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Maintaining student motivation on the musical journey toward mastery.

There is no doubt that the process of learning to play a musical instrument takes hours of solitary hard work and dedication to the task. The journey toward mastery is seldom a linear process of achievement. In today's world, where our culture seems to glorify notoriety more than skill, where success seems to come overnight and effortlessly, and where value is not necessarily placed on hard work and steady progress toward a goal, how do we maintain student motivation throughout the study and mastery of a musical instrument?

Maintaining student motivation has been the subject of numerous journal articles and was even the topic of the MTNA pre-conference Pedagogy Saturday VII in 2003. (1) Yet, in spite of the wealth of information available about motivation, maintaining student enthusiasm still confounds and exasperates many music teachers. How is it that students who bound into our studios, unable to restrain themselves from "playing" with reckless abandon at the beginning of tutelage, lose their zeal and enthusiasm for the instrument and for the music that we, as teachers, love so dearly? It can be difficult for overworked teachers to make the leap from understanding motivation theory in a sterile, non-musical context to practical application in the music studio with real, live 21 st-century students.

Since much has been written about motivational theory, I will attempt to offer practical advice for music teachers. I will only refer to specific theories so that as teachers need to address more complex motivational issues with advancing students, they will know which theory to research to meet their particular needs. References at the conclusion of this article offer some valuable resources about specific theories of motivation.

Motivational Issues Influencing Beginning Music Study

When students begin music study, they, along with their families, have definite expectations of what that study will entail. Often, there is a great divide between our values and expectations (as teachers) and our students' values with respect to studying a musical instrument. We must discern what our potential students' expectations are for music study in terms of anticipated goals, amount of time required to reach those goals and how they expect to benefit from learning an instrument. These values fall under a broad category of motivation known as expectancy-value theory. (2) This theory is important to teachers because students with a higher expectancy-value tend to persist and maintain motivation for music study during the learning plateaus that inevitably arise.

If we can identify students with a low expectancy-value toward music study early on, we can tap into special motivational factors for those students and avoid possible pitfalls that might undermine future success. Asking potential students a couple of quick questions during the lesson-readiness interview can shed light on their expectancy-value with regard to music study. Such questions might include: Why do you want to take lessons? What is your favorite kind of music? What other after-school activities do you have? Is your instrument in a location conducive to practicing without interruption in your home? How many days do you expect to practice each week? If answers to these questions reveal the student has a low expectancy-value for music study, it does not mean he is not ready to take lessons, it simply means the teacher will have to tap into motivational factors-often extrinsic at first--that will ensure the student practices well enough to achieve success with short-term objectives. Then, the teacher can help him redefine what music study entails as lessons progress. The teacher plays a critical role in shaping a student's expectancy-value toward music study throughout the entire course of instruction, especially as the student evolves musically and artistically.

Until students have been enculturated into the expectations of studentmusicians in the studio, teachers must be aware of typical cultural and generational norms that influence our students? We will not be engaging teachers if we teach 21st-century students as we were taught. Ultimately, we are working toward instilling the same values and fostering the love of music that we possess; however, the process of achieving this outcome will look very different today than it did even just 20 years ago. When designing curricula and lessons, instructors need to be aware that Millennials and 'Net generation students have different expectations for learning than baby boomers. The younger generation is accustomed to multi-tasking, achieving success readily with much that they do, being rewarded for effort (not necessarily for outcome) and having teachers and parents problem solve for them. (4) Imagine the disconnect then, when we present a piece of music that will take several weeks to learn and refine, when we tell the student that she will not be able to keep an eye on incoming text messages and practice simultaneously, and when we inform the student that she will have to spend long periods of time alone at the instrument to be able to achieve the goal of learning the composition in question. This may be a big price to pay to learn a piece of music in which the student may not be particularly invested to begin with, thus motivation will wane.

