Think about the title of this blog post for a second. How can we motivate piano students or any music student for that matter? Why would we want to motivate music students? Can we in fact actually motivate anyone to do something they won’t actually do of their own free will and choice? Should we try to motivate others if they don’t want to do something we think they should? Since all students are unique and different, does a general approach to motivating piano students even work or must every attempt be tailored to each individual piano student?
I use the word “motivation” frequently, but it could almost be thought of more as inspiration and inspiring others. Motivation is merely the vehicle to help those around us become inspired to do what they choose to do for themselves. Can we actually motivate someone to do anything if they do not want to do what we are trying to motivate them to do? No, I don’t believe we can and truthfully, no one would want to do something you are trying to motivate them to do if they genuinely do not want to do it. If it is not their idea and they don’t see any value or benefit in it, whatever the suggestion may be – it will fall on deaf ears because the individual simply does not feel as strongly about what you are saying as you’d like them to. They would feel forced or bullied into doing something they don’t like, may not understand, and have not learned to appreciate. They may not want to understand or even learn to appreciate whatever it is, because they did not think of it themselves. If it is not their idea and they did not have a say in what they will be doing, their level of interest, if any, will decrease and quickly destroy what little motivation they had.
You see, there are really only two forms of motivation: EXTRINSIC MOTIVATION and INTRINSIC MOTIVATION.
I’m sure we all have learned about these forms of motivation at some point in our lives. The first form of motivation (Extrinsic Motivation) is temporary and does not last. It cannot. Extrinsic Motivation can in many ways be likened to the hare in Aesop’s famous tale of “The Tortoise and the Hare.” Externally motivated people often start strong and are excited at first, but slowly drift off and fall asleep in life because they are only motivated by others, by external influences. This is built up with hype and momentary excitement, and it continually needs to be reinforced with bribes, rewards, incentives, and additional external influences to try and jumpstart the individual or group of people or compel them to do something. Extrinsic motivation is not very effective because it does not create an internal change or shift in thinking within an individual. It is momentary because individuals who are being motivated by external influences will give up at any little hiccup, setback, or problem of any kind. The level of commitment, determination, dedication, and accountability from externally motivated individuals, organizations, groups, or associations will start out strong and get weaker day by day unless they learn how to develop intrinsic motivation. Their habits have not changed, and their performance has not improved because their commitment level is not completely solidified, and their day to day tendencies and thinking has remained the same.
We each have areas in our lives where we are better at being internally motivated and other areas where we are often influenced by others and motivated by external elements. It’s not necessarily good or bad, but we can learn how to be better instead of worse.
Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from within. No one can deter or stop an individual who is internally driven because these people believe in themselves. They have learned what they are passionate about, what they believe in, and what they hope to accomplish, and are not afraid to work when the going gets tough. These individuals can often be compared with the tortoise because they know it will require discipline, dedication, determination, focus, work, and faith in themselves and their ability to do whatever it is they set out to do.
How does this relate to piano lessons and piano students? Everything we do and learn in life has an impact on us and can change for better or worse.
First, we can look at ourselves as piano teachers or parents of piano students and we can find out if we are more extrinsically motivated or intrinsically motivated in our own lives. Are there areas where we can and should improve? What can we be doing to develop good habits, thoughts, and personal beliefs about ourselves and our abilities? Where do we want to go in life and what do we hope to accomplish in life? What kind of an example are we setting for our piano students? Do we ask our piano students to do exercises, practice, and improve their skills even though we don’t require the same effort and level of commitment from ourselves? These are just some questions we can ask ourselves. There are no right or wrong answers. But the answers to these questions can help better understand ourselves and eventually begin to better understand our piano students, where they are in life, where they would like to go, what they would like to learn, and ultimately what they would like to accomplish in the world of music, specifically with the piano.
How can we help piano students? Can we actually help them get excited and inspired about playing the piano, learning music theory, reading music, learning how to play by ear, and discovering their own unique style and sound when playing the piano? Can we keep them interested and continuing to play the piano and make music when there are so many competing influences, extra curricular activities, and life in general? How many of our piano students are intrinsically motivated? How many of our piano students are extrinsically motivated? What can we do or should we be doing to help our piano students become self-starters (intrinsic motivation) and practice the piano without being told or forced to (extrinsic motivation)? Are there comments or suggestions we can make during piano lessons? Are there activities we can do for students who play by ear as opposed to students who read by music? How can we help our piano students when each individual piano student is unique and different and each needs their own unique approach to learning and playing the piano?
