Lesson planning for student motivation

Does it feel like your students need a whole lot more motivation than ever before?

Students today are not the same as they were 30, 20 or even 10 years ago. And in order to help your students succeed it may mean you need to be more effective in your lesson planning.

It’s more important than ever to have a set of guidelines to help keep track of your students changing needs, to make sure you’re optimising your lessons for the betterment of your students. 

I’ve outlined 5 powerful principles to help guide your piano lesson planning. You’d be surprised just how much these strategies, when implemented, can massively improve your students’ motivation.

5 Powerful Teaching Principles For More Effective Lesson Planning

Principle #1. Laying The Foundations

Laying the foundations is all about developing the fundamental skills needed for genuine musical ability.

Some of these skills include:

  • Aural
  • Rhythm
  • Theory
  • History
  • Repertoire
  • Technique
  • Performance
  • Interpretation
  • Creativity

To name just a few of the most important.

This is the principle that you’re probably MOST familiar with and already have covered in your lesson planning.

However, for many teachers, this is where it stops!

Which is a huge missed opportunity to truly understand and motivate students in the best possible way.

Lesson Planning Action steps

Make a list of all the foundational skills you teach and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Are you missing anything? If so, what, and how could you start to introduce them into lessons?
  2. Are you covering foundational skills often enough? 
  3. Are they covered in-depth enough?

Doing an audit of what you’re already teaching will help you figure out the areas that need more attention. Sometimes we just need a list to ‘stare at us in the face’ to become more aware of what we’re missing.

Principle #2. Removing The Roadblocks

remove roadblocks to students motivation with effective lesson planning
Remove the roadblocks to student’s success

All students struggle in one way or another when learning the piano. But many of these struggles left uncorrected can cause serious roadblocks to your student’s success.

Why? Because when students struggle their motivation can be eaten up by negative emotions such as frustration, or boredom. Therefore, it’s our job as teachers to understand these roadblocks and to remove them. 

Roadblocks generally fall under 1 of 3 categories.

Knowledge Roadblocks

These happen when there are holes in the student’s knowledge of the foundational skills developed in principle #1. If you’re on top of principle #1 chances are these are easy barriers to remove for your students

Technique Roadblocks

If you see signs of frustration and low motivation in your students it could be that they’re having issues with their piano technique.

Maybe they want to play something but physically their fingers won’t do what they want. Or perhaps they’re feeling tension or pain.

A good quality piano technique creates so much more freedom for students. Such as freedom from tension and freedom to play the pieces they want to play.

To truly remove technique roadblocks, helping students to develop a solid piano technique is needed.

For instance, helping them learn how to remove tension, how to relax the body, and how to develop a flexible wrist and strengthen fingers to promote independent control. 

For further ideas on technique check out my posts How to help students relax when playing the piano and How to help students GET the true value of scales

Mental Roadblocks

Mental roadblocks happen when your student’s mind stops them in their tracks. Common problems may be frustration, anxiety, confidence, limiting beliefs, perfectionism or even fear.

Most often mental roadblocks are fixed by addressing any knowledge or technique barriers. But sometimes we need to be pseudo psychologists and tease out the mental roadblocks so that we can address them. 

This can be a real challenge and many of us don’t feel equipped to handle these situations. One thing to remember though is you’ll learn more about the problem when you focus on listening carefully to what your student is saying rather than making assumptions.

Lesson Planning Action steps

  • When you come across a student who’s struggling ask yourself is it “a knowledge, technique or mental barrier?”
  • Take the time to test out different possible solutions. This is not a quick fix. Tackle one idea at a time and give it a few weeks to see if it makes any difference. If not, keep trying other ideas until you find a possible solution. 

This is a very powerful process and can make a massive difference in your student’s motivation and level of progress.

Principle #3. Giving Power

Never underestimate the importance of power for motivating piano students.

When students feel they have the power to make choices for themselves they are intrinsically motivated.

Giving power to your students is one way you can ensure their needs are being met because they’re calling the shots and not us

We can give power in many different ways, such as:

  1. Through helping them to decide their own goals
  2. By giving them choice over the pieces they play
  3. By acknowledging the level of commitment they are willing and able to give to their practice

Anytime we (or anyone else, including parents) put our own agendas ahead of the students we are taking away their power.

This includes:

  • Setting goals for our students based on what we “normally do” with students.
  • Choosing the pieces they will learn instead of giving them an appropriate selection for them to choose from.
  • Having rigid practice expectations and progress requirements.

