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November 29, 2016

The Best Strategy for Motivating Music Students

No one is good at something all of the time.

Writers, artists, athletes, business owners and employees all go through dry spells– we’re uninspired, our work stinks, our performance suffers, we dread practicing.

In short, we’re just not feeling it.

This is “The Dip” as characterized by Seth Godin in his popular 2007 book The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick). Anyone who pursues an art, hobby, or even a job goes through it.

Including music students. Including your music student.

The Dip might manifest in any or all of the following ways. Your student:

  • puts up a fight about practice or refuses to practice
  • stops looking forward to showing teacher their progress
  • stops looking forward to lessons period
  • is less interested in music overall
  • complains to parents or teacher that playing the instrument “isn’t fun anymore” or lessons “are too hard”
  • claims they don’t have time for lessons or practice

As parents and teachers, we know that music lessons are well worth the challenge of slumps like these, because the impact playing music has on our brains, bodies, and souls is tremendous– whether we intend to become professional musicians or not.


So how do we help our students rise above The Dip?

1. Help your student recognize The Dip.

Even young kids can understand this. Normalize what they’re going through, because it is normal. Tell them about your own dips and how you got through them. Reassure them they’re not alone.

When you’re an adult in a dip, you can get through it by sheer endurance. You recognize that it’s okay not to be gushing with enthusiasm over your activity all the time. But kids might not have that kind of perspective, and they’re probably going to need some help.

In that case…

2. Focus on process over content.

Take martial arts as an example. I guarantee you not every karate student is passionate about kicking and sparring, but every karate kid can tell you what color belt they are, and when they get to move up a color.

The system is brilliant because even if a kid feels a dip, there is something cool, colorful, and public to mark their progress.

Same goes for musicals. I’ve seen many students get really jazzed about moving from the chorus to a supporting role to a lead role.

In these examples, the process, structure, or levels behind the activity become more important or exciting than the activity itself. What a way to pull through a dip!

With private music lessons, sometimes a kid feels like they’re looking at a vast terrain of “I’m going to do this once a week for years without any way to mark my progress.”

Well then, it’s time to make some levels. Or goals. Or a reward system. However you want to frame it is fine, as long as you think, plan, enact, and track.

Here are some ideas to consider:

Personality type

A type-A kid get might get really into keeping a practice chart, and beating his average practice time each week. (Think about the motivational power of wearing a steps-tracking device like the Fitbit.)

Hobbies or interests

You could customize an approach to your student’s own passions. A visual artist or learner may enjoy earning points toward decorating a practice notebook each week. A poetry writer could set poems to music, and work toward creating an album.


We’ve all sat through uneventful or low-scoring games because the culture, competition, players, and strategy keep us watching. How can this idea be applied to music lessons? Could each song represent a different level of the playoffs? Can you work toward making a song ready for the World Series?

For one soccer-loving student, former Piano Power teacher Jackie Arrigo drew a soccer field on a piece of paper.

For every flashcard the student got right, he earned a pass toward the goal, with five passes equaling one goal. Every flashcard he got wrong, Jackie got the pass. (A game like this could be used for any kid, even if they’re not particularly interested in soccer.)


Speaking of games, phone apps are brilliant at taking “veggies” activities– good for you but not always thrilling– and game-ifiying.

Piano Power teacher Andrew Doney once had five students poised to graduate from the same book at the same time. He made an informal, friendly competition of it– a race to the end of the book. His students got really into it!

Recitals or open mics

Instant goal! For many kids, knowing they’re going to play a song in front of actual live human beings is enough to get them trotting through a dip.

Parents have an advantage.

Unlike teachers, parents have the advantage seeing their kid in a multitude of learning environments. They witness firsthand which activities connect and which don’t. So much of whether an activity connects has to do with the way the kid perceives the rules, format, and presentation.

Does the experience makes the kid feel like a superstar, or does it cause them to bang their head against the wall? Can you determine why?

Parental input is priceless if it extrapolates beyond “my kid likes soccer” to “my kid likes soccer because…” Give that information to a teacher and they will thank you for it.

As a teacher or parent, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • After coming up with goals or systems, are you revisiting them to evaluate?
  • Are you encouraging them to explore music on their own?
  • Are you providing visual reminders of how much they’ve improved over a period of time?
  • When they achieve a goal (or make lots of progress towards it), do you do something extra-fun in the lesson to celebrate?

Ideally, “the dip” is nothing but a natural reminder that it’s time to reconnect a student to their material in a more compelling way.

Aim for robust teacher-parent communication, and a deep understanding of what motivates each individual student.

Read more about motivating music students, this time by changing expectations.

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