Monday, October 20, 2014

Keeping Music Students Motivated

It's natural for young students' motivation to practice music to ebb and flow as their lessons progress. After all, even professional musicians have creative slumps, or times in their life when practicing becomes a huge struggle. Yet, if music teachers don't sustain students' interest enough to get them past their slumps, then students can become discouraged and quit. So what can a teacher do to help students maintain their motivation?

First, I think it's vital to have regular performances, recitals, and other special events for students. Recitals motivate students to practice for several reasons. One is the fear of public failure, which can be quite a powerful motivator. But recitals also represent a very tangible goal, something for students to work towards. Without a performance goal, practice can feel aimless. Recitals and other performances (including auditions) keep students focused.

Recitals are also a great chance for students to get public recognition for their efforts, which powerfully reinforces their hard work. Which brings me to another valuable way to keep up students' motivation: recognizing their progress. Recitals and other special events are excellent platforms for recognizing students' achievements, but even in regular lessons teachers can take a moment to discuss with students (and their parents, ideally) how much progress they've made. As with any positive feedback, the trick to be honest and specific. Generic praise, like a meaningless "Good Job!" doesn't have the same impact as a specific "Your bow-hold has really improved the last couple of weeks" or "You play this phrase with beautiful expression." I know some teachers who videotape or record students over the course of a couple of lessons, so the students can hear or see how much progress they've made.
If students are not making any progress in their lessons, then it's time to re-access the difficulty of the pieces or techniques they're working on. Music lessons should be challenging without being overwhelming. If students feel overwhelmed or don't seem to be "getting it," it's time to try a different approach. Perhaps they need to work on an etude or an easier piece that focuses on the same skill before trying again on their current piece. Perhaps they need to practice slower, or isolation difficult sections of the music, or try approaching the piece in a different way. I've often had positive results when students clap difficult rhythms or sing the notes before playing something challenging. It's also possible that a student simply doesn't like the music they're working on, and they might have a better experience on a piece of music they enjoy. I try to stay flexible with students and always give them a "fun piece" that they really love to play in addition to their more challenging repertoire.

Finally, students often have more motivation when they have some control and some choices within a lesson. It's hard to have someone constantly telling you what to do when, especially for young teens. Instead, I offer students choices: "Would you like to play your scales or your etude first?" "Which piece would you like to start with today?" These simple choices let students have some say in how their lessons go, and that keeps their motivations much higher.

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