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Motivating the reluctant student.

While musicians acknowledge that motivation is a key element for musical success, most teachers struggle with the question of how to motivate the reluctant learner. Indeed, working with an "unmotivated" student can be one of the greatest frustrations that teachers face. Certainly, motivation is an important topic for educators and psychologists, a topic that has spurred a vast amount of research spanning 25 years.

Why do some children seek the challenges of learning and persist in the face of difficulty, while others, with seemingly equal ability and potential, avoid challenges and withdraw when faced with obstacles or difficulties? (1)

Teachers can use knowledge gleaned from years of psychology research to gain insight into their students' thinking. Better understanding of the psychology of student motivation can provide teachers with ideas for developing practical and proactive teaching strategies, enabling teachers to deal with the problem of the unmotivated student at the cognitive level.

Motivation Theories

Expectancy-Value Theory

How do students develop interest in studying a musical instrument?

Expectancy-value theory is one of the key strands of motivation research. (2) This research investigates why individuals care about an activity in relation to their perceptions of how useful it will be in the future. There are four aspects related to a student's perceptions of an activity.

1. Attainment Value

Attainment value relates to the importance a student places upon accomplishing a particular task.


A student whose self-concept involves being viewed by others as a good musician will be motivated to play well on a recital, while another student who is not as concerned with others' perceptions of her musicianship will be much less motivated by a public performance.

Not everyone thrives on formal public performance. We need to provide a rich variety of ways for our students to experience music and diverse performance opportunities in both formal and informal venues.

2. Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation describes the personal enjoyment and satisfaction a student derives from music making.


When I'm judging, it's not unusual to hear a student really nail one section of a piece--really play it accurately and musically and, yet, play the other sections with minimal fluency. After the student has finished the performance, I often ask, "Which part of this piece did you like best?" Of course, the student always identifies the section that was well-played as the favorite.

We see the same thing in our teaching. It's easy to tell which assignment was the favorite. It is important to help our students experience joy in music making.

3. Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation involves learning a musical instrument to achieve some future goal that may not relate directly to musical performance.


A student may be motivated by awards and will work harder when some sort of prize is at stake, such as the trophy that is presented to students achieving a I+ rating at District Achievement Auditions.

Most students thrive on adult approval. Some students are highly motivated to earn the praise of significant adults such as parents or their teacher and will exhibit great persistence in hopes of gaining that approval.

4. Perceived Cost

Perceived cost involves the difficult aspects of learning an instrument. A student's motivation is directly related to whether or not he feels that time and effort invested in music study are worthwhile.


A student may believe that time spent practicing each day is not worth the effort because it takes time away from other valued activities, such as sports, socializing with friends or even watching TV (This may be true of parents as well.)

Motivation theory is relevant to all age levels. Research shows that even very young children are able to make decisions about what they think is important for them, and that they form definite perceptions of their own abilities within a particular field. (3,4) These beliefs are related to how much effort children put forth on a particular task, their performance achievement and their feelings of self-worth.

Research also shows that children's interest in learning to play a musical instrument is highest during early childhood and declines with age. British researchers (5) found that 48 percent of 5-6-year old children expressed interest in learning to play a musical instrument. By age 7, only 25 percent expressed interest. This remained consistent until after age 11 when only 4 percent of 14-year-old children were interested in learning to play a musical instrument. Certainly, we should not assume that the culture among British school children is the same as it is in the United States. However, while the exact statistics might differ, it is likely that we would see a similar declining interest among American children as well. Generally, 11-12 years of age seems to be the threshold when we often see students beginning to lose interest and discontinue music lessons.


How do students think about their own performance ability?

Self-efficacy relates to a person's beliefs about her own ability and capacity to achieve certain goals.

Competence beliefs

Competence beliefs relate to how good someone is at a particular activity.

Expectancy beliefs

Expectancy beliefs relate to how good someone's performance will be in the future.

Research indicates that self-efficacy influences choices that people make, the amount of effort expended, perseverance in the face of difficulties, and thought patterns and emotional reactions. (6,7) In other words, we are more likely to choose to participate in activities we believe we are good at. Students tend to work harder and longer and gain more satisfaction from their music lessons when they perceive themselves as good musicians.

When students do not believe they are good at something, they usually have very little resilience to failure. (8) Why spend all of that time and energy working on something when you believe that you are already destined to fail?

Success inspires success--Failure begets failure.

It can be important to engineer opportunities for success. Consider the student's strengths and weaknesses carefully and be sure to assign some material that showcases the student's strengths. Verbal feedback can also be very important in this process. It is so easy to focus on the problems and forget to comment on all the things a student has done well. A student may play 100 measures well, but the five measures that contained problems will likely be the focus of the lesson. Certainly, correcting problems is a very important part of the learning process. However, it is equally important to invest some time pointing out things the student has done well. Students who have high intrinsic motivation or have high self-efficacy generally are very resilient to criticism, but those students who are more extrinsically motivated, and especially those students with low self-efficacy, crave reinforcement--a tangible sign that they can be successful.

