Music is a timeless art that can ignite the imaginations of children. However, when it comes to teaching music to children, educators and parents often grapple with the question of how to motivate young learners effectively. Intrinsic motivation, where a child is driven by a genuine love for music, is the gold standard. However, extrinsic motivation can also play a crucial role in the journey of nurturing young musicians.
Extrinsic motivation in the context of music education involves using external rewards and incentives to encourage children to practise, learn, and excel in music. While some may argue that intrinsic motivation is superior, it's important to recognize that extrinsic motivation, when used thoughtfully, can be a powerful tool in music education.
Reward Systems and Incentives
External rewards have long been used to motivate young music students. Stickers, certificates, small prizes, or even the promise of a special treat after practice can be effective motivators. A study published in the Journal of Research in Music Education (Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, & Ryan, 1991) found that such extrinsic rewards can positively influence children's engagement in music activities. However, it's important to strike a balance. Over-reliance on external rewards can diminish a child's intrinsic motivation over time. The key is to use them as occasional boosts rather than constant crutches.
Setting clear and achievable goals can be a powerful motivator for children learning music. Research in educational psychology (Locke and Latham, 2002) has shown that specific and challenging (yet still realistic) goals, when combined with feedback, enhance performance and motivation. For instance, a teacher might set a goal for a student to learn a new piece within a certain time frame, and upon reaching that goal, a small reward or recognition can be given. This not only motivates the child to work diligently but also instills a sense of accomplishment when the goal is achieved.
When learning flute, it is difficult for a beginner to consider embouchure, breathing, hand positions, rhythm, fingering, tonguing and tone all at once. So I might ask them to play a short piece several times and each time we will focus on one skill, setting a specific goal such as tonguing the start of each note. For each skill applied to the piece, they receive a sticker to add to the animals on Old MacDonald’s farm template. Over several weeks we will repeat this activity, but focusing on a different skill each time, until they complete the mini goals for that piece. (This template is available free from my website).
Competition and Recognition
Kids are naturally drawn to competition and the prospect of recognition. Organizing music competitions or providing opportunities for children to showcase their talents can serve as potent extrinsic motivators. Whether it's participating in a local talent show or playing in a studio recital, the anticipation of recognition, medals, or trophies can drive students to practise and improve their musical skills. Recognizing effort and improvement fosters students’ self-esteem (McPherson et al., 2015) so a reward such as a Participation Certificate is a tangible way to demonstrate that their efforts are valued and celebrated.
Parents and caregivers play a significant role in a child's musical journey. Research conducted by Ryan and Deci (2000) as part of the self-determination theory suggests that parental support and encouragement can profoundly influence a child's motivation to learn music. When parents take an active interest in their child's music education, attending lessons, listening to their practice sessions, and expressing genuine enthusiasm, it can boost a child's motivation.
Parents can also collaborate with teachers to establish a structured practice routine and provide rewards or incentives when goals are met. Self-motivated practice isn’t common amongst young children as it requires a discipline that many of them haven’t yet developed. Parents may find that offering some extrinsic motivation is the easiest way to ensure regular practice sessions. For example, the previously mentioned Old MacDonald’s Farm sticker template could be used with the child receiving one animal for each home practice session, then they take their farm picture to show their teacher at the next lesson.
The Bridge to Intrinsic Motivation
Extrinsic motivators should not be viewed in isolation but as a bridge to developing intrinsic motivation. While external rewards may initially entice a child to engage with music, the ultimate goal is for them to find intrinsic joy in the art. Alongside tangible rewards, words of praise also play a pivotal role in fostering a genuine love for music. When children are consistently encouraged and told how their music brings joy and beauty to those who listen, it helps them connect emotionally to the art. The power of praise, with its ability to uplift and inspire, reinforces their passion for music. As they experience success, derive satisfaction from practicing and performing, and witness their own progress, they are more likely to become intrinsically motivated. Extrinsic motivators and heartfelt words of encouragement together serve as stepping stones towards self-driven learning and a deep, enduring love for music.
Music Education Programs
Many music education programs incorporate extrinsic motivation techniques to encourage participation and commitment among young students. Music grading systems, certificates, and even end-of-year awards can be part of these programs. These structures provide a clear framework for children to track their progress and feel a sense of accomplishment when they reach certain milestones.
I use Challenge Certificates with my students, either for when they complete pieces or for a technical work challenge such as a scales and arpeggios. The student chooses whether they want to do a 20-, 30-, 50- or 100-piece challenge and certificates can be awarded at the end of year recital. These have proved very popular with both younger and older students, and I’ve had a few who wanted to complete every certificate.
Teaching music to children is a journey that requires a harmonious blend of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. While intrinsic motivation, driven by genuine interest and passion, is the ideal outcome, extrinsic motivation can be a valuable tool in fostering a love for music in young learners. Using reward systems and incentives, setting goals, organizing competitions, and involving parents are all strategies that can be thoughtfully employed to motivate children on their musical journey.
The key is to remember that every child is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. The role of the teacher and parent is to recognize and adapt to each child's individual needs and preferences. By creating a supportive and motivating environment and gradually shifting the focus towards intrinsic motivation, we can unlock the true potential of young musicians, helping them discover the magic of music that will resonate throughout their lives. In the end, whether driven by external rewards or an inner passion, the joy of making music is a gift that lasts a lifetime.
Karen North is a music teacher, mentor and book author. She is passionate about bringing music into the lives of children and adults and has enjoyed working in music education for the past 40 years.
Karen is the author of the popular method books "The Young Flute Player" and has commissioned many new works for intermediate flute repertoire in "Lyrical Flute Legends" and "Inspiring Flute Solos." Karen has written a book "Fun & Games for Music Lessons", and has recently worked with specialist consultants on repertoire books for Violin, Clarinet and Saxophone.
Karen also organizes an international FLUTE CHAMPIONSHIP each year, to give students of all ages and abilities an opportunity to submit a video performance to an outstanding panel of judges. Her workshops for teachers are enthusiastically received and she also offers one-to-one mentoring sessions.