Motivating Students to Practice

Motivating Students to Practice

Playing piano is like any skill—to do it well you must invest in practice. Even Mozart had to practice! The question then becomes: How do you remain motivated to practice? Numerous studies support the long-term value of intrinsic motivation (doing something for its inherent value, rather than some external reward) for maintaining motivation. Intrinsic motivation is linked to deep learning, better performance and well-being (Orsini, Evans and Jerez, 2015). Below I will discuss some strategies to increase intrinsic motivation for piano practice, to, hopefully, foster a long-term love of learning and playing music.

Engaging Music
It’s important to learn and play pieces that you feel passionate about—pieces that mean something to you, or evoke an emotional response. As a piano student your teacher will often give you pieces with particular learning outcomes in mind—for example, technical, rhythmic or interpretive development; however, it is also important that there are pieces added to learning that are chosen by the student. Communicate your preferences and discuss these piece choices with your piano teacher. Your piano teacher will help select pieces suitable to your level of playing to ensure that they are both challenging and rewarding.

Practice Routine
Many students underestimate the importance of setting a practice routine. Consistency is key and the more practice, the greater the gains, which leads in itself to greater motivation. For establishing a practice routine, you need to set a time which suits you. Some people practice better in the mornings, some in the afternoons, and some prefer the quiet of the early evening. Once the ideal daily time is determined it is best to set a routine of practice, otherwise it becomes too easy to say “I’ll do it tomorrow”. Parents should allow the older student to set the practice time for themselves.

Goals—A Reminder of Why We Are Practicing
Why do we practice? To become better at what we really want to do; to gain more pleasure from it; to reach and achieve a goal which is important to us. Students should keep this goal in mind, whatever it may be. And the goal will be different for each student—for example, you may want to pass a certain grade (performance or theory), master a particular song, win a competition or perform to a group. If your goal is in the front of your mind, motivation to practice will come more readily.

S.M.A.R.T. Goals—Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound (Set Collaboratively)
The students’ goals should be specific. This is not just wanting to play better; but, for example, reaching a certain grade, finishing a theory book, nailing a piece or a set of scales, etc. Measurable goals have the ability to determine achievement and set specific criterion for attainment. The goals need to be achievable or they will frustrate the student and lead to feelings of failure and decreased motivation. To make the goals relevant they need to be important to the student. This is why they must be set collaboratively. Setting goals can even be done with young students, although they may need to be given some options of goals to choose from. Time-bound goals keep the student focused and help with the practice routine. Remember, the student should set their own goals so that they are in control of them, and therefore have ownership over them. As stated by Reeve (2002), “autonomously motivated students thrive”.

Challenges allow for growth and an increased sense of accomplishment upon completion. They keep us motivated by the desire to do our best. By nature, they need to provide a challenge to the student, but an achievable one. The challenge of exams, performance, attaining a particular grade, learning a particular scale or piece, all provide a very real, valid and relevant reason to practice.

Performance and Examination Opportunities
Music is made to be enjoyed by many. Students given the opportunity to perform for others will have the pleasure of sharing their passion, but it also provides a wonderful incentive to practice. And if the student has chosen to participate in the performance themselves, they will be intrinsically motivated to practice for it. Exams can function as the carrot on the stick; the student has an uncompromising timeframe, driving them to preparation.

Practice Environment
Try to create a practice environment that is inviting, warm, well-lit and free from distractions, such as technology, other family members, etc. Choose somewhere quiet where you can get lost in the music.

Keep Piano Playing a Hobby/Interest
It is good for the student to think of piano learning and practice as a choice, distinct from compulsory school homework, which may not always be their choice. Reinforce it as a pleasurable pursuit, that still requires training, much like sport or other hobbies or interests which we desire to become good at. For the parents of younger students, remember to try and associate practicing with positive feelings. If there’s frustration in the practice room, there is no harm in taking a break and coming back later. Be wary of using a threatening tone of voice when discussing practice; instead, try to focus on the idea of the positive outcomes of practice—for example, improved playing.

Watch/Listen to Good Musicians
Attend concerts, watch artists, and listen to beautiful music—immersing yourself in the music you love will be sure to increase motivation to become a better player yourself. Ask your teacher for recommendations.

Contact Richard

Orsini, C., Evans, P. & Jerez, O. (2015). How to encourage intrinsic motivation in the clinical teaching environment: a systematic review from the self determination theory. Journal of Educational Evaluation for Health Professions.
Reeve, J. (2002). Self-determination theory applied to educational settings. In E.L. Deci & R.M. Ryan (Eds.), Handbook of self-determination research (p.183-203). University of Rochester Press.

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