improving as a teacher, Motivation, Studio Business

9 Ideas for Motivating Piano Students

I’m sure we have all had students who are low on motivation at one point or another.  It’s not always easy to keep students practicing week after week.  To make matters complicated, every student is different: something that motivates one student might not work for the next.

Here are some ideas for increasing motivation among your piano students:

  1. Take lessons yourself. Put yourself in their shoes.  Remember what it’s like to have a busy week and have a hard time finding time for practice?  Remember what it’s like to when your pieces don’t play as well in the lesson as they did at home?  You can be more genuinely understanding and make better suggestions for solutions if you are taking lessons yourself and going through the same situations that they are.  Think you don’t have time for lessons?  Try to find someone who’s willing to take you on every other week or even once a month.  Continuing your own piano lessons will probably benefit you in more ways that you think!
  2. Be sure to give them a good variety of repertoire. Make sure there is plenty of variety in the music they are working on.  Find out what types of music they like.  Supplement their method book(s) with new age piano (think Jim Brickman), hymn arrangements, jazz/blues, pop music, soundtrack/music theater music (think Disney, High School Musical, or Twilight – whatever is currently popular!).  No matter the student, however, I always make sure they are working on something classical too.  There are so many different types of great music within classical music – I truly believe there is something for everyone!
  3. Start an incentive program. Let’s face it: some students can be bribed.  =)  In all seriousness, though, some students truly thrive on being motivated through incentive programs.  Incentive programs can help to not only give your students a goal to work towards, but also to reward your students’ hard work and good behavior.
  4. Try playing more music games in the lesson. Obviously, not every student’s goal is to be a concert pianist.  For some students, it may more than enough for them to become functional pianists who have a strong, life-long appreciation for music.  With these students, try giving an extra emphasis on theory and ear training games.  This may help revive their interest in practicing their repertoire.
  5. Try doing more creative activities involving improvisation and composition. Sometimes we piano teachers fall into the trap of making piano lessons turn into learning how to follow directions on the page (check out this post about getting the focus back on the sound).  Composition and improvisation activities help communicate to the student, “creativity is important!”  Then when working on repertoire, try to capture the student’s imagination and get them thinking about what the composers’ creative processes might have been for their pieces.  Get them excited about creating a mood or story!
  6. Find ways to increase studio camaraderie. Some students thrive on social interactions.  Help them make “piano friends” by providing occasions when your students can meet and interact with each other.  Assign duets between students who have their lessons back-to-back.  And if you don’t already, hold monthly group lessons.  Plan games and activities that involve having the students work together in pairs or small groups of 3 or 4.  Building student friendships within your studio may help them look forward to studio events, lessons, and even practicing at home!
  7. Provide regular performance opportunities. I once had a student who loved playing in soccer games, but disliked soccer practice.  In much the same way, she thrived on piano performances but disliked daily practicing.  Having a recital to prepare for helped tremendously!  Some students need regular performances to keep them motivated.  In addition to your regular annual/semi-annual recitals, try adding other low-stress performance opportunities, such as a Halloween/Christmas Party or a recital at a local senior center.  In addition, try holding studio performance times during monthly group lessons.  You can even call them “Repertoire Parties” instead of calling them by the more traditional “Performance Class” name.  Set the tone by remarking how fun and imaginative each student’s piece sounds, and asking students which piece was their favorite.  Hearing other students play may motivate them to improve their own playing or to someday work on some of the same repertoire they hear from other students.
  8. Have a talk with Mom or Dad. Maybe the problem is simply that the student just needs to practice more.  Have a chat with Mom or Dad and ask if they would be willing to give the student a gentle reminder each day to get on the piano.  For some students, it’s not that they don’t enjoy practicing; it’s just that they need a reminder or a little prompting to get on the bench each day.  Suggest that they make a routine and designate a specific block of time for practice each day.  Ask the parents or older siblings to sit at the bench with the student occasionally and ask them about their pieces and what they enjoy about them.  Suggest that they walk through or sit and read a book/magazine when the student is practicing and occasionally give praise and compliments to encourage them.  These things show the student that practice time is both a priority and something worthwhile and even enjoyable.
  9. Have them sign a practice contract. Are they still not practicing?  If the positive approach in #8 above doesn’t work, it may be time to get a little more aggressive.  Have a talk with Mom or Dad again and tell them that a practice agreement is necessary for the student to continue to be a part of your studio.  Although you may not enjoy resorting to practice contracts (I know I don’t – click here to view my thoughts on practice requirements), students (and teachers too) generally find lessons are much more enjoyable when the student is prepared each week for lessons and is making progress week after week.  Making an agreement may be just what some students need to stay dedicated to piano lessons.

I find that positive reinforcements are best for creating students who want to be there and learn at lessons, but sometimes one must resort to more desparate means.  If you’ve tried everything you can think of and things are still not working, it may be time to say goodbye.  If you’ve been able to keep communication open with the parent, it should not come as a huge surprise when you let them know that it may be time for lessons to end.  Make it clear that they are welcome to find another teacher if they so desire and encourage the student to play piano on their own for fun even though you won’t be giving them lessons anymore.  Do your best to make the parting smooth and consensual whenever possible.

Anything to add?  How do you keep students motivated?

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks | CC 2.0

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20 thoughts on “9 Ideas for Motivating Piano Students”

  1. This is, perhaps, one of the greatest challenges of the music teacher. I’ve found that sometimes the best thing you can do is to acknowledge that every student is going to hit a spot where they don’t want to practice…..or maybe even want to quit. Eventually, you begin to notice certain patterns. For instance, starting middle school is particularly overwhelming for many kids, and their practicing will almost always suffer. At times like this, I will often cut back on their assignments and agree with them that I will only require 20-30 minutes of practice each day until they adjust. Just knowing that I understand what they are going through usually sets them at ease. It may still be a little while before the practicing picks back up, but at least they don’t quit.

