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What Factors Determine Student Engagement?

Piano teachers are fundamentally people who want to share the joy of musical fulfillment with others. Learning the piano is a time-consuming process, however, and many people tend to underestimate just how difficult it is. At a certain point, we may feel that our students' engagement with their lessons is flagging - or maybe it was never there to begin with. But what determines a student's commitment to music, anyway? It's not so simple when you start to think about all the factors that could be contributing. Is it talent? An extraordinary teacher? Parents who push them when motivation dips?

We all know that active and enthusiastic engagement is critical to long-term study and lasting results in any field. However, parents, teachers, and students may all have different ideas as to what satisfactory piano engagement looks like. In my experience, there are five main factors that contribute: individual interest, the teacher, family support, time management, and cultural attitudes. Figure out to what degree each of these factors is influencing your student, and you will be able to plan how best to serve them.

Individual Interest Of course, innate interest is the first thing most people think of as a primary driver of musical engagement. It's widely referred to as talent: that instinctual drive to discovery and mastery that eventually leads to superior achievement. I happen to believe anything can be learned if the desire is there, but that desire will vary from one individual to another. A small percentage of the population instinctively gravitates to musical study; another portion has no interest in learning it at all. The vast majority of people have some interest in music, or have the capacity to have an interest cultivated. This is where the teacher comes into play.

The Teacher A good teacher can be the difference between a lifelong engagement with music, or a distaste, anxiety, or even trauma related to it. Early on, a teacher's job is to train fundamentals, but a skillful and dedicated instructor will also create a rapport with the student that goes beyond the music. There are few opportunities in childhood for a kid to have regular one on one facetime with an adult mentor figure; a teacher who is able to take advantage of this has the potential to become one of the most influential figures in that student's development.

During the first years of instruction, an engaging teacher will emphasize fun and discovery. Later they will act as a cultural ambassador, broadening the student's horizons by exposing them to music and art they wouldn't have otherwise encountered. As the student begins to face greater challenges at the intermediate and advanced levels, the teacher will need to become a coach, cheerleader, and motivational speaker. Finally, if the teacher and student develop a strong bond, the teacher may find themselves in the role of confidant. I had a teacher who once said that at the college level, being a piano teacher is basically just being a therapist fifty percent of the time! If you find yourself in this position as a teacher, it will be important to know how to set boundaries to protect both yourself and the student.

Family Support As with any other activity, having supportive parents and other family members can make a huge difference. Because learning music is such a difficult and complex process, however, family members need to play an active role. Many parents have the misconception that paying for lessons and having a positive attitude are enough to produce good results. Unfortunately, music doesn't work that way. It will likely be necessary to support your child's study by:

  • creating a practice schedule that they can consistently follow every day

  • reminding them when it's time to practice

  • actually practicing with them, if they are under seven years old

  • attending their performances

  • providing emotional support when they are faced with challenging material

  • playing music for them at home, and taking them to live performances

  • offering them incentives to meet long-term goals

For adult students, the support of family and significant others is just as important. It will be difficult to make much progress, for example, if one's spouse feels family duties are being neglected in order to make time for practice. Both partners should agree on the value and time commitment necessary in order for lessons to be worth the investment. Time Management A student may be intrinsically motivated, and their family may have the best intentions, but if they don't put in the necessary time consistently, they are not going to acquire the skills for proficiency. Playing an instrument is a complicated task akin to learning a foreign language, but with an added component of physical dexterity and coordination that can only be gained through daily repetition. Sports teams often demand multiple practices a week in addition to games, and this is in a situation where you usually have teammates you to help you out! Studying a solo instrument puts that much more emphasis on the individual, and thus should require at least as much time and dedication as sports. Yet because lessons usually occur only once a week, students and their parents often do not carve out the time in their schedules necessary to really learn their instruments. Learning to read notation is a frequent stumbling block for younger students. Keep in mind that written music is a very abstract system that uses not just a different alphabet, but a whole different configuration of symbols in three different directions. Some of these symbols even look the same, but mean different things! Without daily repetition, a student may never develop fluency in reading.

Culture Culture is a factor that we tend not to consider when thinking about engagement, but it plays a major role in determining our musical environment and attitudes. We grow up in a setting where certain styles, eras, and genres of music are prioritized over others, and this influence is inescapable. It creates expectations for what is music and what is not. Of course, the world of music is as diverse as the global population, but we only get a small fraction of that in our home environments.

As it turns out, familiarity plays a critical role when it comes to individual tastes and preferences. Teachers have the difficult job of introducing new music and new ideas while not alienating their students. One of the best ways to get a student excited to play is to give them a piece they already know by heart. Familiarity also influences audiences, who as a general rule of thumb want to hear what they already know. It takes a lot of skill and a sensitive understanding to navigate the boundary between comfortably familiar and new and exciting as both teacher and performer.

Cultural values can also play an important role when it comes to the way a student works. Is music seen as entertainment, a diversion, something that is nice to have but not essential? Is it seen as one of the great achievements of humankind and an aspirational discipline? Or something in between? You can imagine how student and parental attitudes along this continuum will affect the quality and consistency of the work that gets done. Most music teachers probably fall into the more extreme camp of music appreciation; if you are the teacher, it is important to recognize that your students may harbor very different beliefs, and measure your expectations appropriately.

Trauma Finally, and this is a tricky one, some highly motivated students use music as an escape from life. They may have an intolerable situation at home, difficulty socializing with their peers, or post-traumatic stress. It's an unfortunate truth, but if a student combines an unusual precocity with signs of general emotional distress, their teacher would be well-advised to consider what may be going on in their lives outside the lesson. We are not trained therapists and it does not fall under our purview to address those situations directly; but neither do we want to fan the flames, for example, by entering the student in too many high-stakes competitions. It can be tempting to push gifted students to reach their highest potential, but before we do, we should know that they are emotionally balanced enough to handle it. Otherwise, our most important role might be just as a supportive adult figure, rather than in an instructional capacity.

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