I want to motivate my students, but how? In the music classroom, motivating students is so important because it encourages them to constantly seek to improve. This naturally builds up their confidence levels and makes the learning experience more fun!
I always look at motivation as something that doesn’t necessarily stand on its own. Rather, we as educators need to look at how other factors in the classroom can complement motivation; things like the environment, engagement, rigor, and a teacher’s passion for the subject.
Motivation, environment, management, engagement, rigor, and passion are the most important ingredients in the music education classroom. They all go hand in hand with one another (e.g., if students are motivated, they are engaged in the learning process; if students are engaged in the learning process, they are motivated to continue to progress). If the classroom environment is a safe and happy one, students will trust us, make mistakes, and be motivated to improve. As we increase that challenge level, students will continue to build upon their previous successes.
Since they are all related, let’s look at each aspect and how it relates to motivation:
- Do you know your students? I have nearly 300 students in three schools, and yes, I’m still trying to learn some of their names. It’s not easy, but I make it a goal to learn at least three new names a day and something related to their interests. If students know that you know them, they feel a personal connection to you.
- What’s the atmosphere like in your classroom? As both a teacher and an administrator, I would look to see if students are happy, laughing, or even if I notice that they’re struggling or having a bad day. Do they greet you, say thank you, or even goodbye? They might hold the door open for you and ask you about your weekend. If you notice they’re not themselves, do you go out of your way to ask them if they’re okay? Relationships are so important! My students see me in the halls and go out of their way to say hello, and I do the same. We laugh and joke, and they see me as a normal human being.
- Do you encourage them to make mistakes? I firmly believe there is no such thing as a wrong mistake but a great mistake. Mistakes are made because students are challenging themselves and trying to work through the skills we teach them. When I make mistakes, I acknowledge them and say, “Did you notice the mistake I made?” This shows my students that everyone makes mistakes and that I’m okay with it. This invites them to take risks and comfortably make their own mistakes. I do, however, always encourage them to make one change (i.e., if they made two mistakes focus on improving one of them).
- Do students take risks? This is the best way for educators to personally assess the environment they’ve created. No one wants to feel intimidated or embarrassed, so aim to create an environment where kids willingly take such risks. My warm-ups for general music classes and large ensembles have been done repeatedly, and I can now ask many eager students to lead those warm-ups. They’ll stand up and perform on their recorders or go into the cafeteria and play their violas for first graders. Don’t be worried if it doesn’t happen right away or if there are still students not willing to step out of their comfort zone, but encourage them and never stop!
- Have they been taught appropriate audience behavior? Perform for your students one day. Talk about what audience behavior looks and sounds like. They should be attentive, encourage peers, and clap. This is a learned skill that will follow them when they become adults and attend concerts. When their peers perform, remind them about that. This will help your students become comfortable.
- Are expectations set? No motivation can occur without structure, and I encourage you to read my article called Classroom Management: General Music Classrooms and Large Ensembles. This year, in particular, I was having some difficulty motivating a classroom of fifth-grade general music students. I was pushing into their classroom on a cart, and while musical activities were happening, I’ll admit that my classroom management was not up to the expectations that I knew my students and I were capable of. I was finally able to take them to a separate space, where I had a nice conversation with them. It was respectful, and I invited their input while acknowledging my own feelings. But … I was firm. Once they knew the boundaries, joy and learning were able to occur (and I’ll discuss how I motivated them later on).
- I won’t dwell on this topic too long, and as I stated in my previous bullet point under Environment, I encourage you to read my detailed article on Classroom Management: General Music Classrooms and Large Ensembles. Simply put, students can tell instantly if they have free reign (i.e. control of the classroom), and likewise, they know if there are clear and defined boundaries. As long as they feel respected, safe, cared for, and know that each of their peers and themselves are held to the same expectations, they will feel comfortable in your classroom.
