Motivating Students - Just Whose Job Is It?


by Nancy L. Ostromencki and John M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
Tucson, AZ and Rio Rancho, NM USA


eachers, parents and even students often write us wanting to know how best to motivate students in their studies of the piano. As you might suspect, motivation is such a personal and internal part of the individual psyche that there is no one answer for a given student or a given group of students. Nonetheless, there are some things that parents and teachers can do, working together, to build a sense of self-motivation and accomplishment into younger students. Similarly, older students can learn to motivate themselves to practice, to learn, and to succeed. In this article, we'll discuss some examples and principles that can be used to help students maintain their interest and drive to succeed in lessons. We can't give prescriptions, but we hope these examples will help you, your child, or your students to find out what kinds of goals and rewards will aid in bringing them to their full potential as pianists.

keyinfo.gif (1045 bytes)Perhaps the most important thing that parents and teachers can teach students is how to motivate themselves.

Understanding the Student

Any healthy learning relationship involves open communication between the teacher, the student and the parents (if the student is a child). Insufficient communication and/or mutual understanding of what is expected often manifests itself in a perception of lack of motivation on the part of the student. Generally speaking, nobody knows what makes a child respond better than the parents. By communicating their ideas to the teacher, the parents can often be helpful to the teacher in finding the right system of rewards and goals that will keep the interests of the student. The teacher, through their knowledge and experience with many other students, can then choose methods, goals, and repertoire that will help the student stay engaged.

As a teacher, first and foremost, you really have to know what makes each student "tick." Take the time during the lesson time to ask them how things are going, for example, how their day went at school or on the job. Look into their eyes and really try to relate to what they are saying about their life. This need not turn into an amateur psychological analysis session, but it can show the student that you do care about them. It will help open the doors of communication, so that, if the student is feeling a need for a pep talk, you can sense it more readily.

The Role of the Teacher

Of course, the teacher plays an important role in that process. After all, that is one of the reasons a person becomes a teacher. Positive reinforcement is a critical part of the teacher's "arsenal" of motivational tools. The teacher should carefully reward small accomplishments with kind words and encouragement. At times, all teachers would like to throttle a student who has, for 10 weeks in a row, counted the same part of the same measure of the same piece incorrectly. But rather than destroying the student’s sense of self worth, think carefully of how you would respond to a teacher who was speaking to you the same way that you are speaking to that student right now. Mistakes of this sort must be firmly, but lovingly, corrected. We surround every ‘negative’ comment with a positive aspect of how the student played. It will do you little good to come up with great motivational techniques if the child sees lessons as drudgery because of constant unguarded critical remarks. 

Just recently, we received a phone call from a lady in her mid-thirties seeking a violin teacher for herself in the Yellow Pages. She shared with us her dismay and outrage with the negative response that she received during a phone conversation that she had with a violin teacher. This teacher let the student know that she would take her as a student, but that in her opinion, teaching beginning adult violin students was not a worthwhile endeavor for anybody. Fortunately, this potential student had enough self-motivation to realize that this teacher's comments were more of an indicator of the teacher's attitude than of her potential as a student. This example illustrates the potential damage that can be done to the spirit of willingness of students when ill-advised remarks are made by the teacher.

There are a number of motivational incentives that a teacher or parent can provide. For the preschoolers and kindergartners, stickers can be fun, as well as little coloring books that have pictures of musical instruments. Small rewards, such as certificates, stickers, gold stars and the like will help keep some students energized to practice and continue their study of music. By the third or fourth grade,  students can enjoy as rewards small books about composers, small busts of composers, and CD’s of the music that they are studying. Usually, these things can be filtered out by the 5-6 grade level, but again, it depends upon what works best for the individual student. Some of our students absolutely MUST have their stickers or their gold stars to make their lesson times complete and to validate how they are doing. Others find these kinds of ‘devices’ an insult and would rather not deal with them at all. We try to clue into what works best for each  individual and keep them going according to their own personality and needs.

Working for a specific musical goal by participation in festivals, contests, or recitals can help motivate many students. The student has a specific date to get the music learned and they can receive medals or money if they play really well. Also, many festivals and contests give the students certificates of participation and/or ribbons of participation for competing. More importantly, the student gets to see and hear other students and learns that achievement takes hard work. Even if a student does not win a gold medal, he is very often  motivated to practice harder and work more diligently to get better scores and, thereby, a better prize. Other students feel too much pressure to do the festivals or contests, and for them, the stickers, or small musical gifts work much better.

As students get a little older, repertoire and/or technical exercises can be used as part of a reward system, when coupled with a clear understanding of why the student must study repertoire that may be less attractive to him. Students must know that they are not going to love each and every piece of music that assigned to them, nor will they be absolutely enthralled about all the technical exercises that will come their way. Try to make them understand that there is a really good reason to have them studying specific repertoire or technical exercises. Take the time to explain the importance of the repertoire and/or technique that they are learning. In choosing repertoire, we take a lot of time trying to match repertoire to the student. We attempt to anticipate their likes, while keeping in mind what they need to work on. Often students will be interested in playing a specific piece of music which you would not otherwise assign. Such music can be used as a "dessert" piece to reward accomplishment with repertoire that you deem more important to the student's training.

What Parents Can Do

Parents are at least as responsible for keeping students motivated as the teacher. Parents who are actively and positively involved with their child’s piano study usually have little problem motivating their children, either in school or in the study of piano. Those parents who sit in at the lessons and are involved with practice at home show the student that they care about him and the course of learning. Parents don't have to sit down and practice with the child; verbal positive reinforcement will help create an environment where this work can be done easily. Small rewards, carefully and sparingly used as recognition rather than payment, can also help tell your child that you care about lessons. Such rewards can include getting the child a new music CD, a book about a composer, a video about a composer or performer, or a new outfit for a special recital.

Parents and teachers should not overlook the resources and knowledge of the child's school teachers. Most school teachers have learned many ways to help their students stay interested and involved. If a child's teacher has found something that makes school studies more interesting for your child, you and the piano teacher should communicate to see if there is any way by which those techniques can be applied to piano lessons.

How Students Can Help

Finally, the student should realize from the start, that he (or she) is also responsible for finding ways to make tasks interesting and fun. After all, there always comes a time when the student becomes an adult responsible to himself and others. Motivation cannot be the sole "responsibility" of a teacher or parent. It must ultimately come from the student. Students themselves must learn that they cannot expect their teachers and parents to be a constant cheerleading squad. Nor can they expect their teacher to give them only the music that they want to play all the time. Students must grasp that there is not going to be a quick fix or instant gratification in the study of music. They need to understand that anything worth doing, like playing the piano or participating in a sport, takes time and practice. 

Perhaps the most important thing that parents and teachers can help students learn is how to motivate themselves. In other words, the student must learn how to discover those aspects of any task that are interesting and fun for him.  Teachers, parents, and students all have a role in engendering the motivation to succeed, not only in piano lessons, but in life. Those students who, with the help of caring teachers and parents, learn how to motivate themselves will reap dividends throughout their lives. Whose job is it to motivate students? It's the teacher's, the parents' and the student's - it's yours!
Page created: 1/25/99
Last updated: 01/30/15
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1,
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