This is a follow-up from last year’s article, where I argued that intrinsic motivation is superior to extrinsic motivation when it comes to practicing. This week, I will list ideas on how to leverage intrinsic motivation to encourage practice.
Professor Steven Reiss posits that 16 basic desires guide nearly all human behavior. Of the sixteen, I deal with nine in the tips below:
Acceptance & Approval
- Self-confidence If the student has doubts about themselves or their abilities, coach them onto a path of confidence in their ability to learn and to make beautiful music. I think the best way to approach this one is to lead by example.
- Parental Involvement Parents play a big role in helping a student be successful musicians. The Suzuki School puts a lot of emphasis on the role of the parent, and how important it is for the parent to encourage and affirm each child. They state: “We need to be gentle and loving when instructing our children. We need to provide encouragement, not criticism and shame. We need to build up, not tear down the child’s self-image. Dr. Suzuki was always able to find something positive about a student’s efforts and comment in a positive manner… A child will learn to speak their native language in an environment that encourages them and supports them. They are praised as infants by parents and other adults as they speak new words. So too the violinist should be praised and not criticized as they begin to make music as a beginning violin student.” (Quoted from Moravian Academy)
- Inherent interest. Studies have shown that if the task in inherently interesting, it will be easier to learn. If you as a teacher show passion and interest in the subject you are teaching, that enthusiasm will rub off on your students. Likewise, if you allow students to tackle new pieces and new genres that already interest them, their enthusiasm can help them surmount difficulties.
- Concerts Expose your student to the greatness of the instrument. I for one am always inspired by people who have mastered an instrument, and after attending a concert (even if the featured artist is playing something other than the harp) I go home and practice a lot! I know it’s the only way I can reach that level. If concerts are not readily available, YouTube is a great resource. Here’s a video that actually convinced me to go to a concert. Great stuff.
- Novelty! Switch gears more frequently. Apple products are famous for anticipating what their users want before they even know what they want. The same goes for learning new music. If you’re struggling with getting a student to practice, you could try switching things up. A student might have a song that they’re working on for the second or third month running, and it becomes a chore. (*Raises hand* That was me.) They might benefit from stepping away from that for a while and learning something new that they can get excited about. The one downside I see to this tactic is that it doesn’t exactly reinforce a “stick-with-it” attitude, but on the other hand, it DOES get them to practice… so… would you rather they master the technical skill of the instrument, or master the ability to finish learning a song? It might be a “sometimes” tactic.
Loyalty to Ethnic groups
- Culteral ties to the instrument This is especially pertinent to the harp because of its strong ties to Celtic culture, but it certainly applies to many other instruments as well. It also just happens to be the main motivating factor to my passion in learning the harp. Since I am from Irish stock, I spent a lot of time obsessively reading about Irish history and culture, and listening to tons of Irish music. Having said all of that, it’s hard to ignore the importance of the harp to the Irish. In the early stages of playing harp, I often fantasized about going to Ireland and playing my harp to show the Irish how “engaged” I was in their culture. This spurred me to practice a lot, since I knew I wanted to be great at it. The harp is influential in many cultures all over the world: Chinese, Egyptian, Greece, and Paraguayan. Other instruments with a rich history: bagpipes, uilleann pipes, hurdy-gurdy, sitar, bodhran, banjo, and wood flutes. (And more, of course!)
- Ethnic ties to the music This also applies to the style of music as well! All music is influenced by geography and culture, and one might leave a particular spark with a student. Learn New Orleans jazz on the harp! Or ragtime — ha, I’d like to see a professional harpist figure that one out. Study the Chinese pentatonic scales or Russian folk songs. Poor Antarctica gets left out of all the fun, don’t they? Maybe write a penguin waltz or something.
Independence, the need for individuality
- Stephanie shared with me that one of the things she loved about playing the harp as a child was that she was the only harpist in her elementary school. This was certainly true for me as well; I saw the opportunity to learn harp as a mark of individuality.
- Planning and setting goals This one I can relate to, because nothing can get me more fired up than a specific plan to accomplish something. Maybe give your students power to create goals and steps for themselves. You can run them through an exercise where they set goals for 1 week, 1 month, 6 months, 1 year, and 5 years. Step 1, Step 2, Step 3. (Hint, this is why video games are so addictive, because players want to reach that “Level up”.) And don’t just leave their goal list in a drawer never to be seen again. Have them stick to it by revisiting it every so often, and allow them to reassess and re-write.
- Music lessons at the student’s house If it’s viable for you the teacher, this could be a good option if the parents are willing to pay for mileage, especially with young children. Teachers can evaluate the students’ practice environment and help make it free from distractions and comfortable for the student, and the parents can be more involved by observing “healthy” practice, therefore helping to reinforce those habits throughout the week. Give parents written goals, like ‘Check posture and hand position’ and ‘Remember to count out loud.’ Practice guides are a great way to help parents be aware of what their child is working on and will help the child focus as well.
