Motivation without Manipulation…

Motivation without Manipulation

Do we sometimes, maybe without knowing it, manipulate those we are trying to motivate? This is one of the key questions we must ask ourselves as motivators. Whether we are parents, teachers, educators, coaches, employers, civic or religious leaders, etc., we must continually keep in check our reasons for motivating others. Is it truly what others need or is it what we think they need?

Are we pushing our ideas and understanding of what we have learned or done on to others and wanting others to think and act like we do, merely because we think it is the correct way things should or must be done? Or are we trying to guide others as they learn and grow for themselves? Hopefully, we are trying to guide them as they learn and grow and hopefully we do the same as we continue to receive guidance from others as we learn and grow.

Just because we may mentor others does not mean we do not need mentors of our own. We are all in a constant state of learning. As mentors we can mentor others and guide them on their own journey, but we must continue to be mentored by others. We all learn so much from each other and can help each other progress more rapidly and with greater results if we work together as a team. There is no need to re-invent the wheel of wisdom when there are so many who have learned, at times, from the school of hard knocks and have already learned how to do so much of what we are wanting to do. We can all help each other do better and be better. We are not in competition against each other, but should focus on helping each other excel, improve, and achieve all of our goals. Instead of pushing against each other, we should push each other forward. This cannot be done at the expense of another, but in working together that both the mentors and those they mentor continually change for the better.

We have often heard the phrase: “No man is an island.” Although this is a great phrase, and for the most part is accurate, in that no one can do anything on their own – as we all need each other – I think we often assume that everyone must be taught in the same way and be surrounded by those who think exactly as we do. That is not true. We are all different, and there is not one correct way of doing anything. I often am guilty of this kind of thinking and need to continually remind myself that there are hundreds and sometimes thousands of correct ways of doing everything. It’s not even a matter of good, better, or best. Sometimes, there are 5 equally right ways of doing something and all are correct and equally as good as the other. They are just different. Each has their own natural results or consequences – both good and bad – but all are great options and would be beneficial. Sometimes we must surround ourselves with those who see the world completely differently than we do and who even oppose what we do and how we do it. Their perspective, focus, and understanding of things can help us refine and redefine our own understanding.

Sometimes, as teachers, parents, and music mentors, we try to motivate our music students with everything we can think of that excites us and keeps us going. We are looking at the students based on what we think is motivating, and we try to tell the student how much fun they will have playing a particular piece or learning a new style because we are seeing their world through our eyes. We think if we like a particular piece or style, or if other students we have taught like that particular genre, then this student must as well. Everyone is different and everyone must be taught completely differently – even when it comes to theory books, method books, styles, songs, and exercises, etc.. What works for one person will not necessarily work for another. That is fine. We should accept and even embrace it. We should encourage it! We are not “cookie-cutter” piano teachers and we are not teaching robots on an assembly line. These students have different goals, ideas, talents, thoughts, feelings, and so on! Not everyone wants to do what we want them to do. I have had this happen so many times in my own teaching.

I have had moments when I pulled out every kind of piece I could think of without consulting with the student because I thought I was the teacher and knew best based on their skill level, age, gender, etc.. I did this even with little children because I thought, they didn’t know any better and couldn’t decide for themselves and needed my expertise to help them (obviously very little children need more help than older children, but even then, children know what they do and do not like and will be more motivated with one piece over another). Weeks later, when the student had not progressed and was not enjoying a piece – even something I had composed that I thought they would LOVE, I would essentially turn the lesson over to them. Sometimes I would say, “Let’s have FREE time for five minutes where you play anything you have worked on in the past that you can remember, or just improvise or compose something. It doesn’t matter as long as you have FUN!” What would happen next always astounded me.

In turning the time over to the student to play whatever, I would watch, listen, and learn from them. Many times the student would play one of my earlier “Cool Songs” they had learned, or the student would play something from years ago. At other times the student would play around and create or compose something on the spot. I would ask what they were playing and the student would say, “I’m making this up as I go,” or they would say, “I made this up a few weeks ago,” or “I heard this on Spotify and watched the music video on YouTube.” I soon learned the importance of what I refer to as FIVE minute FREE time. It has become invaluable!

After hearing the students play a piece they really wanted to play, I would then ask them why they chose that piece. I would then ask them what about that song or piece excited them or motivated them and would ask them if they would like to play something similar. Most of the students did not know and would need to think about it for a minute. Then they would tell me their reason for selecting the piece. It would sometimes be from a memorable melody their friends would know and recognize, which is something that tends to be very important for teens. Other times, what they chose would involve fun left hand patterns, jazzy sounding pieces, new age, pop and rock/blues style. I began noticing how much the student would excel when they had a piece they wanted to play – for whatever reason it was. They improved faster if they had a say in selecting their music.

Many teachers have disagreed and said their students should only be allowed to select one or two pieces at most per year that they would like to learn to play. I respectfully have disagreed with that and have even asked my students to write down 10 – 15 pieces they would like to learn during the year of their own choosing. The progress and personal improvement has been astounding when I have worked as a team with the student in accomplishing their goals. I still have them play their theory and several of the original compositions I have composed from my various books, and I always have the students work on hymns as part of our Hymn Challenge, but I have tried to let them motivate themselves. Sometimes I have found that I was holding them back because I was weighing them down with a particular style they did not want to play. I love playing every style and trying new pieces in different time signatures/key signatures/rhythms, etc., but just because I enjoy something, doesn’t mean the student will share my enthusiasm.

I also learned something – I needed to listen to what my students were saying. I also needed to listen more intently to what my piano students were not saying. Most drudged on lifelessly playing a piece. I would try to find a fun cool piece or compose one I thought they would enjoy. The only problem was I was forgetting one very important part of the equation – the student and their needs. I began listening. I would find out that some students only wanted to play new age sounding music. I would still assign them something that was not new age music so they (and I) could have variety, but 98 percent of the lesson and repertoire was focused on what they were interested in learning. I began asking them to tell me what style of music I should compose that they would want to play. I was focusing on their likes and interests.

I believe we can teach the theory to the students through the music and when they learn the music theory the student will then have a better understanding of why they are learning the music because it is being demonstrated through the music.

Here are some thoughts to think about:

  • Why is the student taking piano lessons (or any kind of music lessons) in the first place?
  • Why do the parents want their child to take piano lessons?
  • How involved are the parents with the piano students’ progression?
  • What is the main objective or goal of teaching this piano student from your perspective? What about from their perspective? Do they know what your goal is? Do you know what their goal is? Do your piano students know what they want to accomplish by playing the piano?
  • How involved in other activities is this student? How much time can they actually commit to music lessons? How much time are you as a teacher wanting them to commit?
  • How much time do the students really have to practice the piano or other instruments?
  • When do your piano students practice?
  • What are your limitations as a piano teacher?
  • Are there areas where you personally feel you need a little more help or improvement? (I have many areas I am working on and striving to improve upon).
  • Do your piano students write down specific music goals with specific deadlines for those goals?
  • Have your students selected a specific area of focus on their instrument? (e.g. classical, jazz, blues, new age, improvisation, composition, etc.)
  • Do your piano students want to pursue music as a career or as a hobby?

What has your experience been? How have you helped motivate students who seemed to be fighting against piano lessons and appear to be less than enthusiastic about practicing their piano pieces? I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments about how you have helped your own students become self starters and motivate themselves. Leave a comment below to inspire us with your own personal success stories!


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