As the next academic year looms ever closer, it might be a good idea to start thinking of the types of activities you can plan to inspire and motivate your students, both new and returning. Every teacher has been there: your students come back after vacation unprepared, disappointed to be back in school and lessons, and totally unmotivated to put in the effort they were putting in before. But the best way I’ve found to remedy this is to make sure they have fun with music, both during lessons and practicing at home. But how can we help students have fun while still getting them to practice? Well don’t worry - we’re here to help with that!
1. Practice Challenges
Even if your students aren’t motivated now, students love to succeed, and they especially love to rise to a challenge set before them. I’ve found great success in offering levels of challenge appropriate for each student or group and making it feel more like a game.
Daily challenges. I like to offer daily practice challenges, be that scales, basic instrument fundamentals, or technique training. Within those categories, I’ll assign a few exercises for each, labeling them by difficulty. I try to include at least one “challenge” exercise (noting that it’s meant to push their abilities a bit further than might be comfortable) so the student feels compelled to rise to the task. I was surprised to find that many students didn’t ignore the challenge or skip over it; most were very motivated to tackle it and, even if they didn’t perfect it, they were excited to have at least tried.
Weekly challenges. You can follow a similar outline for weekly practice challenges. Perhaps there’s repertoire your studio is working on. You can assign new pieces to be learned as well as old pieces to review, introducing one or two new ones as challenges for the week. And with Better Practice’s review function, all you have to do is input the pieces once and the smart learning AI will take care of how frequently the pieces should be practiced and reviewed.
Monthly challenges. But we can go even bigger. Why not try out a monthly practice challenge? Each student could pick a piece from their repertoire to perform for the class at the end of the month, a peer performance. Musicians love to perform and having that goal to look forward to at the end of each month will motivate your otherwise lethargic students to make sure they prepare and impress their friends.
2. Practice Contests
Everybody enjoys a fun contest! They’re a great way to make practice social and get your whole studio working toward a common goal. Plus, students enjoy them even more when there are tangible rewards for those challenges. So why not make a contest out of practicing?
Here are some ideas with practice streaks (consecutive days practiced). If each student (or perhaps just a certain percentage of them) practices every day for, say, two weeks, you could give the entire studio a reward. And within that group of students, whoever practices the most minutes or items (total) could earn a small reward of their very own. Or, you can set a 30-day contest and reward the student who gets the longest streak during that time. They say it takes 21 days to build a habit, and if you get a student practicing 30 days in a row, their practice will undoubtedly become much more consistent! Music shouldn’t be about beating each other, but some friendly competition is a wonderful tool for motivating younger students. And if you use Better Practice’s Scorecard, you won’t even have to lift a finger to track these stats. It’s all in the app and you’ll be able to see how long students practiced each day and what they worked on.
3. Group Games
Challenges are great, but sometimes students just want to relax and have fun with music, especially the younger ones. So I like to embrace that and, once in a while, play some games centered around music with them. One of the constant favorites is Musical Statues. In this game, you play music and the students dance and otherwise move around and when you stop playing, they have to freeze in place wherever they are. If they move, they’re out! But one of my personal favorites to implement is a Silent Rhythm Relay. Have your students line up in two or three lines, with the same number of students in each if you can. Write out a rhythm appropriate for their level on a sheet of paper and hand it to the person in the back of the line, then set a metronome or keep time by clapping (or any other method you prefer). The student at the back of the line will tap the rhythm on the shoulder of the student in front of them. Then, that student will do the same. This continues down the line until the students at the front perform the rhythm and you see how close they were to the original, similar to the game Telephone. Young students especially find this fun, but I’ve also seen older, more advanced students enjoy this quite a bit, especially with more complicated rhythms. It might even be a good idea to plan specific dates for these activities and put them on your studio calendar so you can be prepared and your students can look forward to them.
