What motivates students to practice?

untitledToday, I watched a YouTube video that a friend had sent to me of a girls’ high school band from Japan. The group was playing a composition by Claude T. Smith and it was amazing! You can watch it here. Anyway, it got me thinking…

We are all familiar with great programs, whether its band, orchestra, choir, etc. What makes these programs different than mine? The students are the same age. Sure, they may come from all different backgrounds, living conditions, etc., but what is the real difference between students that are just average musicians, and those that are incredible? Is it that those students are really dedicated to practicing?

Let me digress for a moment. Yesterday, during my senior high concert band rehearsal we were rehearsing the first movement from Holst’s First Suite in Eb. If you are familiar with the piece, you know that woodwinds have a significant 16th note run in the beginning of the movement. Now there is nothing overtly difficult about this run. Most young students will just need to spend some time working out the technical aspects of the run. I may be stubborn, but I am refusing (at least for now) to work on this during rehearsal time, because it is something they can easily learn themselves with a little time in the woodshed.

So anyway, after seeing this amazing video of this girls school, I started really thinking about students and their motivation to practice. I know for me, I only became motivated to practice when I could see or hear the benefits of my practice. Then it became like a snowball effect. Once I realized that my practice time was really paying off, I could easily see how much better I was getting. This led to more enjoyment in playing music, which in turn led me to practicing more. I was intrinsically motivated.

How do I get my students motivated to practice? I really believe they have to be intrinsically motivated. That is, they have to want to do it for themselves. They will not do it just because I tell them to do it. In fact, they may just not do it for that very reason. I really think that if I can get past that first hurdle, and they can begin to realize the fruits of their labor, they will then be intrinsically motivated. Is this something that has to start in the elementary program? Should I be a stickler about their practice time at that age? Will this turn into a habit when they get into middle and high school? How do I get to the point that all of my students just practice out of habit? When will my program get to the point that students just practice because they know that it is expected of them? If this point in time ever does arrive, then I think we could really have an incredible group!

Your thoughts?


6 thoughts on “What motivates students to practice?

  1. It has to start early. They need to be taught how to practice and then get into the habit of practicing. Most students do not understand how to practice the right way and are afraid of making mistakes (even when they are all alone!). I constantly told them that mistakes are okay and expected as long as they recognized them and took steps to correct them. I also required students to record their practice times (middle school level) which was a major pain and I am still looking for another alternative. I could only hope that it laid the foundation for a habit of practicing.

  2. I think you can compare this to any other kind of subject. You don’t study math or history the same way and so figuring out how to effectively study those is a big thing. By the time you reach middle school or high school, at least in those type of classes, your teachers expect that you already know how to study, which is not always the case. If you were never taught how to when you were younger then you would not know where to start.

    So, thinking along the sames lines if you teach students how to practice at a young age it will be easier for them to practice by the time they are at the middle and high school level. Also, if knowing that practicing DOES make a difference will help students actually take the time to practice (which I know it will) teaching them how to effectively practice will make a big difference. I know it was so hard for me to practice not because I didn’t have the time (you can always somehow find the time), but because I did not know how to practice and therefore I did not think it helped me at all and I almost felt ridiculous doing it at times. Had I been taught when I was just starting out how to practice I know I would have done so much better. But be careful if you are going to become a stickler about, because you don’t want to make students hate practicing.

  3. Doug,
    Intrinsic motivation is the only way to go. It is either an upward spiral or a downward spiral, and the trick is to get it started in the upward direction early.
    I find that I can get my sixth-grade beginning band students to practice by (1) keeping them interested in class by being the crazy, funny teacher, (2) focus them on the discrete skill or concept by telling them explicitly what the point of today’s or this week’s lesson is, (3) send them out of class excited by giving tons of positive encouragement during the period and high-fives out the door, (4) making homework as specific as possible so that the young rascals never have to feel ‘lost’ in their practice session, and (5) teaching students, parents, administrators and other teachers that practice is not about how many minutes a child practices but rather about setting four or five concrete, measurable goals per night and working until those are checked off. The most challenging part is making the homework specific. The journey of a thousand miles may begin with a single step, but we often take it for granted that students can see what the first step looks like.
    Excellent topic!

  4. Hi Doug. Good thoughts, and great questions. No easy answers here. However, in my own experience as a junior higher and high schooler, what motivated me to practice was my older peers. I was fortunate enough to be involved in an outstanding music program with good-hearted people who also had a competitive edge. Many of us took private lessons and were motivated to win at various festivals and events. We knew who our competition was, and who our inspiration was. I’ve worked really hard to establish that kind of environment with my students, but to quote a famous author, “it takes a village” — supportive parents, administration, private teachers, and a broad base of talented older students to inspire younger students.

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