Expectations In The Music Studio

It is worthwhile to note that highly motivated students tend to believe it is important to do well on a task. (5) If we foster a studio environment where working hard, achieving specific standards and meeting demonstrable objectives at various times throughout the year are expected of our students, they will be more motivated to practice effectively and efficiently. Teachers should be mindful also, that students' perceptions about their abilities color motivation toward completing tasks. (6) Students must believe they have the ability to achieve the goals we set for them and have the confidence to work toward those objectives. Known in the motivation field as self-efficacy, students' confidence issues surface during performance situations, including lessons, studio classes, contests and recitals. Self-efficacy can even affect students' beliefs about their ability to learn particular pieces of music. Additionally, if students believe the effort they will have to expend to accomplish the objective is not worth their time and energy, they will likely not be motivated to complete the task. (7) Since motivated students believe that a reasonable amount of effort needs to be expended to learn a piece of music, effective repertoire selection and the assignment process for students is especially important. If the music looks too hard, or if students perceive that it will take months to learn the notes, the task will not be motivating. In other words, the perceived cost of learning the music is too high. Conversely, if a piece looks easy or sounds too simple (even if these are misconceptions), typical students will not place value on learning the music well, resulting in inaccurate performance of the work due to inattention to detail during practice. However, a teacher can reframe students' opinions and place a higher value, over time, on attaining musicality and finesse during performance.

As we have seen, assigning appropriately leveled repertoire and technique is critical for student motivation, as is reframing students' values and placing higher value on musicality and finesse. It is not unusual to hear of students who dislike a particular composer or a certain style of music. Often this aversion to a particular genre is a manifestation of low self-efficacy or of a high perceived cost simply because of a bad past experience, usually resulting from a piece that was too challenging and inappropriately assigned. As students experience success in learning situations and in performance settings, they will become more confident and empowered to work toward attaining the next musical objective we set for them. They will be firmly established on the path toward musical mastery.

A final caveat with respect to motivation of beginning and intermediate students has to do with the reasons students give to explain either good or poor performances (attribution theory). (8) I become especially concerned when I hear students attributing the success of a peer to "talent," a common attribution among novice music students. Talent in today's society seems to imply that it is not necessary to work. Professional musicians know nothing could be further from the truth. In 1997, researchers identified one common excuse given by lowachieving music students who performed poorly. Students used lack of talent to explain performance failures, rather than identifying a lack of preparation (an effort attribution), which was the real cause of the disappointing performances. (9) In an unrelated study of music students in grades 4 through 12, researchers found that as students got older they believed less and less that effort mattered. (10) Yet another study found that students with low self-efficacy tended to attribute musical failures to lack of ability, rather than to lack of effort. (11) Therefore, our role as teachers becomes critical in guiding the student toward making proper attributions. We need to encourage students to develop musical technique and artistry through effective practice skills. We must help students reframe their attitudes, since students who recognize that devising better practice strategies will enhance performance outcomes are more likely to produce constructive changes in practice and preparation than their peers, who believe that only talent matters. (12)

Optimal Learning Strategies Encourage Mastery And Motivation

I have suggested that learning a musical instrument is a journey toward mastery. As we maintain student motivation through the beginning and intermediate stages and progress toward acquiring more advanced musicianship skills, we need to be especially aware of what occurs during optimal learning. Many students discontinue lessons because they haven't engaged in deliberate practice strategies that promote intrinsic motivation. (13) "Deliberate practice requires the identification of a specific goal at an appropriate difficulty level for the individual, meaningful feedback, and opportunities for repetition and correction of errors." (14) For optimal learning to occur, students must be appropriately engaged in the task. If the new assignment is just slightly beyond the pupils' current abilities, but within the range of what they can achieve with clearly defined practice and deliberate rehearsal strategies, students are much more likely to experience intrinsic motivation and stick with the learning assignment. (15)

Most of us recognize that we must capture learners' attention during the initial stages of learning new music; however, during the tedious process of practicing, attention can wane. Since maintaining motivation throughout the entire practice session begins with maintaining attention, (16) having a toolkit of effective strategies to refocus attention during lessons or rehearsals can quickly get students back on track when concentration declines. I supply my piano students with a list of musical activities they can use at home when they start to lose their focus during practice. Sample suggestions include: Shadow with one hand while playing out loud with the other; play one-hand staccato while playing the other legato; conduct with the left hand while playing the right; create a new accompaniment for the melody being practiced; create a technical exercise for a tricky spot; record yourself and listen for balance; pretend you are performing at Carnegie Hall. Incorporating this kind of novelty can be a great way to keep learners engaged in an activity (17) and the possibilities are endless, we just need to be creative and consider what our students would find interesting.