- Engagement ties directly into Environment (and yes, Management too). But more importantly, this aspect puts much emphasis on the work that we as educators do. I cannot personally tell you the thousands of ways to engage your students since each one of us has a completely different group of students (from various socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, special educational needs, etc.). The point is: your classroom activities and learning goals must engage all students. Music needs to be fun! Sometimes my best ideas come when I’m driving to school. Other times, I look to others for inspiration, but I always tweak it to give it that Mr. Granata flare. You can even ask your students for their ideas and create something unique for them. Younger students can often be easily engaged, but with my older grade levels, I do musical scavenger hunts around the building and escape rooms. I even did a Jeopardy-style “Capture the Flag” game (non-competitive) where the class had to answer a certain number of questions before having 20 seconds to search the cafeteria for the flag that I secretly hid. I recently did “Human Shapes” where I divided the class into groups and told them to sit on the ground and create different musical symbols. It’s a great way to assess knowledge and understanding, but also encourages students to communicate. I show them a symbol (a quarter note), and the kids yell, “We need to create a quarter note! Okay, we need two or three people to be the notehead. The rest of you, we need to form the stem of the note.”
- Not everything has to be a game. Many times, students are perfectly content to sit and learn about Mr. Beethoven’s disability and listen to his ninth symphony. Finding opportunities for them to share personal stories is always a treat and allows you to connect with them. During Veteran’s week, we learned about different songs and sang them, and then shared personal stories about our families. I even told my students about my late uncle (who was a veteran) and was supposed to be on the Andrea Doria but missed his passage when it sank. Currently, my students are very eager to do our unit on the Titanic this April, where we’ll talk about the band that played until the very end. I love teaching units on African American composers, female musicians, and Dvořák coming to America and being inspired by the music of African American spirituals and Native American music (also, you can do such units during any time of the year). Look for ways for ALL your students to see themselves in the curriculum. Yes, we can talk about Mozart, but what about Sissieretta Jones, the first Black female soprano to sing at Carnegie Hall?
- Think outside of the box! Have you considered having your students create their own instrument? I made a video of myself where I took a cucumber and created an ocarina. The students gathered around the smartboard (on their own, with no direction from me), sat down, and watched it. When I played my cucumber ocarina at the end of the video, they were mesmerized. This can show them how instruments are created and evolve—a perfect tie-in for recorders and wind instruments.
- Always have high expectations and create challenging lessons that encourage students to make mistakes, strive to improve, and build their musical knowledge and vocabulary. My kindergarteners know what a flat looks like. They can draw a treble clef, a repeat sign, and a quarter note. They might not know what such symbols mean yet, but they will in a few years. During warm-ups where we sing, I use standard Western musical vocabulary (e.g., “Musicians, try singing this piano” instead of “Musicians, try singing this soft.”). They will learn music the same way you and I learned English. Incorporate it at all times.
- Assess them when they don’t know they’re being assessed. Find sneaky ways to measure their growth and the quality of your instruction. Remember, assessments should not be given just so we can give them a grade on their report cards. Assessment results should drive our instruction, and let’s be honest, students today have many quizzes and tests—more than I did back when I was their age. There’s no need for them to know you’re checking in on their progress: just do it! If they struggled, then you know that’s something to work on.
- This is one aspect of our career that never gets old. I can’t tell you to be passionate or show you how to be passionate. I can only tell you that I love music, I love teaching, and I love children. Even when I’m having a bad day, the kids will never know it. Our career is a special one: we get to create music with children. We can play games and have fun with children all day. We can impact an entire generation of musicians and teach them to love, respect, and understand music. Have fun and show them why you got into this!
And finally….motivation. Ask yourself how it is you motivate your students. At the beginning of my career, I used to use sticker charts, give out prizes, send home practice records … basically everything my teachers at one point used for me. I would give assessments, quiz students, and assign homework.
I’d be remiss to say that I don’t do any of those things anymore, but I’ve changed how I use them. Sticker charts would work until students fell behind and lost motivation. Prizes were short-term, and students were only trying to complete tasks in order to get a prize. I noticed I hit a plateau when prizes were simply not motivating anymore (the kids weren’t interested in them). Practice records worked for some, but even I remember writing in minutes that I didn’t actually complete and having my parents sign off on it. And yes … I need to have some way to assess my students, but I found that traditional assessments (or calling them quizzes/tests) began to stress students out. They would aim for perfection, and when they didn’t achieve it, they harped on it and pushed themselves to the point of exhaustion in order to get it perfect (a word I tell my students does not exist). This took away from the joy of creating music and learning an instrument, and they found it too stressful.
