Motivating Young Students

5 Concepts Every Music Teacher Should Know

Motivation and Training of Young Musicians


Sports teams in the United States have elevated motivating and training children to an art form. There are many books on cognitive psychology and its applications in the world of sports.  Much of the research and theories are very applicable to teaching music.  Here are a few of the key components of sports psychology that I have found helpful in motivating and training music students.

1) Make the level of challenge appropriate to the child.  Studies show that children are most motivated when the challenge presented to them is something they have to reach for, but not something that is out of reach.  If a child perceives that there is a task that is challenging, but that they are able with a little work to achieve that goal, they will do what is needed to succeed. Conversely, when the difficulty factor is too low, they lose interest and become bored.


According to Csikszentmihalyi, human beings naturally seek what he describes as a "flow" state.  In a flow state of consciousness, we lose track of time and become hyper focused on a task.  Many children experience this state of being when reading a book they find captivating or playing a game they love, like soccer.   We are unconsciously drawn to the activities that allow us to achieve flow.  Musicians find flow when the challenge and their skills are appropriately paired.  Teachers are responsible for finding the balance of skills and level of challenge for students.  Students are more willing to engage in practice if the repertoire they are assigned is just slightly above their skill level.    Repertoire that is too far above them will result in anxiety.  Repertoire that is too far below their skill set will result in boredom or apathy.

 2) Up until the age of around 9, children don't know the difference between luck and skill.  Students who believe in luck will not work hard because they believe it does not matter because "success" is a matter of luck.  I constantly preach that there is no such thing as "luck" when it comes to playing a piece well.  I tell them that fantastic violinists like Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn and Sarah Chang all played Twinkle once upon a time.  Unfortunately, in our culture the mythology of "talent" or "luck" seems to still pervade adult attitudes towards classical music education.  While adults seem to let go of this notion of chance in the fields of science, math, sports, etc. they still cling to it in the domain of music making.  After reading "Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother" I came to an even greater understanding of why children of Asian descent have such a high rate of success academically and musically.  There is just no belief in the notion of "luck" or "talent" determining success, everything is based upon hard work and discipline.

Occasionally, I have resorted to using video to prove there is no such thing as "luck" to students.  For each generation, there is a  "mythological"  generation in front of them.  A group of students who must have always been blessed with flawless pitch, amazing technical skills and an abundance of passion for performing.  For the past 15 years,  I have video taped all the recitals in my school.  When a middle school child is really stuck in the quagmire of self-doubt, I will ask them to watch video of a student who they have on a pedestal.  I go back and pull up a video from of their "hero" when that student was in middle school.  Remember the 11 year old believes that their idol, Johnny (who may now be 17 years old) must have always been just amazing because "ability" is fixed and static and success is based on luck.  When they see a video of 11 year old Johnny, they are dumbfounded to realize that once upon a time, their hero was just like them.

3) If only a few people can execute a given task, it must be difficult.  If everyone can do it, it must be easy.   Until about the age of 8, children hold this belief.  That is why it is important and motivating for them to have a significant number of peers who they see doing the thing that they want to do.  In other words, group classes or orchestra/band/choirs are important motivators because children see other kids doing something and they just assume that it must be "easy" and they can do it to.  Creating a music community and culture for children is critical to keeping them motivated.  

Not only do they need to have a strong peer group who are playing at their same level, they need to see the next level up so they know where they are headed.  This is also very important for parents.  It very reassuring for the parent of a beginner hear the parent of an advanced student say things like "I thought we would never finish working on the Twinkles." 

For this reason I try encourage interactions between my teen students and younger beginning and intermediate students to achieve a strong sense of community.  Teens work with the younger students as mentors and gain an appreciation for how much they themselves have accomplished.  Younger students see teens as a possible future vision of themselves.   Remember the challenge vs. achievement concept mentioned earlier?  An 8 year old sees a 15 year old as an attainable(and highly desirable) goal.  They can imagine and probably dream of the day they become a teen and realize that they could someday be just like them.   An added bonus is that a 10 year old will sometimes willingly do a task for a 16 year old that they would never consider doing for any adult.