Once students experience success due to employing effective practice strategies, they will be more likely to use them again on new repertoire and will gain confidence in their abilities to learn unfamiliar compositions. We must remember to allow ample time and opportunity for reinforcement of new techniques (both new musical techniques and innovative practice strategies) so our students feel confident in their newfound abilities and recognize the impact of deliberate practice. Music teachers can provide ample reinforcement, without boring students, by making the most of synergistically related materials. If we teach well-coordinated and well-sequenced technique, repertoire, theory, aural skills, improvisation and harmonization components in our lessons, we are providing students ample opportunity to reinforce new concepts in various contexts. Often, the frustration (a de-motivator) students encounter when trying to master a difficult task is due to the fact that we sequenced material inappropriately or a technique was not mastered adequately before we allowed them to progress. We must set up our students to succeed. We need to send them home to practice with detailed practice strategies and with a clear understanding of when the basic levels of musical competency have been achievedY Only then should students move on to the next step in the process.

Students with a mastery orientation demonstrate persistence in learning, tend to set reasonable goals for themselves, maintain focus on the task at hand and persist in their efforts to achieve their objectives. (19) Success in such activities leads to enjoyment and intrinsic motivation. (20) Ideally, all of our students will experience the intrinsic joy of music making during their music studies. If we help students improve their skills and confidence by giving them small objectives they can measure, and provide them with strategies to meet those goals, success will fuel the students' sense of mastery motivation, and the empowering motivational cycle builds upon itself.

Quick Tips And Practical Advice For The 21st-Century Music Teacher

Based on evidence elucidated from the motivational theories highlighted in this article, student motivation can be improved and maintained throughout the journey of music study if we remember:

* Music is intrinsically motivating. Maintaining the intrinsic love, in the face of challenge, is key. Researchers have shown that attraction to music is an inherently human trait so, as teachers, we must encourage our students to value the process of rehearsing and making music, both alone and with others.

* Students practice differently when they are working on pieces of music that they like and have higher motivation to practice pieces they have chosen themselves. Teachers might give students a choice of two to three pieces that cover the appropriate level and techniques they need to be working on. Students will be more likely to take ownership of learning a piece they choose. Encourage students to come to the next lesson with several different ways to practice a difficult passage, so they practice being creative about working through trouble spots at home.

* Since successful students tend to be able to make critical judgments as they practice and devise strategies for reaching objectives, we need to arm them with specific practice strategies and encourage them to become independent learners as they develop into mature musicians.

* Jam sessions--playing music for fun with friends--are intrinsically motivating, so if we find ways to incorporate similar activities into the curriculum, through playing in ensembles and structured improvisation, students will be more likely to experience intrinsic motivation and continue to play. Music is an important aspect of many cultures because it is shared with others; we must tap into this motivational force.

* The support of parents and teachers can mean the difference between a young person benefiting from musical training or dropping out. Motivating a student to do the necessary practice for skill development depends upon the support of parents and teachers, an extrinsic motivator, and is a powerful factor in a student's musical success.

* Social standing among musical peers prompts many teenagers to strengthen their commitment to music, so make the most of your studio environment. Peer support is another important extrinsic motivator, and good ideas for creating a motivational studio environment have been published. (21)

Finally, music teachers can improve mastery learning and student motivation throughout the course of music study by refining the following learning techniques:

* Focus the student's attention, through various techniques (such as novelty), throughout the lesson.

* Break down the complex material into manageable components for efficient learning and increased self-efficacy and effort attributions.

* Sequence material carefully and insist on mastery of musical components before moving on (learning is linking new material with pre-existing knowledge).

* Provide time for reinforcement of new concepts. (22) Novices need extensive practice transferring new techniques to different contexts.

* Provide ample material for reinforcement. Truly understanding a domain (such as music) requires great familiarity with its connections. Optimize the synergy among learning tasks, including theory, technique, aural skills and so on.

* Encourage students to become comfortable with the struggle. Learning should be a little "effortful." Learners must ultimately work with the material themselves to ensure secure learning and transfer, so it becomes critical for the teacher to frame (or reframe) expectancy and attainment values and find ways of capitalizing on our students' intrinsic motivation toward music.

* Help students to help themselves. Teach them how to practice efficiently and remember to point out how much repetition is required for confidence since it always takes more repetition than students anticipate?

* Have students try various practice strategies and help them discover what works for them.

* Set attainable short-term objectives, help students identify when they have met those objectives and celebrate with them when they succeed. The persistence that musicians show in learning activities is largely determined by their beliefs about music and about themselves, and we must structure success into our learning plans since success encourages future SUCCESS.

