Edward Kreitman

I believe the single most important thing I can do for my students is to help them to develop their own individual voice on their instrument. When a child has found their voice, the instrument becomes a part of them and can be used for self exploration and self expression. Through music, they can express feelings that they may not even have words for.

There are three stages to the development of an independent Suzuki musician. In the beginning, all decisions about playing the instrument are being made for the child. In the second stage we begin to invite the child to take over responsibility for some aspects of their playing. In the final stage, we ask the child to take full ownership of their playing.

Lets start at the beginning.

Very often a family calls the school and says that their child wants to play a string instrument. The question that we then have to ask is: have the PARENTS DECIDED that their child will play a string instrument? We cannot embark on a journey of musical development on the whim of a 4 or 5 year old. There must be a commitment from the parents.

Parents make decisions for their children all the time. What kind of diet their child will eat, whether they will home school, public or private, and how often and when to brush their teeth. Taking music lessons is one of these important decisions. As we begin our lessons the Suzuki way, we soon realize that there is a very special relationship which will develop between the teacher, parent and child. We call this the Suzuki Triangle. Some would say that it is the cornerstone of the Suzuki Method.

Depending on where you are on your Suzuki journey you may not have realized that the Suzuki Triangle is a relationship that is designed to change over time and ultimately dissolve when it is no longer needed. The ultimate goal is to develop a student who is an accomplished learner - one who might hear a piece of music on the radio, know how and where to order the music, how to break it down and study it, and be able to perform it without the assistance of either the parent or the teacher.

One of the things that changes about the Suzuki Triangle over time is how we motivate our students to participate in the program so it is important to understand about motivation and the types of motivation that we use.

Intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is simply the desire to perform a behavior or activity for its own sake, like a hobby (e.g. reading, painting, singing, playing an instrument) It means you would do that activity for no other reason besides the love and joy of doing it. Most of our younger students do not possess this type of motivation.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivations are all other reasons that drive us to do something. That means we perform the behavior for reasons other than the love of doing it.

Extrinsic motivation occurs when we are motivated to perform a behavior or engage in an activity in order to earn a reward or avoid a punishment.

Examples of behaviors that are the result of extrinsic motivation include:

  • Studying because you want to get a good grade

  • Cleaning your room to avoid being reprimanded by your parents

  • Participating in a sport in order to win awards

  • Competing in a music contest in order to win a scholarshipIn each of these examples, the behavior is motivated by a desire to gain a reward or avoid a negative outcome.

Stage one of Suzuki Study

During the first stage of Suzuki study, we use a lot of extrinsic motivation. Some examples might be:

A treat or snack for good practice session

A celebratory dinner after a performance

A sticker

A game strategy to engage a young child in a practice activity

A chart to color in to show progress on repetitions

A “high five” for a job well done

The teacher’s praise for a good lesson

Extrinsic motivation can be beneficial for a number of reasons

  • External rewards can induce interest and participation in something the student had no initial interest in.

  • Extrinsic rewards can be used to motivate students to acquire new skills or knowledge. Once these initial skills have been acquired, the student may then become more intrinsically motivated to pursue the activity.

  • External rewards can also be a source of feedback, allowing children to know when their performance has achieved a high standard.

Extrinsic motivators should be avoided in situations where:

  • The individual already finds the activity intrinsically rewarding

  • Offering a reward might make a "play" activity seem more like “work"

While most people would suggest that intrinsic motivation is best, it is not always possible in each and every situation or at every stage of development. In some cases, people simply have no internal desire to engage in an activity. Excessive rewards may be problematic, but when used appropriately, extrinsic motivators can be a useful tool.

Researchers have arrived at three major conclusions with regards to extrinsic rewards and their influence on intrinsic motivation:

  • Unexpected external rewards typically do not decrease intrinsic motivation. For example, if you get good grade on a test because you enjoy learning about the subject and the teacher decides to reward you with a gift card to your favorite pizza place, your underlying motivation for learning about the subject will not be affected.

  • Praise can help increase internal motivation. Researchers have found that offering specific and genuine positive praise and feedback when children do a good job, can actually improve intrinsic motivation.

  • Intrinsic motivation will decrease, however, when external rewards are given for doing minimal work. For example, if parents heap lavish praise on their child every time he completes a simple task, he will become less intrinsically motivated to perform that task in the future.

Stage Two of Suzuki Study

During the second stage of the development of the student, we begin to look for ways to transfer ownership of very small and specific aspects of the practice to the child.

Can you make a beautiful bow hold for the entire piece?

Can you be responsible for your posture during this song?

Can you make every ring tone sing in this passage?

Can you play with your best tone in this line of the music?

This is a very important step, because playing a musical instrument is not one skill. There is no such skill as “playing the cello.” Playing the cello is a complex skill made up of many smaller sub skills that all occur at the same time. By isolating individual smaller skills and asking the child to take responsibility for these one at a time, we can help the child to build confidence and pride in his or her ability to do the skill well. This is an important component in developing intrinsic motivation.

Eventually, we are able to ask the child to occasionally be responsible for entire aspects of their practice.The child may be able to do their review on their own. Perhaps they can be responsible for their reading or etude work. At this stage they may still need parental assistance for working pieces and development of new skills. As the child becomes more able to take responsibility for certain aspects of their playing, they are on their way to developing intrinsic motivation.

Characteristics of Intrinsic Motivation

There are four characteristics of intrinsic motivations that are quite universal:

The first is Autonomy: the student has full control over when and to what level they want to practice.