4) With age, children begin to see the value of competition.  This is a very tricky concept and one that has to be carefully approached by teachers.  In early adolescence, children develop a theory called "ability as current capacity."  If teachers have laid good foundations  earlier in a child's development, then the landmines this concept  presents can be more easily avoided.  In this world view, children believe that  " I can only be as good as I am right now. " 

Here is how the scenario plays out.  Around middle school, children start to become acutely aware of themselves and start to try to figure out their place in relationship to their peers.  How they look, what they wear, become obsessions.  They don't trust the opinion of adults ("of course you say I'm good at that,  you're my mom") and so they create unconscious "competition" all around them in order to try to understand their place and role in the world around them.  Since they believe "all I am now, is all I will ever be" their self-esteem can plummet.  In the name of self-preservation they start to avoid or drop the activities they believe they are not successful at.   In their mind, if they are not "good" at something right now, that will never change.   So if they are not as good at math as their peers, they will start to avoid math.  If they perceive that they are not as "pretty or handsome" as their peers then they will stop trying to "compete" and maybe stop taking showers and wear dark, grungy clothes.  If you believe you don't have a possibility of "winning" a game, why would you continue to play? 

This innate drive to compete with others to establish a sense of self, can be harnessed for positive use, however.   As long as the focus stays on a "mastery goal perspective in a mastery climate" instead of a "mastery goal perspective in a competitive climate."  In other words, if a student is auditioning for All-State Orchestra, I want them to do it because the process will make them a better player.  I do not want them to do it just for the sake of seeing how they stack up against their peer group. 


5) Accumulated Knowledge vs. Abstract Reasoning.  In a paper written by John G. Nicholls, he states

"In early to late adolescence a "trivial pursuit" conception of intelligence predominates.  For intermediate-level students, gaining in intelligence meant gaining facts or accumulating information by hard work or systemic teaching.  Only toward the end of high school was reasoning (fluid intelligence) distinguished from accumulated information and seen as appreciably harder to change.  At this point, students thought of reasoning ability as reflecting many experiences including unplanned, informal learning experiences-the whole nature of one's life.  A lack of such background was seen as difficult to overcome.  Formal teaching and trying hard to memorize were not seen as likely to be effective."

In musical terms, "trivial pursuit" intelligence means the child is focused on what piece they are learning, how much repertoire they know.  In "fluid intelligence" they realize that it is how they play a piece that matters, now how many pieces they can play or how difficult the piece is that counts.  Reaching this level means that a child has gone beyong just "playing" an instrument, to a level to true artistry.

If you want to delve more deeply into cognitive psychology and/or sports and motivation, here is my recommended reading list.


Read any of the books by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly or Howard Gardner.

Any books by Malcolm Gladwell, but especially "Outliers, the Story of Success"

"Motivation in Sport and Exercise" edited by Glyn C. Roberts.  Published by Human Kinetics.

"Competitive Fire" by Michael Clarkson.  Published by Human Kinetics

"Pure Instinct, the M.O. of high performance people and teams" by Kathy Kolbe published by Monumentus Press



Phyllis Freeman

            Ms. Freeman is very active as a performer, teacher and entrepreneur.  She created and directed a very successful Suzuki string program at the first charter school in the state of Maryland, the Monocacy Valley Montessori Public Charter School, from 2004-2011.  She is also the director of the Maryland Talent Education Center which is located in Frederick and Mount Airy Maryland and a member of the violin/viola faculty at Peabody Institute in the Preparatory Division.  In addition to her administrative and teaching positions, she is the principal viola for the Maryland Symphony Orchestra and a member of the National Philharmonic.  Ms. Freeman has had several articles published in the American Suzuki Journal.

            Ms. Freeman is also the founder and CEO of Molto Legato LLC,  a new media company for the classical music industry.   Molto Legato has created a comprehensive interactive web site called which provides a wealth of free information, resources and networking for and about classical music for parents, students, teachers and performers. Molto Legato has a video division that created a DVD series that violin students use at home to help with practice as well as documentaries like "What is a Suzuki Festival," "Suzuki Founders in the US" and an interview with Suzuki patriarch, John Kendall.  These documentaries and many masterclasses can be found exclusively on




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Phyllis Freeman
Phyllis Freeman