More Thoughts on Motivation

January 18, 2010

In digging through notes I already had, I came across more stuff on motivation that I’d like to share with you. I’ve split it up into a series which will continue through next week. I’ll be talking about different facets of motivation: practice, listening, music reading, marking music, and the role of parents in motivation. Hopefully, you’ll find something useful.

What is Motivation?

Part of my job as a teacher is to create a desire in my students to want to practice, willingly with no reminders or nagging from parents, as much as they feel they need to in order for them to hear and feel progress. I can say lots of motivational things and give lots of motivational ideas during a lesson, but if the student isn’t practicing regularly, for whatever reason, eventually lessons become pointless because we spend weeks on end doing nothing but going around and around in circles. I don’t delude myself into believing that all students are motivated, or even that they all want to be motivated. What I do know is that the more unmotivated a student is, the more I want to find a solution that exactly fits that student’s situation. (As much as I try to leave “work” at “work”, some of these situations have occasionally kept me awake at night…and a tired teacher is a cranky teacher, you know.)

Successful violin students are somehow motivated to improve their playing and to build on their ability. They are not willing to settle. For some students, motivation is external: a particular piece they heard someone else play; a specific chair in orchestra; competition with other students. With very young students, the motivation often comes from wanting to do with the violin what they see Mom or Dad doing. Other students have an internal motivation: they simply want to play better. It’s not merely a case of advancing to the next piece or next book or being first chair. They want to make music. They’re not satisfied or content; they are always working toward a goal. Playing the violin is much more fun when you feel like you’re playing well, or at least better than yesterday or last month. Complacency – settling for less than your best, being satisfied to the point of ignoring mistakes and overlooking major issues in your sound – is a very powerful internal motivator, too: it eventually motivates a student to find other things to do with his practice time.

One of the more frequent questions I get asked, usually from parents, is “How much should my child be practicing?” The problem is that if the parent asks the “should” question, it’s a big fat red flag to me that the student isn’t really practicing at all, or it’s “hit-and-miss” at best. If the parent is asking this question, it tells me that practicing has become a point of contention and argument at home, which is diametrically opposed to what Dr. Suzuki taught and lived. I should point out that the parent is usually asking this question after several weeks (or months) of witnessing the struggle during lessons. [Note: Many parents who ask this question are sometimes only asking for clarification, but in my experience the question generally indicates a home practice issue.] For the student who is still struggling with basic concepts like posture, hand position, bow hold, or basic intonation after playing for a year or two, or five, the logic is overpowering. Instead of the “how much” question, the parent really should be asking : why should he practice is he sees no reason, point or gain to doing it?

Part of the blame for this falls directly on me as a teacher: I should never let a student think that it’s OK to be mediocre, or play badly, or to play without confidence in his abilities. It is very detrimental for me to allow a student to move ahead in the repertoire, thinking that a new piece will provide the motivation to practice correctly (or successfully, or productively). Truth be told, this is an area where I struggle as a teacher. Is it my responsibility to keep the student from being “bored”? Is it more important to me to keep the student in the studio, using this as a means to an end, or is it more important that they learn? Either way I turn, they learn, but it’s not always the lesson I’m trying to teach. The more mistakes are made and reinforced, the harder it is to erase the mistakes from aural and muscle memory, hence the more difficult it becomes to play the violin. If my job is to make it easy for them, then I’m more at fault than they are for the failure to progress.

I’d love more than anything to be able to change practice thinking. I am very sad and disheartened when I hear a student say, “I’ll never be able to play that piece. It’s way too hard.” I had an advanced student say this to me one day during a lesson, and I was speechless (hard to accomplish, let me say). I shook my head and told her that in a couple of years, she would be able to play that piece, as well as pieces way more technically advanced than that one. It is very rare to find a student who hears an advanced violin piece and says, with excitement and enthusiasm, “Wow! I really like that piece! When will I be able to play it?” I hear stories of teachers who have students like that, and I’d like to know where  they live…because sometimes I feel like I need a few to keep me encouraged.

I opened this article by saying that motivation is my primary responsibility as a teacher. However, what I say and suggest during lessons is only worth the effort a student puts into discovery. Otherwise, I’m wasting the student’s time, the parent’s money, and mine as well. How much should you practice? You’ll be able to answer that when you’re able to answer why you play: what motivates you to play the violin. Here are a few questions to help you get started.

  • Why did you choose to play the violin? Are you doing it because you want to, or because someone else thought it would be good/right/fun for you? Would you be upset with yourself if you stopped? Why?
  • Do you enjoy playing? Do you hear yourself making progress? Do you genuinely like how you sound?
  • Is there anything you can do to improve your rate of progress? More practice time? Better organization of your time? More review work? Better explanation of assignments? Is the there anything the teacher can help with?
  • How much do you listen to your review pieces and upcoming pieces? Would listening more help with progress? Have you tried? How are you sure it won’t work if you don’t try? Is there an upcoming piece that you are just dyin’ to play?
  • How much do you listen to non-Suzuki pieces? How many major violin works have you heard? There is a whole world of violin waiting for you – hundreds of pieces for you to choose from to make “yours”.  The performers you hear on these recordings started the same way and in the same place you did. There is a lot of violin beyond the Suzuki repertoire world.

The next segment will address the importance of listening, which I touched on here, but is truly the foundation for the rest of a student’s violin study.