These questions have been on my mind for some time. I hear many piano teachers who are struggling to keep their piano students excited and many of these teachers feel as though they are competing with sports, school, social life, and everything else going on in piano students’ lives. Piano students are busy and so many are involved in everything. That is wonderful and is how it should be. I am a big supporter of encouraging piano students and all music students to be active participants in life and not just do music. Here is a statement I share with all of my piano students and their parents and have also included in all of my books:
“If you come to piano lessons each week and walk away only having learned about music notation, rhythm, and dots on a page, then I have failed as a Music Mentor. Life lessons are just as important, if not more important than music lessons. I would rather have you learn more about goal setting and achieving, character, dedication, and personal improvement. To have you learn to love music, appreciate it, and play it, is a wonderful byproduct you will have for the rest of your life – a talent that will enrich your life and the lives of others. To become a better musician is wonderful and important, but to become a better person is more important.
“As a Music Mentor I want to mentor students to be the very best they can be. If you choose not to practice, you essentially choose not to improve. This is true in any area of life. Everyone has the same amount of time allotted to them. What you choose to do with your time, and where you spend your time, has little to do with the activities being done and more to do with the value attached to each activity.
“I believe it’s important to be well-rounded and have many diverse interests. I want students to enjoy music, to learn to be creative and understand how to express themselves musically – either by creating music of their own, or interpreting the music of others – by arranging and improvising well known music. In addition, I encourage students to play sports, dance, sing, draw, read, and develop all of their talents. I want them to be more than musicians, I want them to learn to become well-rounded individuals.
“Above all, I want everyone to continually improve and do their best. I encourage everyone to set goals, dream big, and be the best they can be in whatever they choose to do. Life is full of wonderful choices. Choose the best out of life and learn as much as you can from everyone everywhere. I prefer being called a Music Mentor because I want to mentor others and help them to live their dreams. Your life is your musical symphony. Make it a masterpiece!”
I am currently in the process of finishing a new book on motivating piano students that will come out in the fall of 2020 and will feature various piano teaching experts who have graciously shared some of their own ideas on motivating piano students and their thoughts, ideas, and words of wisdom for other piano teachers, piano students and parents of piano students.
Let me share some thoughts about what we can be doing as music educators to inspire and motivate our piano students regardless of their age. I’ll list what I consider to be the “TOP 5 Extrinsically and Intrinsically Motivated Methods of Inspiring or Motivating Piano Students” (I’d love to have you comment below and share your top teaching tips as well).
Here are the TOP 5 Extrinsically Motivated Methods some teachers have used to try to inspire piano students – but it never works. Some of the incentives described in #1 are good and somewhat effect in the short term, but won’t guarantee long term commitment, success, or musical growth. I’m not saying we should not give some of the rewards mentioned in #1, but there are better ways to motivate in the long run. We definitely should not do numbers 2 – 5 and if we are, we should change our thinking, speaking, and actions and be more aware of our motives when teaching piano students.
- Give rewards, treats, incentives, gifts, bribes, money, etc.. – This may be a temporary form of motivation, but it does not inspire students intrinsically, and after they have received the reward, treat, or incentive, they most likely will not put forth much effort until a new prize can be obtained. What tends to happen is, once they have received one reward, the next reward needs to be bigger and better to compel them forward.
- Criticize, put down, embarrass students, or become upset because piano students are not getting it. Criticism can be very destructive. For whatever reason, piano students sometimes don’t understand a certain concept or passage of music. Maybe they don’t understand the theory, and maybe they struggle with putting both hands together and playing the music or the dynamics. That is okay. Everyone moves at their own pace. We must learn how to be more patient as piano teachers and parents.
- Shame, guilt, force, fear, or manipulate students into learning repertoire we think they should learn because we want them to and not because they want to. I do believe there are pieces all students should learn how to play because they are favorites, classics, masterpieces, or they teach specific theory concepts students should know. But more than that, I believe piano students should have a say in what they want to play. After all, they are the ones learning the piano and we are here to help them have an enjoyable experience and learn and grow. Obviously when they are younger or not acquainted with music, we can direct them and help them. But piano students should be choosing the music they want to play.
- Compare where a student is with what other students their age are doing or what older siblings this student has have done in the past. Both are equally destructive and don’t help the student improve, progress, or develop their own internal motivation.