4. Compose a Simple Song
Too often we get bogged down in teaching and learning, so much so that we forget to enjoy music. I’ve always found writing music to be a wonderful way of reminding myself of why I enjoy music so much. I’m not very good at it, but the attempt to create music is fun and rewarding in and of itself. Young students may not be very good at writing music either, but the process is immensely fun for them as, for most, it’s their first time really attempting something like creating their own music. Offer guidance and set simple and realistic guidelines - this will make sure none of them get overwhelmed. You could even have a studio or class try their hand at composing something together with you, the teacher, first. Take ideas from the students and see how the piece evolves and comes together, then perform it for them at the end. You could even upload it to your studio’s page on Better Practice and then your students can learn it too. Something about playing music you had a hand in creating is a truly powerful musical experience. Regardless of the method you choose, nurturing a young student’s love of music by helping them create their own is one of the most powerful motivators I’ve discovered in all my years of teaching. I promise your students will love it.
5. Fun Performances
Recitals can be stressful. Students work hard to get ready for them, teachers work hard to organize and prepare their students, and parents work hard getting their kids to practice leading up to it. So why not take all that pressure away and do something fun with your students after that? Depending on when your recitals are, you could organize a fun holiday concert where your students perform festive music and get to wear hats or costumes. Especially if your recitals take place in the fall, the winter holiday season is perfect to get kids excited to perform! If holiday themed concerts aren’t something you want to host, why not consider putting on a concert with music that the students know and will enjoy? You could run a pop music concert and work on arrangements with the students (giving them another chance to compose). This will motivate them even more since it’s music they’re familiar with and (hopefully) enjoy. Lots of kids these days know Taylor Swift and Beyoncé after all. You could focus on movie music - what kid doesn’t know the soundtrack from Moana, Frozen, or the latest Disney film? In this way, students have a blast taking music that they know and are already interested in and applying it in a practical way to the instrument they’re learning. It’s a fun experience and a great way to get your students excited to keep learning!
For the more advanced classes, perhaps consider a guest performer. At the high school I attended, the jazz bands would host a concert at the end of the year where a professional jazz musician would come out and perform with the students. It was always such a joy to hear and I left those concerts more inspired to play music than I’d ever been before. Seeing just how far a person can push their abilities is inspiring and exciting for students of the same instrument or musical style. If you know someone in the area who would be willing to put on a performance with your students, that can be an extremely powerful motivator for young and older students alike. Hearing what you can do with a little practice is usually all it takes to get students excited to work hard. Put all this up on that calendar from before and your students will be thrilled to work towards such a fun and tangible goal! And in case you want some personal reminders for yourself about when to have different stages of planning finalized, you can even set reminders using Better Practice’s Lesson Plan feature.
6. Listen to Music
This is perhaps the most obvious point but sometimes it’s also the most forgettable. The reason most people start learning music is because they love it. And that love is usually born through listening. I’m sure it happened to you too. You hear a song when you’re young and you fall in love with it and you start to want to make those sounds too. So reminding students of why they love music and want to learn it in the first place is imperative. You can link them to an album or even embed videos of live performances directly into Better Practice for all of your students to see easily.
Finding music to share with your students is the easy part. It’s making the process fun for them that is the more important aspect, I’ve learned. I’ve gone through many forms of music education in my life and nothing makes listening seem more like a chore than a response paper. Writing your thoughts on each track on am album or responding to a video of a live concert with a page-long critique takes all the joy out of listening to music. The only thing that really matters in terms of listening assignments is that it gets done (which parents can sign off on if you really want them to make sure). So I encourage my students to respond to a piece I ask them to listen to in whatever way they see fit.
These kids get enough homework in school, they don’t need more busy work from me (on top of the usual practice, of course). If a piece of music inspires an image in their head, I ask them to draw it. If hearing that piece makes them want to imitate it and try to learn it on their own, I encourage them to do that. Sure it won’t be perfect, but the attempt at imitation is itself a powerful tool for motivating students to keep learning and striving for more. Perhaps some just want to talk about how great they thought the music was. Maybe they didn’t like it and they want to talk about why they didn’t. Some may even want to understand why others did and discuss it with their peers. And, of course, there will be those who find writing a short paragraph about it is their preferred method of expression. I encourage all of these responses and more when it comes to listening responses. As long as they’re connecting with music and remembering why they love it, that’s all that really matters when it comes to listening.