It’s about Motivation (even with a Fancy-Schmancy name)

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I just love it when I discover that I’ve doing something that really has a 'fancy-schmancy' name.  Somehow, I feel validated...dare I say, important?  

What I’m talking about is called the “Self-Determination Theory.” It was coined by two psychologists,  Richard Ryan and Edward Deci.

I promise not to toss a bunch of esoteric psycho-theory at you in this post.  But, Edward Deci said something really profound.  Lately, I have been trying to sink my teeth into it.

"It's not your job to motivate students. It is your job to create the environments in which students will motivate themselves.”  

That’s your job.  That’s mine.

I heard a podcast this week on the three basic psychological needs.  Let's translate this into our students/children for a moment -- what are the three basic needs of our students?

Autonomy:  Everybody wants to have autonomy.  No one wants to feel like they are constantly under someone’s control, or living under someone else’s decisions.  Especially not teenagers!

If you never get to make your own decisions, you’ll never be happy.  

Competence:  We all need to have ‘Goldilocks tasks.’  Not too hard. Not too easy. But, just right.  

As a teacher, sometimes I don’t get this right.  Especially, when I leave the lesson book in search of that ‘obscure’ piece of music that your student is just ‘dying’ to play!  Often, we end up biting off ‘more than we can chew,’ so to speak.

Relatedness:  We all need to feel purpose in what we are doing, that what we’re doing matters to someone else.  If relatedness is missing, then that activity starts to lose its meaning. Hold on to that thought.  I’ll circle back around to it.

As parents/teachers, we get our students/children to motivate themselves by creating space for these three things to happen. 

Whew!  Psychology class is over.  Here’s the rub.

Let’s go back to autonomy, mom, dad, teachers (I’m talking to myself, here).  Your child wants to have choice over their destiny and what they are doing.  This is why your 4- year-old wants to go to the library in her bathing suit and a tutu in February!  This is why my teen-aged son grew his hair to his shoulders for one very long year.

Autonomy: having choice over what they are doing.  Here is a quote from a former music student.  (Not mine, I might add...)  I feel like his sentiment resonates with many adults, today.

"I felt like I was forced to play it in the first place and then forced to practice music that was not of my choosing."

He quit. (Are you surprised?)

I love that there is so much piano music floating around for all levels.  The internet and music sharing sites are great for that. If your child doesn’t want a beginner level of “Fur Elise” stuffed down his throat, I can offer Disney’s “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” just as easily.

So, like it or not, if you are looking for a “Classical piano teacher,” meaning a teacher that teaches only Classical pieces and not a variety of genres, I’m probably not your gal.  I believe that students thrive on choice … the choice may only be between three pieces in their lesson book … but I try to offer a choice when I can.

As a teacher, competence is sometimes hard to get right.  Take our upcoming Spring Recital, for instance.  Each student is playing one of their favorite person’s favorite songs. I tried, but, when I arranged some pieces on the beginner student level, I missed the mark.  Some pieces were too hard, while others were too easy. I do believe that now we’ve got most of those baubles ironed out!

This is where the “lesson” book is invaluable.    Just like a “graded” reading list for first graders, the lesson book provides challenge in just the right increments.   

At my 2017 Halloween workshop, one of the questions I asked my students was:  “Would you rather play a song out of your lesson book or make up your own?”

Guess what?  Nine out of 10 students said, “play a song out of their lesson book.”  

I was floored.

As you may know, I really value this concept of relatedness.  It is highly motivating to see someone doing the same things you are doing.   

Take my two middle sons, for example.  Each stayed in the school band program for eight years.  Did they take lessons for their respective instrument? No.  (And believe me, I offered.  More than once!) Did they try for awards, ensembles, solos, etc?  Not often.  

The reason they stayed in band was mostly social.  Their people were in the band.

I secretly wonder if one of my kids would have graduated if it weren’t for the director and his peers in the band program. (Not really, but you get the point!)  Case in point: even if they don’t get to play the music they want, they are with peers doing the same things they are doing.  And, that made all the difference in the world!

Piano is solitary.  There’s no way around it.  Practice is a lonely task.

To help balance the “solitary” component, however, I try to let my students have some choice in their repertoire.  

After all, playing a pop song, a beautiful movie theme, or a well-known classical piece can be a huge “Chick Magnet.” And, attracting peers while you are playing the piano has a large social component!

I am also a HUGE proponent of recital performance.  At recital time, students regularly ask, “What’s ‘so-and-so’ playing?”  Students can’t wait to see if they’ve moved down the “recital ranks”  in their piano family. Relatedness.

So, before I even knew that this ‘Self Determination Theory’ was a thing, I have been deeply committed to it. 

It just makes sense.  I’m human. You are human.  And, our students/children most certainly are human.


2 thoughts on “It’s about Motivation (even with a Fancy-Schmancy name)

  1. This is great! You do a very good job of meeting my kid where he “is at,” on level, and also challenging him and allowing autonomy.

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