Motivation and piano

Motivation: one size doesn’t fit all

Guest Post by Karen Marshall

What is motivation and how does it relate to music teaching?

Motivation is all to do with thoughts and tasks becoming actions.

There are 10,050 minutes between one 30 minute weekly music lesson and the next – or 10,020 minutes for a weekly hour music lesson.

Here are some ideas to hopefully motivate students to use the time in between lessons musically!

Reasons for poor motivation and what to do about it:

1. Is the music or task too difficult, or there is too much to do?

  • Prepare the student well in lesson so they can replicate at home.  Try not to leave them to “have a go” without preparation unless they are very confident.
  • Set just one or two challenging things. Rather, focus on easier tasks that consolidate skills and build confidence. Try NOT to OVERLOAD YOUR STUDENT
  • Consider not keeping going with a piece of music that a student is continually failing with (it can damage confidence). Perhaps revisit it latter when they are over-ready, as this can illustrate their progress to them.

2. Has the student understood what is required, or might you have presumed knowledge they dont have? 

  • How well do you test your student’s understanding?  Do you just ask “do you understand” and they reply “yes”?  Perhaps get them to teach it back to you – it will give a clear idea of their understanding.
  • Give students methods of breaking tasks down (as many pieces as they need), eg.  providing a framework for analysis of the music – structure, harmony, melody, texture etc.

3. They want to play music that inspires them.

  • When possible give much choice; it can empower students.  Try having WANT pieces (the ones they choose) and NEED pieces (pieces that develop new skills).
  • Relate a less accessible piece of music to something that is liked and understood.  Many pop songs use modes – as do lots of classical pieces.
  • Have a special list of past pupils ‘MOST WANTED’ pieces at all different levels – give your student the opportunity to select one.

4. They dont have the time or working environment to complete the task.

  • Perhaps discuss location of practise sessions with the parent. Cold rooms can be a problem along with competing with a television. Take great care when discussing these things with the parent, it may simply not be possible to move the instrument.
  • Work out a time when practise or study is best and possible. Get your student to produce a plan.

5. They learn in a different way to the one you are using to teach them.

  • If your student is making no progress look at the teaching style you are using. Ask how they learn and what type of teaching they enjoy the most – “seeing”, “hearing” or “doing” activities.

Do students require additional incentives?

Some students need a reward because learning the music and encouraging words isn’t enough – stickers, certificates, cheap stationary, chocolate or even the latest collectable cards can work well.

1. Praise

  • Try three positive comments to one constructive.
  • Try not to be too critical. Students can learn more if they discover things themselves. Provide lots of practice in the lesson on how to play a difficult bar before allowing them to attempt it.
  • Make sure your praise is sincere but remember to praise the simple things that they can always get right – celebrate your student’s success!

2. They need regular coaching.

  • Provide a “music star practise buddy” – an older student who can act as a mentor.
  • Involve them in group music making activities from duets to bands.
  • Encourage the parent to be a fan of their child’s music practice rather than a reviewer!

Students’ opinions

Rebecca, aged 11 :

“Me and my teacher picked some new books at the music shop together.  I liked being able to choose everything myself so it’s not too hard and I like it.”

Alex, aged 17 :

I like music to be taught through music because music is sound.  Not someone standing talking all the time. As a non-pianist watching the harmony develop on the keyboard is still useful.”

Eve, aged 7 :

“When I really like a piece – that’s what makes me practise.”

 Charis aged 9 :

“I like to practise because I have a great teacher.”

My own 8 year old daughter recently told me :

Mum, if you ask me rather than tell me to practise I’m much more likely to do it!”

How motivated are you in your job?

Motivating others can be affected by how motivated we feel ourselves.

If you are feeling a little low why not do some professional development. There are one-day courses and much much more.

  • Free on-line support can be found on Facebook sites like Pianodao founder Andrew Eales’s Piano Network UK group (if you live in the UK – and there are also several excellent international groups on Facebook).
  • E-music maestro also provides some excellent support.
  • Check out your local EPTA group
  • Attend the ABRSM teacher conference (usually held in November) or the Music Expo (Rhinegold) in February 2017.
  • Consider simply having piano lessons yourself again with an experienced teacher. That’s the best professional development I myself have ever received.

Teacher tip:

Heather Hammond, teacher and composer of Cool Piano and Get Set! Piano, says:

“After the first few lessons I compose a piece for a new young student with their name in the title – it makes them feel special and they are very motivated to play a piece of music just about them!”

Karen Marshall

Karen Marshall is the co-writer of Get Set! Piano with Heather Hammond (Bloomsbury), and the compiler of the ABRSM Encore series.

She works as a peripatetic and private piano teacher, a classroom music teacher, and music and dyslexia specialist.


Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

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