As teachers, we want to stretch our students--to present them with increasingly greater challenges so they will progress and achieve higher and higher levels of technical proficiency and musicianship. But sometimes, the best approach is to "retreat"--to back up a bit and assign easier music literature to instill or rebuild self-efficacy.

Some research shows the value students place on an activity may be even more important than self-efficacy. A study by Susan O'Neill (9) found that how much students (ages 12-16) valued their practice sessions was a significant predictor of how much they practiced. However, their beliefs about how competent they were did not predict how much they practiced. This is consistent with other research indicating that values are highly stable beliefs, while competence beliefs are more likely to change. While more research is needed to understand these complex psychological aspects, it is very encouraging to think students can be motivated to work at something they may not believe they are good at if they value that task. As music teachers, we can use that. Even when a student is unsuccessful and does not believe she is good at something, we still may be able to motivate her to work if we successfully convince her that the task is valuable and meaningful.

Flow Theory

How does a student achieve a balance between perceived challenge and skill?
 In our studies, we found that
 every flow activity, whether it
 involved competition, chance, or
 any other dimension of experience,
 had this in common: It provided a
 sense of discovery, a creative feeling
 of transporting the person into a
 new reality. It pushed the person to
 higher levels of performance, and
 led to previously undreamed-of
 states of consciousness. In short, it
 transformed the self by making it
 more complex. In this growth of
 the self lies the key to flow activities. (10)

Flow theory, set forth by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, asserts that a balance between perceived challenge and skill is necessary for an optimal performance experience. Activities are most pleasurable when the level of challenge matches an individual's skill level.

* If the task is too easy and the student's skill level is high, then boredom results.

* If the task is too difficult and the student's skill level is low, then frustration and anxiety result.

* If both skill level and challenge level are low, the student may be indifferent.

To achieve flow, new challenges must be presented continually as the student develops new skills. The teacher must keep moving the student forward, presenting challenges, without going too far beyond the student's current skill level.

Flow involves:

* clear goals

* specific feedback

* focused concentration

* a sense that the student can control outcomes

* distorted sense of time (Time may seem to pass quickly.)

* losing one's self in the music

* intrinsic reward

Some research suggests that placing too much emphasis on evaluation may inhibit flow, and that it is important for teachers to help students enjoy the intrinsic rewards of music making. (11)

Attribution Theory

What do students believe about the causes of success or failure?

Attribution Theory research examines the relationship between students' beliefs about the causes of success or failure and the ways those beliefs influence achievement, expectations for success and self-concept, as well as other psychological and behavioral aspects. The most common attributions are: (12)


I am a good musician; therefore, I was able to play this piece well.

Ability is usually viewed as something that is beyond the student's control.


I worked very hard at practice; therefore, I did well.

Effort is viewed as controllable.

Other attributions include:


I was really lucky to make it through the last movement of that sonata without a memory slip.


I'm glad the judge only asked me to play the C Major scale because it is easy.


I was able to play the last section well because I used "backwards practice, "practicing it before I began the first section.

Students who attribute success to luck and failure to a lack of ability approach a task differently from students who attribute success to effort. Believing you are not a good musician and are only successful on those occasions when you are lucky promotes a mindset of powerlessness and decreases motivation to practice. These students may not believe their musical achievement will be improved by increasing their practice efforts. On the other hand, students who attribute their success or failure to the amount of effort they invest understand a direct cause-and-effect relationship between their practice and their musical achievement.

I find it useful to "practice how to practice" during lessons. Invest time systematically working through a problem spot to demonstrate to students how a little time invested in careful practice can result in confident, accurate performance.

Mastery Motivation

How do students develop confidence to achieve mastery?


Mastery-oriented students are resilient to failure and persist in their efforts to achieve.


Students with a helpless orientation are unable to establish reasonable goals or attain goals that are within their reach. Since helpless students believe their success or failure is beyond their control, they tend to avoid challenges and give up easily.

These motivational aspects relate to attitudes rather than abilities. Helpless children are usually equal in ability to mastery-oriented children. In fact, some research has linked helpless behavior to more gifted students. (13)

The notion of natural "talent" looms large in most people's beliefs about musical development. I often hear parents make casual remarks about their own lack of musical talent or ability. Children who relate musical achievement solely to natural ability or talent tend to develop a helpless mindset, attributing their musical success or failure to aspects that are beyond their control to change. Teachers must emphasize the importance of effort, helping their students recognize a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the effort that they put forth and their musical achievement.


Cognitive Strategies

Equip students with specific strategies to practice for success.

Teach students to use a variety of creative practice techniques to achieve mastery. Human beings tend to switch to cognitive autopilot when a task is repeated. This is certainly true of music practice. Merely playing the same piece over and over may not result in improved performance. Techniques that engage the mind, such as playing a passage using a different rhythm, playing a section backwards and so forth, increase cognitive involvement and result in more effective and efficient learning. (14,15) Do not just tell a student that a particular piece or section needs more practice. Avoid autopilot by equipping your students with a wide variety of practice techniques and ways to stimulate mindful practice. Time invested in teaching students how to practice is time well spent.