    I love #6, although I have not incorporated this in my studio yet. My daughter’s french horn teacher does a lot of stuff like that. In fact, they have a “Pancake Practice” coming up. They will all have a pancake breakfast together and then spend two hours practicing their all-state band audition music together. And she has a big cookout in the spring that they have to earn the privilege of attending by mastering scales, etc.

    One new thing that I am going to try this year is “piano olympics” to motivate the more competitive students. Instead of a typical “solo contest”, students from the various studios in our community will compete with each other in scales, arpeggios and various technique studies (hanon, Czerny, etc.). I’m hoping this will motivate them to practice the things they usually find tedious.

    1. @Rebecca: I love your comment about being aware of what is going on in students’ life and adjusting accordingly. Piano teachers are more than just teachers of the piano. We are teaching students to be musicians, and music is very close to the heart and soul of a person. When life happens, it affects everything else in the student’s life mentally, emotionally, physically, and even musically. Being aware of what is happening in students’ lives helps us be better teachers! =)

      I also love the idea of the Pancake Practice and the Piano Olympics events that you mentioned! Events such as those are sure to help build a sense of community and camaraderie within a studio.

  2. I’m such a fan of your approach. This is a great list with some good reminders about keeping lessons relevant to each particular student – something which I’ve found is the most important thing to remember to do.

    1. Thanks, Andrea! I agree – I think it’s important to realize that not every student is going to be motivated by the same thing. Every student is different, and the more I teach the more I realize this is true! It’s becoming an important part of my teaching style and philosophy.

  3. Thank you for all these wonderful teaching points. You are such a wonderful teacher and a beautiful lady to share the good things in the career.

  4. What has worked for me in almost every case of unmotivated students is to use what students already love as incentives, rather than introducing new (and in my opinion, unnecessary) incentives into the picture.

    For Students Not Practicing
    Simply talk to them and their parents in their lesson and figure out what the student loves most when they get home from school. Sometimes it’s TV, sometimes it’s computer games, sometimes it’s phone calls with friends, and sometimes it’s having friends over. Whatever it is, we use this as the incentive by not allowing the student to do that each day until they’ve practiced. One parent constructed a sign in front of the TV that says “Practice Piano”, and the student can’t flip the sign over the TV until he’s practiced.

    For Students Not Practicing Efficiently, or For When Parents Aren’t Around During Practicing

    The first week they have to get at least 50% of their notebook goals done, or they lose TV access for a full 2 days, 3 days, 5 days, or whatever the parent feels is appropriate (or phone, games, friends, etc.). Then I up it by 10% each week until finally it’s 90%, and I’ll keep this 90% goal for them for months sometimes if it’s a student that I think will just slip backward again as soon as the accountability is no longer there. I’m ok if 10% of the 10 or 20 goals I give students each week in their notebooks slip through the cracks, especially since some goals do take longer than a week sometimes, such as softening the left hand for the first time, speeding up a piece to a certain tempo, memorizing, etc.

  5. I find your ideas on how to motivate students very helpful. As an adult piano student it is difficult for me to stay motivated when learning to play the piano because of work commitments and other social activities. I try to stay motivated by focusing on three things; playing the music I love, realizing that mistakes will happen and not forcing myself to practise to meet a deadline. Your tips will motivate me more. Thanks.

  6. Great ideas! Also, thanks so much for the printable games and lesson plans. I love your site & have added it to my blog reader.

  7. One thing that was important to me when I was young and taking piano lessons (and still is now!) was that I needed to be challenged. I’m so glad that my piano teacher in High School knew that! She would give me a REALLY challenging piece that would really stretch me and push me and make me work hard each week. As a result, I was motivated! I wanted to do better, I wanted to prove to those people who may have doubted me that I could do it, and that I could do it well! Contrary to my experience in High School, once I got to college, I had a piano teacher that ripped EVERYONE back to the very basics and took all of the excitement and fun out of playing piano! In Piano Ensemble the piano majors should have been playing more challenging duets, instead, we were playing duets that a first or second year piano student could have played with ease. (Think Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star with chords!) No one enjoyed lessons, and as a result many Piano Majors switched majors, transferred schools, or dropped out altogether, and left the University with a total of 3 Piano Majors. I think that there is a balance for students, and that its important to find that balance and challenge them without overwhelming them.

    1. This is a very good point, Elyssa! The most important thing is to make sure the students feels that they are making progress. It is important to balance difficult pieces with easier, “short study” pieces. Too many easy pieces will de-motivate the student, just as too many difficult pieces will demotivate the student.

  8. I am coming really late to the conversation but I do have a few tips to share. Each week we set weekly practice goals for that student. Typically it is 5 days of practice but it might change depending on the student’s week. If they are leaving on a trip we adjust the lesson accordingly and such. Their assignment sheet has a place for the goal. On this same sheet there is a spot for the parents to initial stating that the student accomplished the number of days of practice. If the student meets their goal they may choose a treat from the box. You would think this would get old after a while but the students seem to still be motivated by this system. I have almost all of my students meeingt their practice goals each week. They also accumulate points all year long and we have an end of the year party to celebrate all they have accomplished. Hope this helps someone.

  9. Thanks for the post – very informative and well written. My young piano students are practising regularly, because i draw stars in their homework book when they play well. And their parents get quite thrilled when they get stars. I’ve written a blog on it called ‘The Three Stars’ I particularly like point six in your blog – i find that building friendships with other students is a really big motivating factor.

  10. I LOVE LOVE LOVE your blog. I’m a piano teacher as well and love my students and your articles created an even deeper desire to be the best teacher I can be! Thank you.

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