Dear teachers, I have just completed writing a short article detailing various ways a piano teacher can motivate students in their lessons. I hope you find this useful and feel free to ask further questions in this thread if you have any questions specific to this topic.
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to check out my other articles and free resources. Motivating Students â€“ A Brief Guide for Piano Teachersby Charles Wu
Learning a musical instrument is by no means a walk in the park. Research has suggested that it takes an average of 10000 hours for a person to be proficient in an instrument. Clearly, it will take some time before you can spit out a decent rendition of a Beethovenâ€™s Piano Sonata on your piano. In fact, the learning curve actually increases as students get more proficient. Repertoires become longer and more complex; they also require more robust technique coupled with deeper theoretical understanding of the music. The prospect is definitely a daunting one for many students.
Once the initial excitement of starting lessons dies down, many students often find their interests slowly waning. Teachers have lost students because their students do not enjoy their lessons anymore. ABRSMâ€™s exam statistic shows the number of students taking grade 8 is only approximately 1/7 or 1/8 of those taking grade 1. Clearly, this is a real problem and many teachers have asked me advice on how to motivate their students to improve their retention rates. Many parents also list the ability to motivate students as a key factor when searching teachers for their children.
Motivating students is a very broad subject and an in-depth discussion on this issue will probably warrant a more complex medium. I will try my best to present an overview of the important factors involved to provide teachers with general ideas and starting points they can use in their lessons. Ensure sustained and comfortable progress
As mentioned earlier, many students encounter increased learning curve and this corresponds to slower rate of progress for them. As a teacher, you will need to ensure that there are constant tangible results in your studentsâ€™ journeys; otherwise they may get demoralised. Like it or not, students will benchmark their current progresses to standards they are aware of, such as what their friends are learning or grade levels. And if they feel they are lagging behind the accepted norm, this can dampen their interests. This is the point where students will start saying negative reinforcements such as â€œWhat is the point of learning anymore? I will never be good at this.â€
You will need to communicate clearly to your students about the amount of progress they can expect to achieve within a specified frame of time. Be honest about what they can expect to accomplish based on what you have learnt about their capabilities and learning speed. Some students may relish difficult challenges whereas others may prefer more leisurely pace. Not all your students will be equal and setting equal standards for everyone may cause discontentment. The slower ones will feel frustrated for lagging behind and the faster ones may feel that you are holding them back.
Set clear goals and milestones that your students can realistically achieve. These milestones can range from a simple one such as completion of an assigned piece to a major one such as a successful execution of a recital or exam. Intertwine simple and major goals to provide steady satisfaction to students; setting only big long term goals may cause learning fatigue. Be very specific when communicating these expectations and be clear about the requirements to achieve them.
Some examples of milestones or goals you can set for students:
- You will learn and perform from memory this piece at an informal concert in two months. You will practice this piece consistently during these two months and we will go through this piece in each lesson following up to the concert.
- You will prepare for an ABRSM grade 5 practical exam next March and attempt to get at least a merit. You will need to finish all the required components two months before the exam date.
After setting these goals and putting your students through the motions to achieve them, you will need to observe them carefully and if necessary adjust them based on their actual progresses and reactions. You may encourage them to achieve their goals, but be honest and realistic when needed. Failure to achieve a goal will affect a studentâ€™s morale greatly and cause him/her to lose his trust in you. If a student is faltering, be flexible and adjust the goals and if necessary you may even replace the goals with easier ones first. Remember that these goals are not the ends in themselves, but are means to guides students to grow in their learning journeys. Be passionate yourself
If you want your students to be passionate about learning music, you will need to show the same passion in teaching them. Remember, passion is infectious. Be willing to talk about the music your students are playing and donâ€™t shy from demonstrating on the instrument. Be genuinely interested in their lessons and show evidences of preparation and knowledge of the levels you are teaching. Be aware of what are going on in your studentsâ€™ lives; though take care to maintain a professional barrier between you and your students.
Help your students to appreciate music outside lessons as well. Most students would love to listen and appreciate classical music; it's just that they lack starting points. As a teacher, you can gradually expose repertoire that will appeal to them. There are a few ways of doing this. You could give your students listening lists. And you could notify your students about upcoming concerts they might be interested in. Remember to take into account your studentsâ€™ musical preferences; children would like to see something more entertaining such as an acted out rendition of Prokofievâ€™s â€˜Peter and the Wolvesâ€™ whereas adults may prefer to listen to more substantial classical works such as Beethovenâ€™s symphonies.Develop independence in learning
Though some degree of rote learning may be unavoidable especially at the earlier stages of picking up an instrument, you should aim to develop your studentsâ€™ capabilities to supervise their own learning. Failure to do so will affect overall proficiencies of your students and this may cause great frustrations down the road. Avoid â€˜copy and pasteâ€™ teaching style; as much as possible let your students learn their repertoires by themselves. Provide necessary guidance such as ways to tackle more technical passages, musical details to watch out for, how to divide a piece into sections for practice, etc. In the event that you need to ask your students to copy what you do, do explain the reasons to them rather than just asking them to blindly do so.