Looking To The Future

Once student motivation has been tapped and interest has been piqued, the teacher must continue to find creative ways to maintain motivation during the inevitable ebbs that occur as a natural part of any learning and growth process. If we understand what interests each student, and if we have formulated a musical plan that is appealing and fulfilling for each student, meeting his or her specific motivational needs, we can continue to refine motivational strategies and help that student on the long, winding path of musical mastery. Our success as teachers is experienced one student at a time, and just as experiencing success breeds more success for our pupils, so it does for us as we employ useful and meaningful motivational strategies in our studios.


(1.) Music Teachers National Association, "Proceedings from Pedagogy Saturday VII," American Music Teacher (October/November 2003): 22-53.

(2.) Gary E. McPherson, "Commitment and practice: Key ingredients for achievement during the early stages of learning a musical instrument," Bulletin of the Council for Research on Music Education, 147 (2000): 122-127.

(3.) Raymond J. Wlodkowski and Margery B. Ginsberg, Diversity & Motivation: Culturally Responsive Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995).

(4.) California State University Long Beach, In Touch Newsletter (Winter, 2008), (accessed March 23, 2009). Also see: Neil Howe and William Strauss, "Characteristics of the Millennial Generation," in Millenials Go To College (2003), (accessed July 22, 2009).

(5.) Andreas C. Lehmann, John A. Sloboda and Robert H. Woody, Psychology for Musicians: Understanding and Acquiring Skills (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007): 57.

(6.) Albert Bandura, Self-efficacy: The exercise of control (New York: Freeman, 1997). For additional information on self-efficacy see also: Jacquelynne S. Eccles and Allan Wigfield, "Motivational beliefs, values, and goals," Annual Review of Psychology 53 (2002): 109-132.

(7.) Lehmann, Sloboda and Woody (2007): 57. For additional information on perceived cost see also: J. S. Eccles, A. Wigfield and U. Schiefele, "Motivation to succeed," in Handbook of Child Psychology: Volume 3, Social, emotional and personality development, edited by W. Damon and N. Eisenberg (New York: Wiley, 1998): 1017-1095.

(8.) Edward P. Asmus, "Student beliefs about the causes of success and failure in music: A study of achievement motivation," Journal of Research in Music Education 34, no. 4 (Winter 1986): 262.

(9.) J.A. Arnold, "A Comparison of attribute for success and failure in instrumental teaching among sixth-, eighth-, and tenth-grade students," Update: Applications of Research in Music Education 15, no. 2 (1997): 19-23.

(10.) Asmus, (1986): 262-278.

(11.) Lehmann, Sloboda and Woody, (2007): 55.

(12.) Ibid., 31-46.

(13.) K. Anders Ericsson, "Deliberate practice and the acquisition of expert performance: An overview," in Does practice make perfect? Current theory and research on instrumental music practice, edited by Harald Jorgensen and Andreas C. Lehmann, (Oslo: Norges Musikkhogskole, 1997): 9-51. For an article on deliberate practice that is easier to locate see: K. Anders Ericsson, R. T. Krampe and C. TeschRomer, "The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance," Psychological Review 100 (1993): 363-406. For a more straight-forward and accessible discussion about deliberate practice see also: Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated (New York: Portfolio, 2008).

(14.) Nancy H. Barry and Susan Hallam, "Practice," in The Science & Psychology of Music Performance: Creative strategies for teaching and learning, edited by Richard Parncutt and Gary E. McPherson, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002): 156.

(15.) Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper Collins, 1990).

(16.) David A. Goslin, Engaging Minds: Motivation & Learning in America's Schools (Oxford: Scarecrow Education, 2003).

(17.) David A. Sousa, How the Brain Learns (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2006): 34.

(18.) Robert A. Duke, Intelligent Music Teaching: Essays on the Core Principles of Effective Instruction (Austin, TX: Learning and Behavior Resources, 2005).

(19.) Susan A. O'Neill and Gary E. McPherson, "Motivation," in The Science & Psychology of Music Performance: Creative strategies for teaching and learning, edited by Richard Parncutt and Gary E. McPherson, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002): 31-46.

(20.) Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans as Praise and other Bribes ... (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993).

(21.) Bonnie Blanchard and Cynthia B. Acree, Making Music and Enriching Lives: A Guide for All Music Teachers (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008).

(22.) Marilla D. Svinicki, Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom (Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company, Inc., 2004): 103.

Pamela D. Pike, NCTM, is assistant professor of piano pedagogy at Louisiana State University. Pike has presented research papers at the International Society for Music Education conferences in Malaysia and Italy, as well as sessions at MTNA national conferences.
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Author:Pike, Pamela D.
Publication:American Music Teacher
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2011
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