice for the teacher to share it as well.
11. Help students create or learn how to create their own music video. Students love this. I like to use Final Cut as the video editing software program, but there are many others like iMovie and other options that are free to download.
12. Have special concerts or activities for the teenage piano students: e.g. touring a piano factory to learn how pianos are made or repaired, attending a special concert, having what I refer to as “Casual Concerts” where the students can wear jeans and a t-shirt and can use their music or play anything they want – they can even invite friends to perform with them using any instrument, and many other similar ideas. Themed recitals are great for younger children. Having “Cool Concerts” or Jam Sessions is the way to connect with teenagers. Simply invite them to ask their friends who play other instruments or sing to perform with them. Their friends don’t even need to be part of your studio and it’s even better when they are not. That helps them all work together and feel a sense of shared success with their friends. It is also a great incentive and motivator for them to share their music with their friends.They’re hanging out and having fun! When that happens it’s magical!
13. Along with teaching composition and arranging, teach improvisation, jazz, blues, how to play from fake books, read lead sheets, etc.. They love different styles and genres. I like to focus on teaching music theory, improvisation, and composition. I have my entire studio primarily focus on these areas. I refer to them as Theory Therapy, Innovative Improvisation, and Creative Composition.
14. Once students feel more comfortable playing around on the piano and improvising and arranging because of the theory they have learned (intervals, scales, modes, chords, chord progressions, etc.), have the students try to take one simple song and arrange it any way they’d like. Can they arrange it 5, 10, 15, or 20 + different ways? I encourage my own piano students to take one simple song, like Mary Had a Little Lamb, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, or Jingle Bells and arrange it 5 or 10 different ways. They learn to change the style. This is after I have been working with them on learning all of their scales and chords. I have them use my books, Essential Piano Exercises and An Introduction to Scales and Modes to learn all of the scales and chords/chord progressions in all keys and in all inversions. I have a book I created that will help them take a simple song and arrange it. It is called “100 Left Hand Patterns Every Piano Player Should Know”. The subtitle for the book is: “Play the same song 100 different ways!”
15. If you teach teenage boys, start the lesson doing push ups or lifting weights. Have them punch punching bags, speed bags, or stretch, meditate, do sit ups, or even do a few karate and marshal arts moves. Oddly enough, it works! I will get down with the student and we will do 25 push ups together. We may go into my gym that is in the room next to the piano studio and lift weights together for four or five minutes. While lifting I explain about the importance of doing reps (repetition) and sets – either in weight lifting or in playing the piano. I explain why I have them repeat measures over and over again until they have the notes correct – first with the left hand and then with the right hand. I explain why I make sure the timing is right on, and the dynamics are beautifully delivered. It’s like lifting weights, but at the piano. The more we do it the better we become!
16. Have the student try to sing while they are playing. Ask them to invite a friend to their lesson who plays another instrument and you will have them jam together with you at the lesson. This is also fun to do for piano recitals and concerts. In my own “Piano Concerts” (recitals), I refer to it as a Jam Session or “Jammin’ with Jerald.” You can have a piano “Jam Session” with your own piano students as well. Do a dueling piano duel with your piano student. Invite others to attend. It can be a home concert with family and friends. Ask their friends who play instruments to accompany them (with guitars, bass, violin, cello, saxophone, clarinet, etc.). Getting them to perform in a cool, laid back setting is the ticket!
17. At a piano recital or concert, ask a few of the students to be the opening act and perform their own music while the audience is coming in. They can perform something they have composed or something they have perfected. This is fun to do and is a great opportunity for the students to share their music with others. You can also select a few individual piano students – based on how well they are doing and their level of proficiency, to perform with you at various venues when you will be performing. Think about that as motivation! I tell students when they reach a certain level they can perform with me at church, at rest homes and retirement homes, and even at concerts. For the student to be able to perform in front of an audience with their piano teacher is very motivating. It shows the student that you have trust in their ability and it motivates them to want to do their best. Some will even go on to do music professionally either as teachers, performers, composers, or in other areas within the music profession.