- Giving the student music the teacher wants the student to learn, only teaching one style or genre of music, not allowing students to have a say in the music they play because the teacher is trying to teach them as they were taught and even tries to push or prod the student into competitions, festivals, or other additional “required” organized activities when the student does not want to (and sometimes the parents don’t). I am not saying organized competitions, festivals, or other piano concerts, camps, and activities are bad at all. In fact, when done correctly, they can be some of the most impactful and wonderful experiences a student has in their musical journey. What destroys a piano student faster than anything else is when it is required, and the student is made to feel inadequate or less than the other students if they genuinely don’t want to participate. Some teachers even give ultimatums – saying they will drop the student if they don’t participate. This form of motivation, as with many of the others listed above, cross over to manipulation. Even young students know what they like and don’t like and we should let them make choices at an early age and help them learn to think for themselves.
TOP 5 Intrinsically Inspired Ideas Piano Teachers and Parents of Piano Students Can Do Starting TODAY!
- Teach by example. We can lead, inspire, and motivate those around us to want to do what they see us doing because they see how much we enjoy and appreciate what we do. We must be self-starters and be on our own personal path or progression. We all progress in different ways and at different rates. The key is to continually be moving forward and challenging ourselves. Maybe as piano teachers we should start learning a new instrument – even if we are 90 years old – and become a student again. This will give us additional perspective, empathy, and understanding for our own students.
- Listen more than we speak. We should listen to what others say and realize they may not be saying everything they are thinking (no one ever does). It’s a good idea to ask open ended questions that help piano students share their thoughts, feelings, ideas, frustrations, worries, successes, and failures. We need to get piano students speaking during lessons. Sometimes we can be so focused on starting a new piece or finishing what has seemed like a never ending song that we stress or worry about taking time to talk. We must listen more.
- Ask questions! Ask a lot of questions about their lives. What does he or she like? What are their interests? What don’t they like? Do we know? Don’t be afraid to probe and find out more – as much as the student would like to share. Often it is better to help a student discover what they enjoy playing or want to play instead of the teacher telling them how they will love a certain new piece. This also applies to HOW a piano student plays a piece. Yes, there are distinct dynamics written into many pieces. That does not mean we cannot change them. We are teaching human beings – not robots. We need to help piano students get in touch with their feelings to play pieces with more emotion, sensitivity, and dynamic diversity.
- Admit our limitations and don’t be afraid to be real, sincere, genuine, approachable, relatable, and essentially – HUMAN. As teachers, we make mistakes too. We are not perfect. No one is. We all can learn together and students need to know of our own failures, weaknesses, and when we have made mistakes in the past (or present). It helps us connect with the students and approach them in a very personal way.
- We can find out WHY piano students want to play the piano. Why do they want to learn a particular piece? Do they know why we are having them learn a specific selection? How will this benefit them? What’s in it for them? Why should piano students practice scales, chords, and other piano exercises? Do they know? How will they learn and grow if we don’t help them understand why we are teaching them the music, exercises, theory, musical concepts, history, and terminology? Part of helping piano students become intrinsically inspired individuals is to help them believe in themselves. This is more about helping students (and parents) understand that through piano lessons, each piano student learns dedication, discipline, determination, how to work, how to solve problems, how to be productive, how to think creatively, how to be structured, how to be sensitive, how to set and accomplish goals, and how to discover and rediscover themselves. They can realize their own ideas, feelings, and personality every time they sit down to play the piano.
As you can see, the TOP 5 Intrinsically Inspired Ideas don’t really have a lot to do with playing the piano per se. It is more about connecting with the piano student and helping them discover who they are. Once we all begin to see the results of our hard work, we have greater confidence in our own abilities. It’s about changing our thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and actions to help us truly become intrinsically inspired.
Hopefully these Top 5 Extrinsically Motivated Methods (BAD) and these Top 5 Intrinsically Inspired Ideas (GOOD) can help us think about what we can do to better help piano students of all ages have a better time learning and excelling at the piano.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. What has worked for you? What has not worked? In what areas do you feel you as a piano teacher or parent excel at encouraging your piano students? In what areas do you feel like you could use a “Parent or Piano Teacher PICK ME UP”? I’d love to hear your great ideas.
Have a Musical and Magical Day!
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Jerald Simon is the founder of Music Motivation®and the creator of The COOL SONGS Club. As an entrepreneur, he loves business, composing music, and writing poetry and motivational self help books. He is a music educator, professional speaker, and life coach. Visit http://musicmotivation.com/jeraldsimon to learn more about Jerald.
“My purpose and mission in life is to motivate myself and others through my music and writing, to help others find their purpose and mission in life, and to teach values that encourage everyone everywhere to do and be their best.” – Jerald Simon
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