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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 10, No. 1

How Teachers Motivate

by Eric Ginestier / September 9, 2004

Recently LSM interviewed several respected music teachers to find out how they deal with the problem of motivating their students.

Gordon Clements, a classical and jazz clarinettist, saxophonist, and flutist, has been teaching music for the last 25 years in the Victoria area. He currently works for Brentwood College School as well as the Victoria Conservatory of Music.

Bella Pugachevsky, a Russian-trained classical pianist, has been teaching for 37 years. Her students mostly range from around five years of age to the pre-university level. Ms Pugachevsky has been with the McGill Conservatory since 1983.

Frances Unsworth has been with the McGill Conservatory since 1986. She is now the string coordinator there. Originally, she learned the violin in Manchester, UK, later earning two degrees from McGill University.

LSM: How common is it for you to see a lack of motivation among your students?

BP: Any child willing to learn an instrument -- any child -- will get lazy at a certain point. It's against a child's nature to sit at a piano and practice.

LSM: What lies at the root of this problem?

FU: The majority of kids love coming to their lessons, but they can't stand having to practice; it's like homework. For the younger children, it's a question of just being able to stand still and actually do something concentrated for 45 minutes, and with the older children, it's just one more thing in the list of commitments.

LSM: What sorts of techniques do you use to motivate students?

GC: Providing positive, immediate feedback on students' basic, musical skills is important; and also, finding exercises which provide the biggest bang for the buck. In my own playing, I discovered that a lot of the traditional exercises I'd been given over the years didn't really accomplish as much as I needed them to accomplish. So I've looked over the years for exercises that would help students achieve a great deal in a short period of time.

BP: First of all, there must be a personal contact. You have to take time to talk to a student, to make him understand that he is special, and to make him comfortable, both mentally and physically.

If they are old enough say nine or ten years old I make it clear to them that music is a big commitment. Then a teacher has to be careful not to overload the student with work, to teach at the pace the student is comfortable with.

Also, one has to remember to keep things interesting. This means that I try to have a lot of variety in lessons, especially with younger students: five minutes of movement, five minutes of listening, five minutes of musical games.

FU: The approach is much harder with teenagers because they have a lot of changes in their academic life, and very often the music suffers. At that point you're either motivating with exams, or festivals, or concerts; you're also setting personal goals. Very often they'll want to play some popular music, and so then it becomes I don't like to use the word a sort of bargaining: we'll do some of your stuff, then we'll do some of my stuff. Also, what becomes very important especially as they get older is to ensure there is some sort of social aspect to their playing. When they begin playing with other children, they start to motivate one another.

LSM: What kind of role should parents play in the whole process?

FU: With the younger children you have to explore the same sort of things that you require in order for them to do homework or the dishes, whether it's stickers on the fridge or some kind of calendar system, a reward for a week or a month that has been completed properly.

As for the older children, I suppose my biggest advice would be for parents to know just how difficult it can be. It's as big as homework, and it becomes a family commitment, because it's one more thing for mom or dad to bug them about and you will have to bug them, even with the most motivated child.

BP: I'll tell you about my mother. She never played an instrument, but when I started I was about six and a half, and my mom was following the lessons with me for about the first two year. After that, she could not really follow any more, but she was present; she would practice with me.

LSM: What kind of role should the child play in his/her motivation?

GC: In any community, you'll find whole groups of music teachers who have different approaches, different personalities, different attitudes, and I think it's important that the student find the right one. If at some point you feel that he isn't pointing you in the right direction, you should either ask him for different advice or look for another teacher.

FU: For the elementary school level, I don't think they should have very much responsibility; I think it lies on the teacher and it lies on the parent. As they become teenagers, more of the responsibility should belong to the students. They should be wanting to come to the lesson and do their best, and if they can't, they should be embarrassed about it. That in itself, at that age, can become enough of a motivator.

LSM: How much of a factor was a lack of motivation in your own experience of learning to play an instrument, and what helped you stay interested?

GC: When I got to high school, I had been playing for a while, and a friend of mine also had been playing for a while on clarinet. I wanted to get as good as he was, and he wanted to make sure he stayed better than me, so we played off of each other through high school, the best of friends. With me it was a little weird in that I didn't get private lessons regularly until after I finished high school, but I played in a lot of groups. So obviously for me, as a youngster, that group experience was a big deal. That's where most, if not all of my gratification came from; that, and the progress I made on the instrument.

FU: I used to find any way possible not to practice, right down to things like tape-recording myself playing and playing it back later so that my parents would think I was doing it. What worked for me to keep me interested, though, was that as I got older, I would hear of an orchestra going on tour. I remember the first time, I was about 11, and I was told that the senior orchestra was going on tour all through the south of France well, there was no way I was not going to do that.

BP: In the beginning, I was very unhappy. But when I entered high school, I was very lucky to have a wonderful teacher. She was young, maybe 24, in the last year at the conservatory. She was a good pianist, bright, young, and full of life. And all of a sudden, I just woke up. I made huge progress in my playing because I was so motivated by her example, and because we had so much fun. It was because of her that I decided to become a musician.

(c) La Scena Musicale