How to Motivate Your Students to Practice (from a Teacher’s Perspective)

Motivation

Most musicians realize the need for practice, even beginners. That doesn’t mean that they actually do it or that they like to do it. In fact, if you spend any time talking to musicians and music students, you’ll hear:

“I really need to practice”

“I should be practicing right now”

“I wonder if I’m practicing enough.”

You seldom hear:

“Gosh, I have nothing to practice”

“Golly, I’m plenty good enough right now, I think I’ll give up practicing as my New Year’s resolution!”

“Gee whizzikers, it’s so wonderful to be as fabulous as me. Thank heavens I never need to improve!”

 

The problem is usually getting into the practice room and getting things done. Assuming the musician already knows what they need to work on, the rest of the battle has to do with motivation.

Internal and External Motivators

In general, there are two kinds of motivators, internal and external. For musicians, internal motivators can include pride, expressing yourself, improving specific skills, the positive feeling you get from applause, or the chance to try more challenging music. External motivators are more tangible, like a higher chair, an award, placement in an ensemble, a job, the opportunity to play with musicians you admire. Everyone has some combination of these motivators. Don’t get hung up too much on whether they are internal or external. It’s really just a way to help you identify them.

Remember, your motivations are just that: YOUR motivations. They are not good or bad, right or wrong, they are merely the things that keep you heading into the practice room. They WILL change and develop, which is a natural part of the process. I want to encourage you to become aware of your motivations as they are today, so we can set goals based on your individual motivators.

One final note before we take an inventory of your motivators. Sometimes, especially for students, there are things you have to do in order to get a passing grade or an acceptable rating at contest. These are goals set by someone else, your parents, teacher, your invisible friend Chet (he’s so demanding for a koala bear). In these instances, your motivation may be to keep you parents and teachers (and Chet) off your back. That’s okay; just add them to the list.

Motivation Self-Inventory

Here’s a quick exercise for you. Take a moment to rate the following items from one to five. Go with your initial instinct.  It shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes.

__. Higher Chair

__. Award

__. Fun

__. Employment

__. Ability to play more challenging music

__. Positive feedback from others

__. Learn to set and achieve goals

__. Advance in a higher band or orchestra

__. Get better at expressing musical ideas

__. Pride

__. Striving to improve musical skills

__. Opportunity to play with musicians you admire

Any others? List them below.

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

 

What do you notice? Are there more internal motivators or external motivators? Are there any that surprised you? Which stand out as primary motivators to you

Now, list your top three. These are the ones we will explore more fully.

1.

3.

 

Note: You will want to revisit this process from time to time. Perhaps every couple of months, or once a semester, look at the list above and see if your motivations have changed. You may be surprised how quickly things evolve.

 

Creating S.M.A.R.T. Goals for Motivators

Now that you’ve identified your top motivators, you can build goals and practice sessions around them, so your practice is directly tied to the things that are important to you.  Remember the S.M.A.R.T. steps? Here is an opportunity to put those into action. Let’s take a motivator and turn it into a S.M.A.R.T. goal. We’ll use a fictitious sophomore oboe player named Cora Onglaze. Cora wants a higher chair in band. She could say “Some guy in a book my teacher made me buy told me I should look at my motivators and set goals for them, so here’s one of mine. I want to get a higher chair in band because I will get to play more challenging music, I will be seen as a better musician and because it will be fun!”

Cora may or may not have success at this, since the goal is fuzzy. Her motivations are clear but the goal itself is not SPECIFIC enough.  It isn’t easily MEASURABLE, doesn’t have ACTIONS or RESOURCES tied to it and doesn’t have a TIME limit. It’s a good start, but let’s help her turn this goal into a S.M.A.R.T. goal.

On any trip, you must know two things: where you are and where you’re going (SPECIFIC, MEASURABLE GOAL). How you will get there is next on the list (ACTIONS). What you’ll need on the trip and when you need to get there cap things off (RESOURCES and TIME). Here’s the map for Cora:

SPECIFIC, MEASURABLE GOAL: To move from 5th chair, to1st chair.

ACTIONS: private lessons, playing duets with the top clarinet players in the school, listening to recordings of fine clarinet players, learning her scales and the rest of the repertoire for the audition, recording herself and listening for the things her teacher and band director talked about, playing for at least 45 minutes every day

RESOURCES: teacher, music, pencil, recorder, tuner, metronome, calendar, duet book, notebook, recordings

TIME: after the next round of auditions, in January (TIME)

If we put it all together, it looks something like this:

“I will place first chair in the second band after the January auditions by private lessons, playing duets with the top clarinet players in the school, listening to recordings of fine clarinet players, learning her scales and the rest of the repertoire for the audition, recording herself and listening for the things her teacher and band director talked about, playing for at least 45 minutes every day. I will use my teacher, music, pencil, recorder, tuner, metronome, calendar, duet book, notebook, recordings to make this happen.”

Now, Cora’s goal is SPECIFIC, MEASURABLE, has ACTIONS, RESOURCES and a TIME for completion.  Much better than, “I want to get a higher chair in band.”

Note: When stating the S.M.A.R.T. goal, it is useful to state it in first person and with the assumption that you WILL accomplish the goal. Cora started her goal with “I will,” not “I hope to,” “I might,” or “Golly, it sure would be extra special neat-o if I could.” This is a subtle but important difference. Assume success!

 

List your top motivator.

 

__________________________________________________________________

 

Now, let’s create S.M.A.R.T. goals for it.

 

 

MOTIVATOR: ______________________________________________________

 

SPECIFIC (I will improve ______) _______________________________________

 

MEASUREABLE (by how much?) _______________________________________

 

ACTIONS (by doing a. b. c. etc.) _________________________________________

 

RESOURCES (using a. b. c. etc.) ________________________________________

 

TIME (by when?) _____________________________________________________

 

S.M.A.R.T. GOAL: ___________________________________________________

 

What Did You Learn?

Your goals will be accomplished at different times, so as you complete one, create another. It may be a different version of the one you just completed or a completely new goal built on the skills you just developed.

Review (and possibly adjust) your goals frequently. A few minutes at the beginning of your practice day will keep you on track. Additionally, set aside five or ten minutes each month to look at your progress and decide if you need to change course. These few minutes can save countless hours of wasted practice time.

Hopefully, organizing your thoughts in this way has allowed  you to learn more about yourself and which triggers you can use to inspire yourself (or your students) to get into the practice space (both physical and mental) early and often. Now, go make some great music!

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Bobby
Bobby plays both the violin and viola. He performs in several orchestras around the Pittsburgh area and is currently attending Carnegie Mellon University for his Master's.

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