Let your students be responsible for their learning. They need to feel that that you trust and respect them. Encourage your students to be more proactive in lessons. Don't shy from asking your students questions and to analyse their own playing. Make them think instead of you doing the thinking for them all the time. Cultivate the habit of marking their own scores and noting down their homework. Stipulate what is necessary, but avoid dictating every single thing your students do.
Though understandably some teachers are overly controlling to ensure consistent results, some students may feel demotivated as they feel restricted and stifled. Be open to suggestions from your students and allow them some freedom in expressing their music even if you do not exactly agree with them. Remember that your students are unique individuals, not robots. Respecting your students' individualities will go a long way towards improving their self-esteems. Assign appropriate repertoire and materials
Compared to other instrumentalists, pianists probably are the most fortunate as the breadth of repertoire and materials available is simply staggering. Tragically though, many students who stopped lessons often cite boring and uninteresting repertoire choice in their lessons as one of the main reasons they lost interests. Appropriate repertoire choice goes a long way to keep a student motivated. Practice is hard work involving significant amount of repetition; obviously if students enjoy the pieces they are playing practice sessions will be much more bearable.
Assign or let your students choose materials that are suitable for their technical levels and interests. Make sure you have a good selection of materials available in your studio so you can cater to a wide range of musical preferences. If you are not sure what to get, there are plenty of excellent compilations of pieces ordered according to grades/levels. There are also repertoire guides by pedagogues such as Jane Magrath, Maurice Hinson, and Trevor Barnard if you are looking for specific repertoire. Consulting various exam boardsâ€™ syllabi may also give you general ideas of repertoire available for each level.
Repertoire assigned should also correspond appropriately to your studentsâ€™ musical preferences. For example, young children would probably prefer to learn catchy descriptive pieces such as Schumannâ€™s â€˜Happy Farmerâ€™, whereas an expressive lyrical piece such as a Chopinâ€™s Nocturne would be more suitable for older mature students. Demonstrate the pieces or play the recordings for your students to get an idea of what they like. As you teach your students over a longer period of time, you will also understand their musical preferences and hence would be able to shortlist more appropriate repertoire for them.
Mix pieces of varying difficulties and lengths to keep students constantly motivated. Long and difficult pieces give great satisfaction when learnt well, but students working solely on these pieces may experience mental fatigue over time. So it is a good idea to mix in easier and shorter pieces along the way to provide motivation boost along the way.
Sometimes you may have to assign pieces or materials that your students may not really appreciate or enjoy e.g. technical exercises, sight reading exercises, etc. Do explain to your students the benefits of learning them so they will still practice them. Vary your approach with each student
Every student who engages your service is a unique individual with specific set of strengths and weaknesses. Each of them also has his/her own personality, interest level and learning style. There are also other variables to consider such as school schedule, frequency of lessons, attention span, learning disability, etc. Adopting a singular approach towards all your students will most likely result in some complications resulting in negative experiences in lessons.
Tailor made your lesson plans according to your students' capabilities and interests. Your approach should also vary according to their ages and personalities. For example for the more serious teenagers, you can adopt a more formal tone for lessons. Whereas for young children you might want to incorporate more games and use simpler words they understand. This is very important as you want each of your students to feel as comfortable as possible in your lessons.
Be open to new teaching techniques. Limiting yourself to techniques and methods that you are familiar with will affect your ability to adapt to each student. We live in age where piano pedagogies have matured and are still constantly evolving. The breadth of resources and methods available to piano teachers today allow for very versatile approaches to different types of students. The possibilities are immense; embracing them will give you more options to enrich your lessons to be more than just dry academic study.
Involve your studentsâ€™ parents or sibling whenever possible. Their involvements can range from assisting in practice to bringing the students out for concerts. Your students will see them much more often than you and their loved onesâ€™ supports can make a big difference. Whenever possible you can ask them to sit in your studentsâ€™ lesson or you can also communicate to them what they can do during the week to help. Learning classical piano can be quite lonely and having people around will give an added layer of social interaction that will help sustain your studentsâ€™ interests.