THE PIANO BRAIN: Motivation and Piano Practice

Article by Michael Griffin (MGBH)

 

Motivation, from the Latin movere meaning to move, is the fuel that starts, stops, directs, and sustains human behavior. It creates a desire to persist beyond the boundaries of comfort, to overcome obstacles, and to achieve beyond our own, and others’, highest expectations. Motivation is the pre-cursor to music practice. Motivation gets results. It is, therefore, an overarching concern for pianists and teachers.

In general terms, motivation is categorized as either intrinsic or extrinsic. When we enjoy an activity for what it is and for the pleasure it brings, we are self-motivated, or intrinsically motivated. The reward for doing the activity comes from the activity itself. With extrinsic motivation, the reward is an external benefit from doing the activity. We observe intrinsic motivation when students engage in activities alone, when they choose to participate in activities without external pressure, and when they engage in activities in the absence of the promise of or opportunity for external reward. It is not only the choice to engage in activity that defines intrinsic motivation, but also the quality of that involvement. Does the student attend to difficult passages thoroughly or just go through the motions? Trying hard and spending extra time on a task are examples of intensity and persistence. These are hallmarks of an intrinsically motivated student.

External motivation tends to be transient in that students are likely to lose their motivation when the prospect of external reward disappears.

Extrinsic motivation is entrenched in systems of education. External rewards – including gold stars, stickers and grades – are both material and verbal and presented with the hope that students will be encouraged to learn. In his massive body of research, John Hattie (2009) found “praise, punishment and extrinsic rewards are the most ineffective forms of feedback for enhancing achievement.”  External motivation tends to be transient in that students are likely to lose their motivation when the prospect of external reward disappears.  Extrinsic performance goals and intrinsic learning goals are different. Getting an A in music is an extrinsically motivated performance goal, whereas becoming a better musician is a learning goal. This is one of the drawbacks of grading systems. Students are interested in achieving good grades, but become less interested in learning because of being graded. When students focus on grades they do the work that is necessary to get that grade, but rarely more. When told that work will be graded, students are less likely to enjoy the task and less likely to return to that material after the test. In comparison to learning goals, outcomes from performance goals are shallow and limited.

Intrinsic motivation is strongly linked with higher quality learning. Studies find that intrinsically motivated students are less easily distracted, take more initiative, and persist at tasks for longer.

Intrinsic interest sustains motivation. We are born curious, with a natural desire to seek out novelty and challenge, to exercise our abilities and to explore. Have you ever seen an infant who was not curious and self-directed?  However, extrinsic rewards can deliver short-term boosts.  They can serve as a last resort to kindle a desired behavior or as a symbol of competence and belonging, but the effect wears off and can reduce longer-term motivation.  Intrinsic motivation is strongly linked with higher quality learning. Studies find that intrinsically motivated students are less easily distracted, take more initiative, and persist at tasks for longer. Therefore, a central mission for piano teachers and parents is to influence how children motivate themselves. Only then will children freely apply the effort required to reach greater heights. To foster intrinsic motivation in the music studio requires attention to three innate human needs: the need to belong, the need to feel competent, and the need to direct one’s own actions.

Autonomy refers to actions chosen and endorsed by self. The key here is choice. Increasing students’ options and choices is more likely to foster intrinsic motivation and subsequent effort. As early and as often as possible, teachers should give students some control of their learning. Choice might be as simple as involving students in selecting repertoire, but teachers must discern when allowing choice is wise. Permitting a student to decide which music fits the requirements for their technical and aesthetic progression is not prudent, but a teacher-selected assortment of several pieces that fulfill the criteria allows students to then choose a piece they like. Choice can be offered in the context of tasks and task order (“which piece would you like to start with”) as well as learning goals (“would you like to aim to improve sight-reading, playing by ear or playing from memory?”).

Positive teacher–student relationships profoundly influence student motivation and learning. School attendance, attitude, emotional engagement, and general academic achievement – all improve when students perceive acceptance, support, and encouragement from teachers.

Positive teacher–student relationships profoundly influence student motivation and learning. School attendance, attitude, emotional engagement, and general academic achievement – all improve when students perceive acceptance, support, and encouragement from teachers. Students need to think that teachers like, respect, value, and care about them. When students connect with and respect their teacher, they are more likely to subscribe to the values and practices of that teacher. If the student does not like the teacher, very often they will not do well in that subject.

“They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, ” (Theodore Roosevelt)

An increasing level of competence, or progress, is a great motivator. One must believe in his or her capacity to accomplish a task. Even if students have healthy self-esteem, are interested in the learning content, and believe it to be important, they will not fully engage if they believe the task is beyond them. Hence the number one reason people quit music? Lack of progress and lack of competence.

 

  • “I’m not getting any better.”
  • “I’m no good at this.”
  • “I just can’t do it.”

 

Children use words like “boring” to protect their self-image, ego, and lack of effort.

Students need the tools for making musical progress. A practice system that incorporates repetition, chunking and slow physical movement, when done on a regular basis over time, will deliver progress.

When students quit music, they give reasons like “it was boring, I can’t be bothered”, or “it’s stupid.”  The challenge to play music is not boring; if anything, there is too much for the mind to pay attention to when working through a musical challenge, not too little. Children use words like “boring” to protect their self-image, ego, and lack of effort. Devaluing an activity allows one to quit without the embarrassment of failing. Kristin Neff puts it well:

“One way to increase self-esteem is to value the things we are good at and devalue the things we are bad at. The problem here is that we may undercut the importance of learning valuable skills just because it makes us feel better about ourselves. In other words, our desire to achieve high self-esteem in the short term may harm our development in the long run.” (Neff 2011, p. 138)

 

The real reason for quitting is fragile competence beliefs. And this points to a lack of practice. Progress cultivates pride, enthusiasm, and perseverance.

References:

Hattie, J. 2009. Visible Learning for Teachers. New York & London: Routledge.

Neff, Kristin. 2011. Self-Compassion. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

 

About the Author:

Michael Griffin is an educator, speaker, and pianist. He is the author of Learning Strategies for Musical Success.

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