What Motivates Children to Practice?

Published on 9 December 2022 at 12:06

Motivation.  Think how much we could achieve if we just had the motivation to do it!  If we weren’t too tired, knew where to start, actually felt like doing it today, wouldn’t rather veg on the couch and watch Netflix.  No one is too old to know this feeling and still experience it today.


We often think of motivation as something we either have or don’t have at any given moment.  However, there is much we can do to improve our chances of getting up and doing the things we know deep inside we want to do but are just not feeling it (doing some more work on the really cool song I want to play at the concert) and also those jobs that have to be done whether we want to or not (learn those scales my teacher keeps banging on about!)


There are essentially two types of motivation:  intrinsic and extrinsic.  Intrinsic motivation comes from within; It’s our inner desire to be a concert pianist one day, to want to be able to play the theme song from the latest movie, to want to get accepted into the top band at school, to have something to do on a rainy day.  It’s the reason we learn music in the first place…because we just want to.


With extrinsic motivation we use an outside motivator to help us achieve our goals when intrinsic motivation is either non-existent or not enough.  Think of the child who isn’t really that keen on piano but his parents are “making” him do lessons to see if he likes it or because they think it’s good for her.  Also, think of the student who really wants to master a new song but knows how much work is involved and is easily distracted by Instagram and it’s all just too much effort.


I believe neither type of motivation is better than the other but rather by using a combination of both we have the potential to achieve a lot more from our music lessons and in life in general.  Let’s take a closer look at these motivators.


Intrinsic Motivation

You might think there is not a lot we can do to increase intrinsic motivation, but you’d be wrong.  I think the teacher can play a huge role in this area in the following ways:

  • Providing music and challenges of an appropriate level – music that is too easy is often not interesting or challenging.   If the music is too difficult the bar has been set too high and the student will resist practice.
  • Ensuring the child is capable of practicing by themselves or with minimal parental involvement the tasks assigned.   If the child doesn’t have the ability to find the starting note of the song for each hand, they are not going to get much done!  Be on the lookout for lazy students though who prefer to guess where their hands go rather than use their tools to work it out!
  • Providing music in a range of musical styles – exposing children to a variety of musical styles is really important, even if they think they only like pop or jazz. I believe before about 12 they are too young to know what they like if they haven’t been exposed to a lot of different music. As they get into their teen years, students like to have more of a say over choice of music which can be a great motivator.
  • Praising the student not only for playing well but also the small achievements along the way.
  • Creating a learning environment that values a combination of learning and enjoyment.  It is important to remember why we are learning music.  If it’s never fun, something is wrong.  It won’t always be fun – there are technical aspects we cannot avoid – but if the student sees the bigger picture, they are more likely to work on the less-exciting activities.


The parent can also play a role in boosting their child’s intrinsic motivation by the following means:

  • Show an interest in their musical journey - regularly drop in on their practice and say things like, "Ooh, is that a new song? It's sounding great!"
  • Encourage them to record their songs or play for friends and family – make music a part of your life.
  • Exposing the child to musical performances – both live and recorded.  Performances don’t even have to be professional.   Part of developing as a young musician is learning to evaluate other performances, good or ..... not so good.  Youtube is a great place to visit (with parental supervision).  Google your child’s current piece and you are likely to find a video of someone else playing – not necessarily better than them!


What happens though when intrinsic motivation is lacking?  We can pretty much guarantee it will at some point, even in the most dedicated students and it's normal to go through phases of lower motivation.  In these cases, we need one or more extrinsic motivators to keep us on track.  Extrinsic motivators themselves fall into 2 categories:


  • Those that are related to the task
  • Those that are unrelated to the task.


Examples of extrinsic motivators related to learning an instrument:

  • Completing 10/20/30/40 pieces in the 40-piece challenge
  • Performing in a concert
  • Sitting an exam
  • Recording your piece to send to grandparents
  • Buying a better-quality instrument if they have consistently worked hard and achieved their goals.
  • A new piece of music they really want to learn once they complete another song that they aren't so keen on.


With these examples, the reward is the feeling you get knowing you have achieved your goal, praise from others, perhaps a certificate, however an external goal was used to motivate the student to put in the work required to reach those goals.  With these examples, the reward can act to further increase the student’s internal motivation so it’s like a double-win!


Examples of extrinsic motivators unrelated to learning an instrument:

  • A physical reward of some kind – money, gifts, trip to the cinema
  • Earning of privileges – screen time, dessert, having a friend over, staying up an hour later.


These rewards have nothing to do with the task.  While they are useful, they provide no further benefit to increase intrinsic motivation.


You might think unrelated extrinsic motivators are the least valuable of all the motivators.  It’s true that if this is all you are relying on it will be an up-hill battle.  But they certainly have their place and are often very useful when students are in the natural down part of their motivational cycle.  It’s these unrelated extrinsic motivators that keep us on track when we start to lose sight of the reasons we are doing this in the first place.


If you’ve made it this far, please take a moment to go back over the main points and note which motivators might work for your child.   Try to add at least one from each category so you have a toolbox of resources to keep your child learning, practicing and enjoying music well into their adulthood.

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