18. Have your students enter contests or competitions either on their piano playing ability, mastery, performance, technique, theory, or overall musicianship. You can have them enter composition competitions, local young aspiring artists challenges, battle of the bands, or any other event where they can compete against their peers. A little competition is a good thing. If there are not any available competition or events where students can perform or compete, create your own. Host an event that you put together or have many piano teachers and their studios collectively work together on creating a competition. Think outside the box. It does not need to be a traditional competition. You could have one on composing, improvising, arranging, accompanying, playing lead sheets, playing pop music, playing new age music, playing jazz and blues music, playing hymn arrangements, performing original compositions or arrangements, or even having piano students team up with their friends who play others instruments. They could do duets, trios, quartets, play the piano with the guitar, play the piano with a harmonica, cello, violin, tuba, accordion, flute, any electric instrument, keyboards, drums, and hundreds of other combinations.
19. Come up with something entirely fresh and new. Create an idea no one has ever thought of before. There are so many great ideas out there. This is only a handful. You could have the students play the piano to silent films. You could have students collectively compose a piece together by assigning individual sections or movements of the piece and then having everyone perform it together (never having heard the other sections). You could have group performances on two to 20 pianos or keyboards. You could come up with fun ideas like taking a piano or keyboard to a park and having impromptu performances with your students and strangers in the park. See if you could perform in malls, airports, movie theater lobbies, shopping centers, gas stations, town hall/town square, or anywhere you could get permission to perform.
20. Don’t just teach music. Teach life skills. Challenge your students to have many interests and to pursue many different areas of learning. I encourage my piano students to play sports, dance, draw, do math, science, ballet, drama, pottery, gardening, hiking, camping, and a thousand other activities that have absolutely nothing to do with music or playing the piano. I talk to them often about being well rounded and doing more than just playing the piano. I know that may sound a little contrary to the purpose of piano lessons, but I help them understand that – as important as piano is to me – since it is my life – there is more to life than piano. I tell my own piano students I want them to learn as much as they can in every area of life and do as much as they can to experience all that life has to offer. If this means they missed a day or two of practicing the piano, I understand. Don’t misunderstand what I am saying about this. It is important for the piano students to practice and improve at playing the piano. But it is imperative that they know they are more than just a piano player. We all are. We all have interests and other hobbies, activities, and areas of our lives that are just as important to us as the piano. Some that are even more important. For me, spending time with my family and being the best husband and dad that I can be is much more important than tickling the ivories. I want my piano students to know that and know that it is okay if they are excited about other things. So am I. I think we all are and we all should be!
This is a very small list of ideas you could come up with to help motivate and inspire your teenage piano students. This list also works for pre-teens and adults alike. What I have listed may be a little more challenging for young students, which is why I have listed these ideas to motivate teens and adults. I love hearing about the creative ideas others have and how they inspire and motivate their piano students. Please leave a comment below and let me know how you are motivating your own piano students. If you are a teenager, let me know what motivates you to play the piano. I would love to hear from you.
I hope you have a wonderful day today. Make it matter. Make it count. Live life deliberately, intentionally, and purposefully!
Smile all the while and BE HAPPY!
Have a Musical and Magical Day!
Thanks - Jerald
Music Mentor, Composer, Author
My name is Jerald Simon and I help teen and adult piano students learn to play piano the FUN way by teaching music theory, improvisation, and composition. I refer to these as Theory Therapy™, Innovative Improvisation™, and Creative Composition™. Within these three areas of musicianship, we focus on mastering Piano FUNdamentals (emphasis on the word FUN). My company is called Music Motivation® and we create COOL SONGS, Essential Piano Exercises, Piano FUNdamentals, video courses, weekly online group piano lessons, workshops, seminars, music books, albums, and so much more!
My goal is to help you learn how to play any style of music you want on the piano in any key – with or without music. I want students to learn and know how to read any piano music placed in front of them and play it as it is written. But I also teach you how to take any music and play it at least 100 different ways in any key and any genre or style you want from classical to new age, jazz, blues, rock, pop, ballads, country, etc.. I encourage students to take the music theory we learn in our weekly online group piano lessons and learn how to improvise, arrange, and compose music of their own. I help piano students discover their composer within.