I briefly touched on motivation in the article Build it. Sustain it. In it, I mentioned two key factors, the latter of which I want you to try and incorporate into your programs:
- Extrinsic motivation—Students complete a practice record, receive stickers on an incentive chart, and earn a prize. At home, parents tell their children to practice their violin, and then they get to play video games.
- Intrinsic motivation—Students play their instrument or sing for the mere enjoyment of doing so, and their reward is playing for themselves and others.
So stickers? I give them out randomly at the end of lessons sometimes. Not for anything in particular, but elementary kids especially can’t resist a sticker. Even older students love decorating their binders or folders with them. Prizes? Same thing. Every now and then, I’ll give them something small (like a pop-it keychain they can put on their instrument cases). The beauty of such prizes is that they’re not attached to anything: the students motivate themselves.
Practice records? I don’t tell my students to practice anymore—seriously! Since they have so much fun playing and there’s no pressure, they go home and practice on their own. I’ll teach them fun songs by rote, which gives them instant success and pride. They’ll go home and practice it for hours until it bugs their parents, all the while not realizing they’re fine-tuning their intonation (pitch recognition and hand placement), technique (bow placement and usage, posture), and rhythmic literacy. If they need a nudge, I might hand out my famous Mix-it-up Practice Challenge, where they have to find ten bizarre (yet safe) locations to practice in. They have to keep a record of it and show it to me.
Assessments? Yes, I do assess, but I do it secretly without the students knowing. My kids beg me to play for the class, so … I let them. When they do, I sit there and discreetly use a running record to monitor which notes they’re playing accurately and what they need to work on. When I’ve compiled enough data, I use that as a teaching point. I jot down notes and then casually walk by students and help them according to their individual needs. A method of Responsive Classroom is having the kids turn and talk. I have my students turn and play. As they do this, I walk in between the rows and monitor what I’m seeing and hearing. If I see a student who’s not putting their fingers in the right spot (be it a viola or a recorder), I may interject and model on my instrument and do what they did, and never for a second do I let them know they were the ones doing it. When they catch me doing something and tell me, they immediately fix it on their own.
Try this—assess yourself! The true way of assessing if YOU as a teacher have made a positive environment conducive to learning and growing as a musician is when you’re able to ask, “Who wants to play for me?” and the kids run up to you in a line itching to play. You can easily assess them.
As I write this today, I had one of those special days where my students BEGGED me to go out on the stage and play for students in the cafeteria. We were running over our lesson time, but I could NOT for the life of me deny them that opportunity. The kids in the cafeteria are my current general music students and my future orchestra students. Some of those students were conducting as my kids played, and others were doing Curwen hand signs. THAT was the prize my orchestra students got. THAT was their motivation. They don’t need anything else. Right now, my fifth-grade general music students are asking if they can perform their recorders for the second graders. I use colored zip ties every time we complete a song and make a chain on the ends of their recorders. Again, no prizes. They just love strutting around the building, showing off their recorders, and watching their chains grow as the little ones look at them in awe.
Finally, in large group ensembles (75 students in grades 3–5), I do what’s called Mystery Musician. After explaining it to students, at the start of rehearsal, I select a name randomly from a hat, and I secretly watch them throughout the rehearsal. The students do not know if their name was the one selected, so all students must try to be role-model musicians. If they display excellent posture, participation, and behavior, they are rewarded the title of Mystery Musician. Their reward is so simple yet personally meaningful to them: a certificate to hang up at home, a beautiful email home from me, and the opportunity to be a mini Mr. G (me) and lead a rehearsal warm-up, take attendance, and be a leader.
There are SO many factors that contribute to student motivation, and motivation doesn’t have to be something you give them in the form of a physical object or reward. Let it be something your students do that they can feel inherently proud of. Work on creating a safe environment, maintaining structure and management in order for your students to learn, creating engaging lessons that are fun and challenging, and showing your passion. Oh, and if your students ask you to play one of their favorite tunes… you better break out your instrument and do it! Always take those special opportunities to inspire them.
As always, I hope you find success!