Music Teacher's Helper Blog

What Really Motivates Students?

How much of your teaching depends on a student’s self-discipline? Is self-discipline natural to them, enforced by parents, or taught? What even is self-discipline?

Lots of studies have shown that self-control leads to success in learning, and in life itself — and yet, a new book reviewing psychological studies on this subject suggests that many of us may have an outdated understanding of self-discipline.

New Year’s resolutions are infamous for uncovering how hard it is to follow up on our annual bold promises to knuckle down and get everything right in the new year.

We try to deny it, but we know it’s true — forcing yourself to be disciplined often means fighting with yourself. The toll it takes is not only emotional, but physical. One study showed that it causes premature aging of immune cells.

Forced willpower is stressful — it increases the heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety levels.

David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, just published a book in January called Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride.

He has found that compassion, gratitude and genuine pride (as opposed to hubris or arrogance) actually act to lower the heart rate, blood pressure, and to decrease anxiety and depression, while increasing people’s motivation to take on and persevere in difficult tasks.

Why? Because these emotions involve relationships with people. People go out of their way to help others, to do for others, to fulfill promises. Studies have actually measured that people who feel these emotions are willing to persevere 30% longer at tasks than people who make themselves do the work out of self-control.

Relationships are rewarding; self-control is in itself lonely and can actually be harmful over the long term. There seems to be an epidemic of loneliness these days, and its health effects are becoming better known.

How does this tie into teaching music? It makes us think about our priorities.

Here are a few ideas:

Generosity — consider giving students some materials free or at cost. Giving a few extra minutes at a lesson or outside of lessons if students have questions. Help them look at a new instrument even though you may not be paid for that time. Give an annual certificate or gift! Lending a hand in these ways will make many students grateful to you for your help. All teachers have run into students who may take advantage of their time, but you can draw lines, and to really motivate your students, it may be best to err on the side of generosity.

Friendly relationships with students are huge motivators for students, and we have choices all the time on how to build these relationships. Music Teachers Helper is a great aid by providing transparency for billing and payments, reminders of upcoming lessons, and emailed lesson notes, for example. When simply teaching a skill, it’s worth being aware of your language and whether you are building a relationship or forcing compliance.

This is not about treating students with kid gloves but about genuine connections. It is important for students to feel challenged and to see that they can rise to those challenges, but how the challenges are delivered can make or break your relationships. There are teachers who feel the need to use threats, demands, and even practicing contracts, but these types of interactions are likely to increase stress and reduce long-term success. The same can be said about the focus of some music teachers on teaching a fear of mistakes rather than a desire to play musically.

Social elements in learning — creating a community feeling can have a huge impact on student loyalty, sense of compassion and gratitude. Including group classes, recitals or playalongs, hosting a music party, and having one student help another can all help build relationships that motivate learning far better than enforcing old-style concepts of self-discipline.

I like to think that there are two kinds of discipline — external and internal. The external kind is the kind you often see exercised by school administrators, through rules and punishments, in the hopes of building good habits through tough love, and yes, fear. The internal kind you see instilled by good teachers who model enjoyment and quality, and develop curiosity, desire, and yes, fulfilling relationships with the teacher and other students.

As a music teacher, you certainly have thoughts on this far-reaching subject!

I hope you will share your comments.

 

Photo by Angello Lopez on Unsplash

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

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