Another essential way to give power to the student is to set them up as independent learners.

You can promote independent learning by:

  1. Developing good sight reading skills.
  2. Teaching effective practising strategies.
  3. Developing the skill of self-review and critique.

Lesson Planning Action steps

Think of any small ways you can give your student a little power in every lesson.

Will it be the power of choice or the power of independence?

For a simple way to give students a little bit of power in every lesson try my Power Play Cards.

Principle #4. Encouraging The Passions

Every student has a variety of interests.

Nurture those interests and allow your students to feel the enthusiasm and joy they have around them by finding unique ways to incorporate them into the piano lesson setting.

Non-Music Related Interests:

Say your student loves art:

  • You could link it to the history of music and how it mirrors the development of art history. 
  • Or you could use their own drawings or artworks as the basis of stories to that can be woven into their interpretation of a piece or as the basis of a composition.

Or say your student loves maths/science or nature:

  • You could open up conversations about the mathematical qualities of music, or the harmonics, or the patterns, or the concept of balance in music.
  • Or you could get them to come up with stories about space or dinosaurs or rainbows and use them as inspiration for compositions or improvisations.

Encouraging students to create stories for the pieces they’re playing with inspirations from their interests is always a winner. It really doesn’t matter if it aligns with the true intention of the composer. This is about allowing your student to get creative with the things they are already really interested in.

Indulging Music Related Interests 

When a student comes to you with a song they love or a soundtrack from a video game that gives them butterflies, the best thing you can do is indulge this passion as much as you can.

If the piece is too hard, create an arrangement together.

If there’s no sheet music for it (maybe it’s only available on YouTube) teach them how to transcribe the melody at home (research project) or do it together in the lesson and create an arrangement. 

Whatever gets their blood pumping or gives them butterflies in the stomach will create enthusiasm. And enthusiasm will be the thing that keeps students’ love of music alive and thriving. 

Nurture it!!

Lesson Planning Action steps

If you don’t already know your student’s interests ASK THEM! Have a chat in your lesson, this is valuable time spent. 

If your student doesn’t want to open up, maybe create a little survey for them to complete as homework with questions relating to their interests, favourite composers, songs, genres. This will give you ideas for sparking conversation and ways to encourage their passions. 

Principle #5. Defining Purpose

Often students go to piano lessons with no real understanding of why they’re learning or where their studies can lead them.

Defining purpose is all about understanding the WHY of things on both a micro and macro level. 

Micro: Why are they learning this concept, what’s the benefit, what’s the consequence for not learning it?

Macro: Why are they learning the piano, where do they see their future selves, what role does music play in their future lives?

Our role as modern “evolving”  teachers should always be to dig deep so we can get to the bottom of why something is important, whether it be small concepts or large scale goals. 

Confusion will always follow in one way or another when your students don’t have a clear concept of WHY

The WHY gives us direction, inspiration, and allows us to outline actionable steps. 

The WHY gives us structure and of course purpose.

Lesson Planning Action Steps

  • Every time you explain a new concept to your student always ask yourself WHY your student needs to learn this. Then, help them also understand the reasons.
  • When learning a new skill set, such as improvisation, help them to see the long term benefits and possibilities this skill could bring them. This helps them to see the bigger picture and frame their learning as they go.
  • Continually check in with your student about how they see music as part of their future lives. Ask them what they would like to achieve with their music and what the piano means to them long term.

The answers don’t need to be profound, but it starts a conversation and gets them thinking a little deeper, which is the point.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to motivating piano students to keep them learning and engaging with music we have to do more than just teach the basic skills. If we want to truly serve our students we need to update our teaching skills to include these other more abstract principles of learning.

But it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. We’re not superhuman and we can’t tackle them all at once. That’s why having a simple set of guidelines to help keep track of our students can be super useful.

If you’re a workbook kind of person I’ve created a simple 3-page printable download for you. Make a copy for each student and implement the strategies for more effective lesson planning.

About the Author

A multi-passionate music professional, Geri has many strings to her bow. She’s taught piano, theory and composition for almost 20 years and is an experienced composer and orchestrator in the Australian Film and TV industry. When she’s not hanging out with her 3 kids and her musician partner she’s usually found collapsed on the couch watching some sort of epic SciFi/Fantasy show with her cat Saffy on her lap.

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