- Once you pop, you just can’t stop. If your students have very busy schedules, and have difficulty finding time to practice, it might help them to think of practice as something habitual. You brush your teeth twice every day for 3-5 minutes each. So have them try this: as soon as they finish with brushing, they go straight to their instrument, pick it up for 3-5 minutes and work on a portion of a tune they’re trying to learn. Hey, once you get started, it can be hard to stop. (I’m a child of the 90’s. Pringle’s advertising slogan used to be, “Once you pop, you can’t stop!”)
- Music has the ability to move people. It exerts a very unique power over listeners and can prompt tears, strong emotions, and deep thoughts. Younger students might not understand these complexities (they might not even experience that emotional pull until they begin to mature emotionally), but an adult could be motivated by it. A teacher might ask their older students if there are any songs that provoke emotions deeper than superficial enjoyment, and use that song as a jumping-off point to learn how to harness that power for themselves. Ultimately, the student needs to put herself in a situation where she can wield it! Performing at recitals and concerts is tough, but sometimes that step is necessary to grow musical passion into something more than a hobby.
Saving: The need to collect
- Amassing stickers only for the sake of collecting stickers. In my opinion, this one is hard to tell the difference from the extrinsic motivator of using stickers as a reward system, however, for younger students it’s likely to be effective. After seeing an episode of “Hoarders” one can immediately see that collecting is a powerful motivator to some. If you recognize this trait in a student, I would go out and buy books of stickers that are all completely different, and when the student completes a week of successful practicing, they get to pick out their own. Let’s go a step further, and buy each student a notebook they can decorate on his or her own! Crayons and markers could come together to make a special keepsake when they are older, or a nice gift for their parents (Thanks for buying me harp lessons, Mom & Dad!).
Social contact, the need for friends
- Music with friends Especially with harp, it’s easy to feel somewhat isolated by your instrument. Since you can play whole tunes with lots of harmony (bass & treble clefs) why would you ever need to play with anyone? It’s true that you can accompany yourself, but it’s important to have friends of a similar age that play together. Take some initiative in your community and set a weekly time and location for music teachers & students to meet somewhere and play together. You may even start to see some friendly competition among friends.
- Ensembles. Other instruments are already “geared for” playing in groups and making friends. If your student is learning clarinet or violin, they are probably already playing in a band or orchestra. A lot of High School Bands have other break-off groups like jazz band, marching practice and pep bands—which is great for kids, as they become part of fun community events like special concerts, parades and athletics—A perfect opportunity to bond with the other members of the group. Don’t forget, there are also garage bands for guitarists, bass players, and drummers!
- Instant, bottled “cool” A pervasive stereotype exists throughout our younger culture that playing the guitar instantly makes you the coolest kid on the block. I have evidence for this claim. Every summer I attended Bible camp, and a few kids brought their guitars with them. Their music became the backdrop for our activities while we were just hanging out, and people would naturally flock to them to listen, chat, ask questions, and try their hand at playing it for themselves. If you have a student that is taking guitar lesson, encourage them to take it with them on vacations. It’s unobtrusive and well-liked environmental flair.
Social status, the need for social standing/importance
- Reverence of talent Most people revere talent, and musicians that play beautiful music. (Just ask the music industry if they are profitable!) I myself have felt this, even though I claim to not be very good. Since I grew up in a small town, I have had the opportunity to be featured in the newspaper for various musical activities, and being in high-school at the time, the accolades from my peers meant a lot to me. Since playing the harp is still somewhat rare, even now I have people approach me and proclaim their admiration for the beautiful music it produces. I believe that this can be a source of motivation for students. Again, this requires playing harp for an audience, but maybe the student can start small by playing for their extended family over the holidays, and work their way up to bigger (and forgiving) gigs like assisted-living homes and coffee shops.
Extrinsic: Music as the reward
- Reward the student with music they WANT to learn. There’s one instance in which the “reward” system can be used to circle back to music. Suppose you want to teach your student a certain style, or theory of music. If you were to break down a difficult piece into an exercise, let your student reward themselves with music they are interested in after they have successfully worked out a tough exercise. This will also combat the potential pitfall of frustration. Feeling overwhelmed by a difficult piece might make your student lock up; nothing gets done. If one were to break down a piece into “‘do-able bits’… he has the satisfaction of witnessing his own progress. Nothing is more motivating than sensing one’s own progress.”
- Play a duet! Some younger students might enjoy playing along with you in a duet, since it sounds like they are making real music! The social interaction and positive reinforcement of music that sounds good could help them practice during the week in preparation for their duet with you during their lesson.
How can these tips be modified and applied to your own life in other ways?
While this article is more geared toward casual learners, I’d be interested in hearing from those that are professional musicians. What makes you tick? How do you amp yourself up for practice now that it’s a career rather than a hobby?
This article is actually a mash-up of lots of articles I found on the web while researching this topic. I’ve done the best I can at giving credit for the original ideas. If any of these ideas have helped you, I’d love it if you could let me know in the comments!
Featured Image credit Eliza Adam
Emily is a student and friend of Stephanie’s, and helps with occasional harping/blogging enthusiasm.
Stephanie Claussen teaches harp lessons out of her home in St. Paul, Minnesota. She strives to ingrain in each student not only correct hand position, rhythm and a sense of musicality, but also a love for making music.