4 Tips for Dealing with Unmotivated Students

Especially this time of year, it seems like a lot of motivation is fizzling out and everyone is ready for a break. I still have some students going strong, but there are definitely a handful that are squeaking by until summer break! That’s why I thought now would be a perfect time to address this question from another teacher:

I hope I am not alone with the feeling of somewhat “losing” a student. Not literally, but feeling that he is not really with you during lessons, has no motivation to practice and the only thing that seems to be keeping him alive is the recital! Help! Do you have ideas for sparking excitement and helping students get back on track when they are flailing?

1. Is it a phase or a pattern? Everyone goes through slumps. If the student is normally diligent in their practicing and works hard, then I let a few weeks slide here and there (especially at the end of the year like this!). If it persists for a period of time (several weeks in a row), though, then I address it. I talk candidly with the student first, and then with the parent, if necessary.

2. How does the student feel about it? If I sense a lack of motivation, I ask the student what’s going on, why they’re not practicing, etc. One of my high school boys and I were just talking about this last week and he said that’s kind of how he feels about everything right now. The end of school is just around the corner, and he’s kind of sick of everything and just ready for a break. Fair enough. He’s actually still practicing and moving along, he just doesn’t have the same energy as he did at the beginning of the year.

3. Does the student still have a desire to play the piano? Except in rare circumstances, I won’t accept a student into my studio who doesn’t want to take piano lessons. This is one of the questions that I ask on my initial student and parent interview, and if I learn that it’s just the parent who wants the child to take lessons, but the child has no interest in it, that’s a determining factor in whether or not I will take the student. It’s hard enough to maintain a consistent practice schedule if you do want to learn to play the piano, let alone if you don’t have the desire in the first place. If the desire has completely dissolved, then maybe it is time to end lessons…at least for a while.

4. Is there something in particular the student would really like to learn or play? If there is still the desire to play, but not the motivation to practice, I ask the student if he has any particular things that he would like to learn. We might take a break from regular lesson assignments for a few weeks to do more improvisation, try arranging a familiar piece, do a whole lesson of just games, watch piano performances on YouTube, or tackle a harder piece that sounds really cool! There are lots of possibilities! The main thing at this point is to establish common ground with the student and make it clear that you’re working together to help them get past this stage and back into practicing and enjoying it. Ideally, piano lessons are for the long-haul, so don’t feel like a few weeks here or there spent focusing on other things is a waste of time. A lesson of music games could be just the thing to remind the student of how much they’ve learned, or 20 minutes spent watching and listening to piano performances on YouTube could be just the thing to re-ignite their enthusiasm for music!

Partly because my personality is such that I always like to try new, creative ideas, I tend to teach that way. I get bored easily with things that never change, so I’m always surprising my students with some new thing or another (my poor students who thrive on constancy and predictability…!). I like to think that this helps keep motivation alive for my students, but in some ways I think it would be more accurate to say that it keeps motivation alive for me. And when we, as teachers, are motivated and enthusiastic about teaching our students, that will tend to rub off on them.

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