Student Motivation

In the teaching profession, no matter what subject you teach, most teachers are bound to come across some students who are not as motivated as you would expect. Through my past and current experiences, I have found this is the result of a combination of reasons.

1. Negative Past Experiences

Most teachers inherit students with previous music instruction, who may have had rather negative—even demoralizing—experiences with their teachers.

Unfortunately, students have been berated by previous teachers, using words like ‘I have told you how many times and how come you still don’t get it’? or ‘Your exam is around the corner and yet you still haven’t been able to finish learning the piece’! This type of talk undermines student confidence and motivation and may imply that the student is not fit for music study. The truth is that sometimes when the student does not understand a concept or is unable to demonstrate proficiency, it may well that the teacher isn’t effective in delivering the lesson. Good teachers know that students learn in different ways, that they need to be encouraged and given confidence, and that the lessons must be delivered through a variety of techniques.

I have had students who come to me with little or not confidence and fear of making mistakes.  My responses are based on a profound belief that students will learn at their own pace and time, regardless of any attempts to pressure them.  My interactions with students are intended to restore and sustain confidence and motivation with reasonable expectations and frequent encouragement.

2. Learning Gaps

Sometimes students are pushed through the learning process despite a lack of proficiency on key elements, some of which are critical for learning more complicated techniques. The teacher may not have adequately assessed the student’s preparedness to move to more complicated concepts or techniques. This could be something as simple as the skills of notation literacy or note values and rhythmic drill. When students are missing key elements, they encounter greater frustration which serves to undermine confidence, interest and motivation.  Such students will often become disengaged which leads to boredom in a very short time.

A good example of this is the inability to read music accurately; i. e., notational literacy and rhythm, which can be very frustrating as the melody does not sound like it supposed to. It can be addressed by breaking down the learning into stages so that students develop at their own natural pace.

Through the use of a variety of teaching techniques, the process of learning becomes more meaningful and students are energised and motivated.  When the missing elements are identified and effectively taught, students also become more independent in their learning, a key requirement for effective practice at home in preparation for the next lesson. There is a sense flow in the practice leading to the next lesson which should be something that the student looks forward to.

3. The Quality of Instrument

The first and foremost thing that springs to my mind when I receive a new student is to ask about the quality of and access to a piano at home. Unfortunately, some parents believe that there is no need to buy a piano until the child shows commitment. This actually poses a significant impediment to a child’s progress since it does not allow a student to practice concepts and techniques learned and does not develop independence and confidence.

Even at the beginner stage, a good teacher will teach the student to produce quality tone. This requires the ear to ‘tune in’ or listen to each tone after a key is struck. This feedback serves to facilitate the fingers in manipulating the piano keys and pedals to achieve the desired sound. This requires much independent practice.

Most parents assume a well-tuned piano will serve its purpose but there are more to it than just well-tuned piano. Some keys are more sensitive than others and the depth of each key varies all of which requires a technician to make the necessary adjustments to achieve an evenness of touch. The tone quality of a piano makes a difference at every stage and level of instruction. As students learn to discern the tone of a piano, it is important that the instrument on which they are practicing is well-tuned and produces a rich warm tone.

The new generation of digital or electronic keyboards are usually well-regulated and touch-sensitive; however, on these instruments the finger does not exert as much control over the movements and key speed as on an acoustic piano. The electronic keyboard virtually controls key movement for the player.  Applying skills learned on a digital piano to an acoustic piano may not always result in the desired sound production. As a result, students may become frustrated and disappointed at the lesson or perform below potential in an exam room where an acoustic piano is used.

4. Practice Management

Does practice really make perfect? It depends on how you deal with your practice but certainly not with simple repetition.

Repetition must be done with a purpose. Each effort must be better than the previous one and every daily practice must be better than the previous day’s. It is essential that students focus on the end in mind – the results they want to achieve. If the end results are not clear to a student, the repetition becomes tedious, a chore and not a pleasure. If students realize and are conscious of progress in their practice, they are motivated to improve their playing.

Critical thinking skills must be instilled in all students. They must be able to independently identify what went well and what needs improvement between each repetition in order to make progress.

Another important consideration is the duration of each practice session. Some parents may set a timer for the child’s practice 60 minutes. A child’s attention span, level of motivation and proficiency will have a great influence on the optimum duration of each practice session. For a young student, 60 mins is a very long time to sit down and practice. After a while, the practice becomes mindless and the child dutifully fulfills the obligation with little or no conscious purpose.

A quality practice, if done correctly with full focus, can be as short as 10 – 15 minutes and realize noticeable improvement and yield the positive results desired. The teacher is best able to identify the optimum practice time that suits each learner.

5. Appropriate Level of Challenge

Assigning the correct learning materials and assessing the level of proficiency can be a challenge for a teacher while ensuring that learning and practice do not become either too easy or too difficult to attempt. Failure to do so can lead to lost motivation and interest in the student and high student turnover rates for the teacher.

By addressing these issues effectively, students will be encouraged and motivated and thrive well, regardless of what level they are at. It takes a discerning and sensitive teacher to support student, especially those who have had a negative learning experience.  In order to aspire, a teacher needs to inspire.

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