The second is Mastery: The student knows that they can get better at playing their instrument. This has been demonstrated to them by their progress through the earlier material and very specifically in the Suzuki Method through the process of review.

The third is Relational: students can relate to others who are also doing the activity, which is why group class participation is so important.

And the fourth is Purpose: The student begins to recognize the importance and meaning of being able to play well. I have many times said to a student “Oh, you don’t have to play the violin….most people don’t.” And then I just wait for that to sink in. Creating opportunities for the children to perform at local nursing homes or other venues in front of the public, provides the opportunity for important feedback from others which helps the child to realize that playing their instrument is special and can bring joy to others.

Specific ideas for developing intrinsic motivation

  1. Offer encouraging, focused feedback as well as general praise to encourage students to work with purpose.

  2. Recognize and praise effort. Help your students develop self-efficacy by helping them see the connection between effort and achievement.

  3. Make success possible. Begin each assignment with the easier material, question, etc. Creating confident learners will encourage them to keep trying.

  4. Offer students a variety of ways to self-monitor their work. One way is to use an iPad to record a piece and then have the student evaluate an aspect of their playing while watching the playback.

  5. Bring a positive attitude to your practice session. If you make it clear to your child that you enjoy practicing with them, they will tend to behave better for you and be more engaged in the process.

  6. Provide plenty of models, samples, and examples so that student knows what to do. Examples of bad playing are also helpful because they can show the student what not to do.

  7. Take notes at the lesson so that you can offer clear written and verbal directions which will make it easier for your child to stay on task. Students who know how to do their work well, will be less apt to check out during practice than those who do not know what they need to accomplish in practice sessions.

  8. Spend two minutes at the start of a practice: ask questions, show photos, play video clips, give a quick overview of what needs to be accomplished today. These activities will encourage students to want to learn more.

  9. Spend time setting goals with your students. Looking forward in this way gives your students practical reasons for wanting to do their work.

  10. Tell your child how much you value their hard work and their ability to play their instrument. Remind them that it is a source of pleasure for you to hear them play.

Stage Three of Suzuki Study

The final stage of this process is ownership. In order for the child to totally and completely own their playing, THEY must be given the opportunity to choose to play their instrument.

I understand that this idea might be stressful for some parents, but it is an essential step on the road to autonomy.

When should this happen? It may be different for every child and every teacher, but essentially, the student must possess enough skill at the instrument to be able to make an intelligent decision. I once had a book one student playing Minuet 1 stop in the middle of the lesson and say

“Mr. Kreitman, I don’t like to play the violin.”

I said to her

”That’s ok sweetie, you don’t know how to play the violin, so you don’t know if you like it or not. Let’s wait till you are in book four and then we’ll see what you think.”

I invite each of my students to take ownership of their playing. Typically it is around the age of 11 or 12 and the level of violin book 5. At the first lesson of the year, I say to the student “This is the year that YOU get to decide if you would like to continue to play your violin.”

How long should it take? This is a huge decision and should not be taken lightly, nor made in a rush. We take the entire school year to make the choice.

What things should be considered? The time and effort that has been invested in this endeavor. How does playing the instrument make the child feel? What are some favorite memories of playing the instrument? What do they like most about playing the instrument? What would they miss most about playing if they did not continue? What are some goals to look forward to in the future?

Of course, we also have to be prepared for what will happen if the child does not choose to continue their lessons. This rarely happens but it is the right choice for some children. What will they do if they don’t continue? I tell my students that I will be their advocate for ending their study if they are able to tell me what activity they will put their time, energy and passion into.

It is most important for the parent to remind themselves that all of the “Life Skills” that come along with learning the instrument do not go away or diminish. The focus, concentration, memory skills, fine motor skills, poise, time management, and problem solving skills - all of the benefits of Suzuki instruction that have been discussed since day one - will stay with the child and can be transferred to all other areas of their life.

Throughout this school year, I want to create as many opportunities as possible for this child to experience success with their instrument which I hope will lead to intrinsic motivation and the decision to own their playing.

I want to encourage the child to have more control over his practice habits and be responsible for the outcomes. Here is a major shift in the parent role in the Suzuki triangle as the parent becomes more of a cheerleader and less in charge of driving the practice sessions. (Autonomy)

I want to make sure that the student has all the information they need to be able to develop skill at their instrument so that they know that will be able to continue to improve and develop mastery. (Mastery)

I want to make sure that playing the instrument is social, and this means not just with other kids at the Suzuki School, but also with friends at their regular school. Playing in a band, going to school IMEA ensembles contest, playing a duet with a friend at school. Playing a piece on the school talent show. This is also a time to enjoy going to concerts with friends to hear a favorite performer. I doesn’t matter whether it is a classical musician or a pop artist, it must be relevant to the student. It is no coincidence that the Allegro, Chicago Consort and Cellissimo ensembles were designed for students who are at this very stage of their development. (Relational)

And, finally, I want to make sure that the child understands how unique, important, special, wonderful and rare it is to play a musical instrument well. (Purpose)

I hope that this article has given you some ideas about how to help your child to develop intrinsic motivation at all three stages of becoming an independent learner. So that when the time comes for your child to make the important decision to truly own their playing, they will be prepared and eager to continue to enjoy a lifetime of musical fulfillment.

Blog of veteran teacher Julia Thompson

Blog of Michael Wu, Ph.D.

Nevid, J. (2013). Psychology: Concepts and applications. Belmont, CA: Wadworth.

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