Maintaining Student Motivation on the Musical Journey toward Mastery

By Pike, Pamela D. | American Music Teacher, August-September 2011 | Go to article overview

Maintaining Student Motivation on the Musical Journey toward Mastery


Pike, Pamela D., American Music Teacher


There is no doubt that the process of learning to play a musical instrument takes hours of solitary hard work and dedication to the task. The journey toward mastery is seldom a linear process of achievement. In today's world, where our culture seems to glorify notoriety more than skill, where success seems to come overnight and effortlessly, and where value is not necessarily placed on hard work and steady progress toward a goal, how do we maintain student motivation throughout the study and mastery of a musical instrument?

Maintaining student motivation has been the subject of numerous journal articles and was even the topic of the MTNA pre-conference Pedagogy Saturday VII in 2003. (1) Yet, in spite of the wealth of information available about motivation, maintaining student enthusiasm still confounds and exasperates many music teachers. How is it that students who bound into our studios, unable to restrain themselves from "playing" with reckless abandon at the beginning of tutelage, lose their zeal and enthusiasm for the instrument and for the music that we, as teachers, love so dearly? It can be difficult for overworked teachers to make the leap from understanding motivation theory in a sterile, non-musical context to practical application in the music studio with real, live 21 st-century students.

Since much has been written about motivational theory, I will attempt to offer practical advice for music teachers. I will only refer to specific theories so that as teachers need to address more complex motivational issues with advancing students, they will know which theory to research to meet their particular needs. References at the conclusion of this article offer some valuable resources about specific theories of motivation.

Motivational Issues Influencing Beginning Music Study

When students begin music study, they, along with their families, have definite expectations of what that study will entail. Often, there is a great divide between our values and expectations (as teachers) and our students' values with respect to studying a musical instrument. We must discern what our potential students' expectations are for music study in terms of anticipated goals, amount of time required to reach those goals and how they expect to benefit from learning an instrument. These values fall under a broad category of motivation known as expectancy-value theory. (2) This theory is important to teachers because students with a higher expectancy-value tend to persist and maintain motivation for music study during the learning plateaus that inevitably arise.

If we can identify students with a low expectancy-value toward music study early on, we can tap into special motivational factors for those students and avoid possible pitfalls that might undermine future success. Asking potential students a couple of quick questions during the lesson-readiness interview can shed light on their expectancy-value with regard to music study. Such questions might include: Why do you want to take lessons? What is your favorite kind of music? What other after-school activities do you have? Is your instrument in a location conducive to practicing without interruption in your home? How many days do you expect to practice each week? If answers to these questions reveal the student has a low expectancy-value for music study, it does not mean he is not ready to take lessons, it simply means the teacher will have to tap into motivational factors-often extrinsic at first--that will ensure the student practices well enough to achieve success with short-term objectives. Then, the teacher can help him redefine what music study entails as lessons progress. The teacher plays a critical role in shaping a student's expectancy-value toward music study throughout the entire course of instruction, especially as the student evolves musically and artistically.

Until students have been enculturated into the expectations of studentmusicians in the studio, teachers must be aware of typical cultural and generational norms that influence our students? …

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