Far too often I’ve seen students will begin music lessons excited to learn, but then a few months go by and for whatever reason they lose interest. Practicing stops. Progress stops. Eventually the parents notice, and inevitably the parent will say, “Music just isn’t for little Johnny.”
But why does this happen? Why did they go into learning an instrument with so much excitement only to soon loose interest? Is it because learning to play an instrument is just that boring? Perhaps the better question is, “how do we better motivate kids to continue with music lessons indefinitely?”
Why Kids Quit
What it usually comes down to is lack of practice. When a student doesn’t practice, they don’t progress. When a student stops progressing, they lose interest. Every student should be trying to establish practice as a daily habit. Forcing them to practice, day in and day out, can get tiring though. Is there ever a time when a child will want to practice on their own?
I’ve seen it over and over again. The students who succeed are motivated to practice on their own. Their parents don’t force them. Does this mean parents should leave it all up to their kids and hope for the best? This approach also rarely works. So what’s the solution?
It’s not your job, as a parent or a teacher, to motivate the child. It’s your job to create an environment so the child will motivate him or herself. Self-Determination Theory has been the topic of a lot of research. Self-determination theory suggests that people have three basic psychological needs, that if met, will lead to self-motivation.
The first motivating factor is competency. We have a desire of mastery of our environment. So how can we use this to our advantage when motivating a child? Encouragement is the way to go. There have been many studies done that show that encouraging words are even more motivating than money.
By constantly encouraging the student we are helping to satisfy the student’s need for competency. Students feel that they are getting better at their instrument when are receiving positive outside encouragement that emphasizes that the progress that they are seeing is actually progress.
Encourage Effort Not Ability
Studies have shown that when praise is given, it should be praise of the effort not necessarily the ability. There will come a time when the student inevitably faces a difficulty in their musical journey. It may be a failed audition, or some performance anxiety at a recital. When we say things like, “You are so talented!” We are emphasizing ability over effort.
When the student starts to face challenges, they will inevitably think it’s because they’re not talented. Why? They were good before because of their talent, if they’re not good now, it’s because they lack talent. It’s the only logical conclusion.
A study was done on students aged 10-12. They were given a test, and regardless of how they did, they were told they did well. One group was told that they must be smart to get all the right answers. The other group was told that it must have taken a lot of work to get the right answers.
Both groups were then given a second test. Both groups were told they did a poor job on the second test regardless of the outcome. The students who were praised for ability didn’t enjoy taking the test as much and attributed their failure to lack of ability, while the other group said they didn’t try hard enough.
If a student is only good because of their talent, there’s no need to try. Focus on effort and you’ll find more talented students.
The second major factor in being motivated is autonomy. We want to have control over our lives regardless of our age, but children need it even more. Does this mean children should be left on their own and never encouraged to practice or be better? Of course not. Students should always be guided, but if done correctly, eventually students will make these choices on their own because they crave autonomy.
How can we give autonomy to students while still encouraging practice? Give them more choices.
If they want to learn the guitar, but you force them to learn the piano, you’re needlessly taking away their autonomy. Let them learn the guitar for goodness sake!
Often teachers will force specific music on their students. But there’s a better way. Students should be able to pick the music they want to play. If you’ve ever forced a student to learn a piece of music you know how that affects their practice.
Once one of my students asked to learn Ravel’s Jeux d’eau. It’s a pretty difficult piece, and I thought it was a little above his level. I told him let’s put that aside for now and I gave him a different piece to learn instead? I don’t even remember what I suggested. He agreed, and I assumed he would start the new piece that week. The next week I came to the lesson and found he had learned and memorized the first 3 pages of Jeux d’eau, the piece I told him not to learn.
Was it a little bit too hard for him? I thought so. But he was so motivated to learn it that he spent the time needed to make it shine. He learned it quickly, and it turns out that he played it pretty well too.
The lesson he taught me that day was that I need to let my students be more autonomous. He was craving autonomy. He had something he wanted to learn, and because he chose it, and liked it, he was willing to do whatever it took to learn it.
In a perfect world he would have been just as motivated to play something closer to his level. Maybe then he would have progressed even faster. But it’s not a perfect world. He progressed much faster by playing the piece he was interested in. There’s no way he would have practiced as much, or progressed as fast, if he listened to me and played what I picked for him.
The final piece of the self-determination puzzle is relatedness. In the workplace you may be motivated by your relationships with your coworkers, your boss, or even your clients. Humans are social animals and crave interaction with others.
Practice is often done by ourselves. Being able to relate to others can therefore be an easily missed piece to the self motivation puzzle.
Parents should feel involved in the students musical journey. Studies show that families that listen to classical music throughout the day are more likely to have children that continue with music lessons. Why? Because of relatedness. If students are working on music that no on in their family cares about, they will be less motivated.
Parents have control over this, but do teachers? Teachers can encourage younger students to listen to music which in turn will expose their parents to this music. Classical music can be difficult to get in to. The sheer amount of music out there is staggering. Teachers should direct students to what they should be listening to. Having weekly listening assignments is a great way to motivate the student. These listening exercises will often transfer over to the students family as well.
Teachers should not forget about autonomy though. Assign some music then listen to your student. What did they like? Ask them to go and find more music by the composer they liked, and listen to it on their own. You might suggest 5 pieces on where they can get started.
The last piece of the puzzle is performances. Motivation for soccer comes in large part from practicing for the soccer game. For some reason musical performances are not always as regular an occurrence as games are in sports. Music without performance doesn’t have the same meaning. By performing, students are gaining a higher level of relatedness, but playing for family and friends, and they also get a greater degree of competence from the encouragement they are likely to receive.
Motivating children to learn music should be the number one goal. It should take precedent over all specific musical skills. Why? Because if the child is motivated, they will learn astronomically faster than if they were not. It’s just the way it is. If we establish competency, autonomy, and relatedness, more fully in the lives of young musicians, the next generation of musicians will be that much further ahead.
What do you think? Are there other ways to motivate children to practice and improve on their own? What has worked for you?