Setting realistic goals

Learning to set realistic goals is essential to students' musical progress. Students with high intrinsic motivation functioning at a mastery level tend to do this on their own, but students lacking intrinsic motivation or functioning from a helpless perspective are unable to set reasonable goals for themselves. (16)

Short-term Goals

Accomplishing short-term goals can contribute to a student's understanding of the relationship between effort and achievement. Set short-term goals that are reasonable in terms of the student's current ability level. These goals should be very simple and easily attained at first to establish a pattern of success that can be built upon in the future.

Long-term Goals

Long-term goals should be more challenging. However, it is still important to keep these goals reasonable and attainable. Do not set the student up for failure by setting goals that are not realistic. Also, it is important to consider what is an appropriate "long term" for each particular student. Some students may be capable of remaining motivated to work toward a goal over a very long time frame, while for others, it may be unrealistic to specify a long-term goal that will require more than a few weeks for mastery. In those cases, the teacher should break down more complex tasks into smaller parts.


Enjoyment is a key factor in motivation theory. A student's perceived enjoyment is related to intrinsic motivation and flow.

Research indicates that achieving a balance between freedom, such as doodling/improvising, playing familiar songs "by ear," playing "fun" songs, such as pop songs; and discipline, like scales, technical exercises and assigned repertoire, is linked with musical success. (17) Students enjoy having the opportunity to choose some of their repertoire and tend to exert more time and effort practicing pieces they have chosen. Even providing limited choices, such as offering the student a choice between three different sonatinas of similar difficulty levels, helps instill a sense of ownership and empowerment in the student.

Perhaps this is a controversial recommendation, as some teachers may be reluctant to include music outside the traditional Western-European canon within the lesson. However, including more diverse musical experiences, such as improvisation and popular genres may provide the variety needed to add enjoyment to the practice session. Of course, great joy and satisfaction may be derived from the classic repertoire, and acquainting students with that repertoire is an important goal of music instruction. But, we should not discount the validity of allowing students to play some material that is valued within their culture--music with which they and their circle of friends can identify. Teachers who disregard the importance of enjoyment in music making are depriving their students of the most important benefit of musicianship.


Different students are motivated in different ways and for different reasons. Time invested talking with our students and, especially, listening to their ideas about themselves can yield great rewards. We can gain better understanding of our students and what motivates them through brief conversations about their musical goals and interests, likes and dislikes. Even non-music topics such as their school activities, hobbies, favorite books and movies may provide great insight into the student's self efficacy and motivation. By combining knowledge from psychological research with their own expertise, individual knowledge of the students, and intuition, teachers can develop teaching strategies to motivate even the most reluctant learner.


(1.) Richard Parncutt and Gary E. McPherson, eds. The Science and Psychology of Music Performance: Creative Strategies for Teaching and Learning (Oxford University Press, 2002), chap. 3, "Motivation," Susan A. O'Neill and Gary E. McPherson, 31-46.

(2.) Ibid.

(3.) Carol Dweck, Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality and Development (Essays in Social Psychology) (Philadelphia: Psychology Press, 2000).

(4.) Allan Wigfield, "Expectancy-Value Theory of Achievement Motivation: A Developmental Perspective," Educational Psychology Review 6 (1994): 49-78.

(5.) M. Cooke and R. Morris, "Making Music in Great Britain," Journal of the Market Research Society 28(2), (1996): 123-134.

(6.) A. Bandura, ed. Self-Efficacy in Career Choice and Development (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), chap. "Self-Efficacy in Changing Societies," G. Hackett, 232-258.

(7.) F. Pajares, "Self-Efficacy Beliefs and Mathematical Problem-Solving of Gifted Students," Contemporary Educational Psychology 21 (1996): 325-344.

(8.) See note 3 above.

(9.) S.W.Yi, ed. The Role of Motivation in the Practice and Achievement of Young Musicians (Seoul: Seoul National University Press, 1999), chap. "Music, Mind and Science." Susan A. O'Neill, 420-433.

(10.) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper & Row, 1990), 74.

(11.) Susan A. O'Neill, "Flow Theory and the Development of Musical Performance Skills," Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education 141 (1999): 129-134.

(12.) Deborah Stipek, Motivation to Learn: From Theory to Practice (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1998).

(13.) See note 3 above.

(14.) Richard Parncutt and Gary E. McPherson, eds. The Science and Psychology of Music Performance: Creative Strategies for Teaching and Learning (Oxford University Press, 2002), chap. 10, "Practice," Nancy H. Barry and Susan Hallam, 151-165.

(15.) Susan Hallam, "The Development of Metacognition in Musicians: Implications for Education," British Journal of Music Education 18(1), (2001): 27-39.

(16.) See note 1 above.

(17.) John Sloboda and Irene Deliege, eds. Musical Beginnings: The Origins and Development of Musical Competence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), chap. 7, "The Young Performing Musician," John Sloboda and Jane Davidson, 171-190.

Nancy H. Barry is professor and coordinator of graduate music education in the School of Music at the University of Oklahoma. She earned a master's degree and Ph.D. in music education and certificates in electronic music and computers in music from Florida State University.
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Author:Barry, Nancy H.
Publication:American Music Teacher
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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