Monday Mailbag – Motivating Students

I teach two girls whose parents own a shop.  In better words, the business owns them.  The hardest part in teaching the girls is that their parents have no time to instill any interest, appreciation, or enthusiasm into them.  They grasp the concepts and practice, but there is not interest in dynamics or looking closer at a piece, etc.  Do you you have any suggestions for instilling enthusiasm into children who could care less if music existed?

Isn’t this the million dollar question?! Pondering these kinds of scenarios is exactly what prompted me to begin developing yearly practice incentive programs for my students. It is definitely challenging to engage a student when the parents seem disinterested. I do think it is possible, however. First, you have to determine what motivates the student. Do they really love a certain style of music? If so, they may become excited about learning a particular piece of music. Do they thrive on interaction with other students? Then perhaps a group class or even just pairing them on a duet with another student is the answer. Do they have a competitive drive? Maybe a specific challenge or studio contest is in order.

One of the things I’ve been pondering over the last several months is the relationship between motivation and relevance. Very few of us are motivated or enthusiastic about doing something that we perceive to have no relevance to our lives. For example, if someone was to force me to take a cat-grooming class, I would be bored to tears. I don’t particularly care for cats, and I don’t have any of my own. In a nutshell, I have no interest whatsoever in learning how to properly groom a cat. If, however, my enthusiastic feline-pampering instructor finds out that I love Baroque music and sets up an incentive program whereby I can earn a CD of my choosing every time I complete the grooming process according to her specified 5-step process, I will be much more motivated to listen attentively to her instructions and follow them as precisely as possible. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll even learn some useful information in the process and gain a slightly greater appreciation for cats than I previously held.

I think we can approach our students in a similar manner. If they genuinely have no interest in music, but we want to retain them as students, it is to the advantage of both of us for us to dig a little deeper and tap into the interests they already have to motivate them toward greater musical achievement. The key, however, is to remain sincere and enthusiastic – not catering to their every whim, but working together respectfully to make the experience enjoyable for all parties involved.

One final note: I recommend being perfectly upfront and honest with students. I have no problem having conversations like, “Do you enjoy playing the piano?” “Do you want to continue taking lessons?” “Why/Why not?” “Since you’re not practicing very well, we need to figure out what to do differently. Do you have any suggestions?” “Is there anything in particular that would motivate you to do a better job?” Etc. You don’t have to play the detective teacher to guess from week to week about what a student is thinking. I’ve learned the hard way that you’re not doing a student any favors by pretending like everything is fine and they’re doing well when in reality they are sloughing off practice and playing poorly. Open communication is always best!

I’d love to hear some additional thoughts on this topic! What do you recommend doing with students who seem wholly disinterested in music?

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

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