motivation

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Student motivation is an ongoing discussion and concern for every music teacher. We debate internal versus external motivation, parent involvement, the role of talent, and the million ways to structure home practice. Students Luke Jones and Matt McKeever at the University of Missouri at St. Louis are taking a summer graduate music education class with Jennifer Mishra and they have created a series of podcast interviews with musicians around the country addressing the issue of student motivation. You can check out their project here: http://sutbpodcats.podomatic.com/

My interview encouraged me to once again write down a few of my thoughts about motivation.

The student has to own the lessons, not feel forced into them. If he or she does not arrive excited to start piano lessons do your best to sell the idea that studying music is an awesome, amazing experience. It helps if you can find ways to connect music to areas in which the student already has an interest. Our goal as teachers is to nurture and develop the student’s own personal value of the music study so they are not as dependent upon our external motivation.

Parents need to be educated about the value of lessons and how critical their role is in the child’s success. Compare the support they give the child on a sports team to the level of enthusiasm they need to show for music lessons. Give parents specific things they can do to be supportive and involved. Even non-musical parents can ask questions about the music, sit down for a living room concert, negotiate a motivation system, and show their child how much they value a musical education.

Taking music lessons will rarely go well if a student feels a loss of peer respect from the activity. Help students to develop friendships with other musicians, let them invite friends to a fun musical event, introduce role models, include fun popular pieces in their repertoire, and make sure students always have an impressive short piece to perform on the spur of the moment. Find ways to make their music relevant and useful in their life.

The student and teacher relationship is critical. Students need to know that you care about them as a person and are willing to listen to them. Share appropriately about your life as a musician. Be respectful, honest and trustworthy. Work hard, but be an source of encouragement, not a drain on their self-esteem. Personalize their program to reflect their unique gifts, interests, and learning style.

Learning has to include some fun, especially for the young. Include games and laughter in your teaching. Plan some group activities. Tell stories that make the music come alive. Every once in a while do something unexpected. Plan a surprise! Andrea and Trevor Dow are full of great ideas at http://www.teachpianotoday.com/.

Students need to know they are making progress.  Remind students how far they have come. Play old recordings and look over old play lists. Remind them of the goals they have already accomplished. Judging the correct speed with which to move a student forward is always a critical decision on the part of the teacher. Too fast and the fundamentals are not established deeply. Too slow and the student loses heart.

Create a vision for the future with the student and talk and dream about it. Point out harder pieces that they will be able to play one day. Take students to hear more advanced musicians and attend live music events.

Keep their vision alive with goal setting. Short term goals can take just a week or so— “See if you can memorize this to play for your grandmother when she comes to visit in two weeks.” An annual theme can keep motivation going throughout the year. Michelle Sisler has created a wonderful series of games at www.keystoimagination.com. The Music Teachers National Association offers a music achievement award program to help students set personal goals for each year. Don’t forget to set long term goals too, such as being ready to join the jazz band in high school.

When a student quits, all forward progress stops. Those that continue, even at a seemingly slow pace, will keep learning and growing. The longer a student sticks with their instrument, and the more independent and self-motivated they become in learning, the more likely they will have music in their life for as long as they live.

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sunset in the tundra

Being a person who is strongly nourished by sunlight and warmth, this is a hard time of year for me. That makes mid-winter a great time to remind myself why I really do love my job. This list is a compilation of many individuals’ thoughts, so most of us will find something we can relate to.

  1. I get to keep learning new music all the time.
  2. I am giving a gift that will last a lifetime.
  3. My young “clients” are adorable and amazing.
  4. Nothing compares to seeing a face light up when a child finally “gets it.”
  5. Small accomplishments bring great pleasure.
  6. I connect to children at the level of their hearts.
  7. My job is much more meaningful than a typical 8-5.
  8. I am sometimes the first person to alert parents to a learning or visual challenge.
  9. I teach kids to rise above negativity and self-doubt to create beautiful and very personal music.
  10. I get to witness generations of musicians enjoying their music.
  11. It is gratifying to know that I am an important part of a child’s life.
  12. I enjoy the constant challenge of finding better and more effective ways to teach a concept.
  13. I am never bored—I get a whole new personality to enjoy every 30-45 minutes.
  14. I have the privilege of helping to keep the arts alive in our culture.
  15. I am helping to make someone’s dream come true.
  16. I am able to model for a child smart work habits, diligence, perseverance, patience, and confidence.
  17. I never really know how much impact and influence I am having, so it keeps me on my toes every single day.
  18. Music is a unique form of human expression and I get to draw it out.

This makes it worth pouring my heart, soul and love for music into my work every day. Even the cold, dark days of winter. Please share your inspirational thoughts below!

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2015 goals

The issue of internal or external motivation is a debate that is sure to continue as long as there are music students and music teachers. One reason for this is the uniqueness of each student and each teacher. There is no one right answer.

Everyone seems to agree that an internally motivated child is the ideal. But what do we mean by “internally” motivated? Is it the child that seems to practice every week without wanting or needing stickers or prizes? Is it internal motivation to want to please your teacher or parents, or must it involve some level of personal enjoyment of the activity? 

Dan Pink, in his TED Talk, describes three elements of internal motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose. We can we strive to incorporate these three elements into our lessons. Certainly teaching students to be good readers and helping them to understand the fundamentals of music and harmony will promote a sense of autonomy. Training a student carefully in the elements involved in high-quality playing and taking pieces to completion, should develop a sense of mastery. A sense of purpose might come from discovering how their musical abilities can be used to serve and bless other people. [···]

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