Motivation in music lessons

I recently had a discussion with a parent about the value of things like RCM exams, festivals, etc. This parent felt that these activities were superfluous to the lesson year, and created an additional cost without any tangible benefit. While I understand that some parents may be facing tight budgets, I want to explain why I think the benefits are more than worth the costs.

What is motivation?

As an adult, I am free to do pretty much what I please, when I please (within the boundaries of the law, of course!). I don’t actually have to go to work, or clean the bathroom, or take the dogs for a walk. I also don’t have to practice my music. For many years, I did not practice. I didn’t do scales, or etudes, or even really play, other than accompanying students on the piano or playing duets with them.

So what is it that motivates us to practice? I’m not a psychologist so I won’t attempt to explain intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. I just know that I go to my day job for the paycheque (extrinsic) while I teach music lessons for the feeling of fulfillment I get out of it (intrinsic). Which do you think I enjoy more?

Goal-setting and Performance

So, how do we get our kids to want to practice for their own sake? Of course, I use extrinsic motivators in lessons, like stickers, and I’m sure parents do too, as in: “Practice your violin for 20 minute and then you can play your video game”. As a short-term strategy, this is fine. But eventually, kids will lose interest if they don’t have their own reasons for continuing to play, and each day will become a struggle.

As a teacher, I feel this is where the exams and festivals can help. One of the flaws in human nature is that we don’t see day-to-day incremental progress and we sometimes need to be forced to step back and take stock to see how far we’ve come. Just like in school, where every kid is excited to graduate and go into the next grade, we can do the same thing with RCM exams. All year long, we’ve worked through fingering exercises, bowing exercises, scales, etudes, and repertoire. Then it all comes together in the final exam! And we get a certificate to commemorate our achievement. For serious and goal-oriented kids, this can be a great incentive to carry on with the instrument.

Festivals appeal to a different element of personality. Performing in front of an audience of peers and parents is a rush! I’ve seen kids who’ve started to get blah about lessons suddenly become incandescent with excitement after participating in a music festival. There’s something about going up on stage and doing something you can do better than most other people that is just so fulfilling.

Other sources of motivation

Another great source of motivation is being part of a group. For music students, this can mean doing group lessons, practicing with friends, or being part of an orchestra. One of my favourite activities with young beginners is to get 2 or 3 of them playing Are you Sleeping, Brother John? as a round. This is a fairly easy tune for beginner violin students to play within the first 2-3 months of lessons, and it turns into a really fun group activity!

I also encourage students to learn duets or play with accompaniment. 2 or 3 students could be learning their separate parts in the private lesson, then come together for a group lesson maybe once a month to practice in that setting. Not only do they get to have fun making music with their peers, they learn invaluable tools like keeping tempo with the group and blending musical voices for a pleasing performance.

Tapping into kids’ creativity

Appealing to their creative side is another way to motivate kids. I think this is a fairly new trend in music lessons, but I believe even beginner students can compose short melodies on their instrument. They may not have the skills to commit their music to paper yet, but it’s always very exciting to see what they come up with. They can also be encouraged to record their own melodies, right from the start. And who knows, they might be budding composers!

Parents and teachers alike have a role in helping their kids find their motivation and these are only a few strategies that I use. I’d love to hear in the comments from other parents and teachers about how you make music lessons fun and motivating!

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