I’ve been reading a lot about motivation lately, and have found seven ‘keys’ to motivation.  When we teachers use these keys, we are able to help switch on that wonderful inner motor, intrinsic motivation, which drives the desire to learn.

Meet Morgan.  He’s seven years old and has been learning piano for four months.  He is so positive at lessons and is really motivated to practise piano and do his Easy Notes theory at home.  Two weeks ago he came to his lesson and said, with a little smile on his face, “I’ve done a bit more theory than I was supposed to.”  He couldn’t wait for me to open his theory book and find out that he had done twelve pages!

Then the next week, when I opened his theory book, I found out that he had done another twelve pages!

I talked to his Mum about it recently.  She said she’ll often walk in to the room and find he’s doing his theory, and she’ll pretend to growl at him, saying, “What?  Doing music again when you could be watching T.V.?”  He thinks it’s a great joke.  One time she asked him why he’s doing so much music and he said, “I just really like it.”

Here’s a video of Morgan and I in a piano lesson a few weeks ago:

So why does Morgan like learning piano so much, and what is it that’s motivating him?

1. CHALLENGE – “provide challenge”

  • Suggest challenges to rise to, inspire goal setting.  Show what’s possible when you work hard.
  • If this results in students setting personal goals, this can be an important source of motivation

In his first piano lesson I told Morgan about a boy I was teaching, who is a few years older.  He has always practised consistently at home, and is playing at Grade 4 level.  I played a song to Morgan that this boy was playing at the time, “Clocks” by Coldplay.  I didn’t know it would have such an effect on Morgan, but his Mum told me he thought it was wonderful.  He loves music and often listens to music on the iPod, and is really motivated by the thought that if he works hard at piano, in a few years he could be playing songs like “Clocks”.

2.  RELEVANCE – “show relevance”

  • When students see the relevance of what they are being asked to do, they understand its purpose, and they recognise that it is enabling them to achieve their personal goals.

Morgan’s Mum told me that for the first few weeks he found piano difficult, but she told him that I want him to practise so that it will become easy. So when he got to the end of his first piano book a few months later, she got him to go back and play some of the early pieces and he realised how easy they now were.  She pointed out that it was practice and learning the notes that eventually made those pieces easy for him and enabled him to play much harder music.

Also, at the beginning his mind was going a mile a minute and I could see he was only half-listening when we did Easy Notes, but from the third lesson he started to really focus on it.  Eventually that day he said, “Mum says if I do my theory I’ll learn the notes and that will help me to play the piano.”

His Mum really helped him to realise the relevance of practising and doing theory, that this was the way to fulfill his goal, which is to become good at playing the piano.  This also shows how valuable parents’ input at home is!


  • Fun helps to energise and engage the student, and when they are able to actively participate in learning by physically moving and engaging with content, this greatly increases fun.

Morgan is so keen to learn all the notes and loves the active participation with the character magnets, putting them on the piano and the stave.  It’s fun, and is a lot like fitting pieces of a puzzle together.  And the more notes he learns, the more of the “puzzle” he can do, and the faster he can do it.

4.  CURIOSITY – “arouse curiosity”

  • In our teaching we need to look for ways to arouse our students’ curiosity; this gives them the desire to know more.

Morgan is so curious to know what all the notes are and how the “puzzle” all fits together.  When he puts all the magnets he knows on the stave or the piano and there’s a gap, he wants to know what the note is.  And if he sees some of the magnets that we haven’t done yet he’ll ask what they are and wants to know when he’s going to learn them.

5.  COMPETENCE – “build confidence”

  • Human beings gain a sense of satisfaction when they can do things well, and doing something well makes them want to do more of it.

Morgan really enjoys working through his theory books, doing much more than expected, and becoming very good at reading the notes.  In the video he says “I think it’s fun learning all the notes that I’m supposed to learn quite a while from now, so I just rush on.  I want to get into it and learn all the rest of the notes.”

  • When students work at something and know that they are getting better at it, the feeling of growing competence is really motivating.  Realising that this improvement is a result of their effort motivates them to keep on putting in the effort.

When Morgan’s Mum showed him how far he had come in his piano playing in three months as a result of his practise and doing his theory, he realised himself that he had come a long way, and that this was the result of his own effort.  Now he is looking to the future.  The other day he said to me, “I wonder what piano book I’ll be up to in three years.  Maybe I’ll be up to Level 6 by then?  Or maybe I’ll be way past it?”

6.  RECOGNITION – “praise their effort”

  • Knowing that other people are pleased with their effort motivates students to keep working, as they know that their efforts will be noticed and appreciated by others.

Morgan’s Grandma learned piano when she was young but later wished she’d taken it further, and so she’s always praising and encouraging him, as are his parents.  His ‘external’ home environment reinforces his ‘inner’ motivation and personal goals.

Before we discuss the last key, I’d like you to meet one more of my students, Katy.  Katy started well, but it wasn’t long before she was dragging her feet when it came to practising at home.  Eventually her mother became sick of the struggle over practise, and with a heavy heart decided that Katy’s lessons would stop at the end of the term.

On the day of her last lesson I thought, ‘well, it’s the last lesson so let’s just have some fun’.  So we turned to some songs she knew, and I got her to play them an octave higher while I accompanied her on the lower octaves, and together we turned her pieces into beautiful duets.  Well, guess what?  For the first time in ages (shame on me) she enjoyed playing the piano!  And she just wanted to play those pieces over and over – she loved it!

At lunch time (I teach at a school) she asked if she could bring some friends in so we could play the songs to them, and so we did.  The friends happened to also be learning piano with me, so they also played some pieces, and then they all ended up practising the notes with the magnets and setting time challenges for putting the magnets on the stave, etc.  And “voila”, a group lesson was born.  They all begged me to let them continue it, something I am very keen to do, as I could see it really energising and sparking them all up.  Which brings me to the last key:

7.  SOCIAL INTERACTION – “provide opportunities to learn with others”

  • Learning is simply more fun when students get to learn with others.  This gives a sense of belonging.  When their learning is always done in isolation from their peers, motivation can easily wane.

As soon as her Mum picked her up after school that day, Katy began to talk about how much she loved piano, and the decision was made that she would not give up after all.

Besides the key of social interaction, you would have been able to see other “keys” turning on Katy’s motivation during that ‘last lesson’, such as relevance, in that playing to her friends gave a purpose to her learning, recognition from her friends, as they said how much they enjoyed our duets, and fun and active participation, both in playing the duets and in the note-reading games she did with her friends.  Actually, it was the fun of making beautiful music that was the turning point for Katy, and isn’t that what we music teachers are ultimately all about!  I learned a big lesson that day, and I only happened to turn that key by accident.  But now I have ‘seven keys to motivation’ jangling on my teaching ‘key ring’, and let me tell you, I plan to use them!


One response

  1. It was neat to see the video of Morgan’s lesson and to read about his motivation. We have forwarded the link to his aunties in Wales (1 progressed to level 6 in piano) and his grandparents who we know will really enjoy seeing what he has been learning.

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