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February 2004

Motivating your student/child to practice

by Julie Tebbs

I have been teaching for about 18 years and I've come to the conclusion that motivation is one of the most important things I can give my students. Even a student who has great natural ability will get nowhere if they have no motivation to get better. There are many ways to motivate students to continue practicing. These methods work for teachers as well as parents helping students practice at home.

The first and probably most widely used method is stickers! It always amazes me to see the power of stickers. I keep an assortment of stickers in my violin case and students see them every time I get out my instrument (actually this is a throw-back from when I taught in college in the practice rooms -- I had to keep everything I would need in my case. It now contains stickers, pencils, fingernail clippers, rubberbands, tissues, as well as the usual tuning fork, shoulder rest and extra strings). My students get a sticker for their piece when they can play it correctly at a consistent tempo, with no stopping, and memorized. This works well for the beginners as the songs are short. Older students who still like stickers (I find they work at least through age 11) get one sticker for knowing the piece well, and another for memorizing.

Group lessons and ensemble playing are also very helpful for all ages. I don't actually incorporate group lessons into my routine because I teach very few students in my studio due to other family commitments. But I do recommend that my students participate in an orchestra or other ensemble. We have a great youth orchestra in our area (, and this is a great motivator for learning to play the instrument better.

I also require that my students play in our semi-annual recitals each year. I give my adult beginner students a choice of whether to play, but the younger students (18 and younger) are required to play. It is amazing how the practice gets better and pieces get perfected when a recital is coming up. Recitals give the students (and parents too!) a great sense of accomplishment. It is almost like a report card for violin lessons. Parents get to hear the progress their child has made over the last six months, and students learn skills that can't be learned in the lessons, such as poise, handling nerves, etc.

Listening to other violinists in person and on recordings also motivates students. I suggest taking students to the symphony or to hear chamber music performances or folk music or fiddle music bands, any group that involves their instrument played in a variety of genres. We all need heroes to look up to.

One other suggestion I want to make is that sometimes change is a good thing. I've occasionally had a student whom after studying with me for 4 or 5 years, was having a really hard time being motivated to keep working despite of everything I had tried. In one or two of these situations I have recommended that the parents find another teacher for the student. Sometimes another teacher's fresh approach and different techniques is just what the student needs to get jump started again.

Reader comments about motivation:

From Janet: I have not always enjoyed practicing but one thing that really attracted me to play better was when I was able to play the pieces that I had enjoyed, getting involved in orchestra, getting encouragements from parents, having parental help during the practice times (even though parents can get a bit tough). Its definitely worth the effort and it was more fun to do. Also,... monetary awards as well as when we went to competitions,... having other parents tell me how good I am and what not. I don't know but that always helped me.

From the parent of an 8 year old violin student: When my son who is student at Peabody Conservatory Preparatory won't practice I take his violin and attempt to play ( totally destroying the song! ) and he runs in and take the violin and corrects me. He uses all the dynamics and everything his teacher taught him. That's one way I get him to practice and have fun doing it.

From Jennifer, a violin teacher in UT: We have clubs here. At group lesson every month we check our practicing minutes club and whoever has reached the goal (a certain number of minutes per age group/level) gets a prize such as a Cat in the Hat pencil. We also have the hundred days of practicing club and the people who achieve that goal (in a row with no days off) get a nice prize (recently the 2 girls who did that got glitter nail polish I found on sale somewhere...perhaps not appropriate for violinists, but you get the idea!). Another motivator I have is the graduating book idea. In Book 3 we do Book 1 review intensely and graduate all the pieces so that I don't hear them again except in different guises such as in the 3rd position or for vibrato practice or transposing or in groups as doesn't mean that the students don't play the pieces again it just means they are experts at the way they were originally played. I print out a very nice diploma for this achievement and they get a nice prize as well. I also print out diplomas for Federation (Congratulations Sarah you participated in Federation 2004 as a studio member) and for recitals and present them on stage. I tend to give stickers at every lesson just for being vertical, and the reward for the pieces is that they become review pieces.