“I wish I never quit the piano”: What Factors Influence the Motivation of Music Students to Continue or Quit Playing at a Young Age?

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“If parents and teachers could be persuaded to regard an enlightened appreciation of music as a more important accomplishment than the ability to bang out a few piano-pieces, a huge obstacle in the way of Irish music would gradually be removed.” Denis Donoghue, 1955 (White, 1997 105)

I’m always amazed by how many people I meet – both in and out of a musical context – who tell me that although they’ve had years of musical training, they still don’t consider themselves musicians. Usually the trajectory of the story is the same; they take piano lessons up to a certain level before becoming disillusioned at some point in their teens and deciding to quit. Now they only ever play the piano on rare occasions because they don’t really know how to play the instrument outside of the classical pieces that they perfected for examination. This is a similar experience to the one I had myself, except that while I quit the lessons, I continued playing music. I got as far as the sixth grade in the Royal Irish Academy of Music system before deciding to drop the lessons (roughly the same time as I began teaching myself the guitar). Looking back, it wasn’t until after I quit that I actually started playing the piano for fun for the first time.

Now, obviously there are many accomplished musicians who learned through the RIAM system. But based on my own experience and from what others have told me over the years, I think it’s a flawed system. Is there something about this type of one-one-one, exam-focused piano tuition that fails to give its students a rounded education in music? Is that even what it was set up to do? In 1987, when the first standardized syllabus was drawn up for the RIAM local centre examinations as we know them today, the accompanying handbook gave this advice to prospective pupils:

“The progression of grades should not be regarded as a complete course of study in itself. It is desirable that pupils undertake work outside the Syllabus in order to develop repertoire and technical ability.” (Pine & Acton, 1998 314)

Realistically, private piano study is the only individualized music instruction that most children will receive (Steinel, 1990). Within an Irish context, the pedagogy of the RIAM grade system so often acts as the sole gateway into music for children. Therefore, a responsibility surely lies with the teacher to inspire students and give them the desire to learn. But what are the elements that make a good music teacher? That is actually more difficult to answer than it sounds. Values regarding lesson content and teaching methods vary widely, perhaps more so in music than other disciplines. In keyboard instruction, particularly, the range in approach is considerable (Duke, Flowers & Wolfe, 1997).

Anecdotal evidence seems to be unreliable when trying to gauge the quality of your own childhood music teacher. In a large-scale survey carried out in the U.S., students who achieved a high level of competency had fond memories of their first piano teacher, while less-accomplished students saw their former mentors in a less favourable light (Cooper, 2001; Davidson et al., 1998). This doesn’t really shed much light on the issue, since it seems obvious that this would be the case. Robert A. Duke, Patricia J. Flowers and David E. Wolfe in their paper entitled Children Who Study Piano with Excellent Teachers in the United States argue that while the standard of all keyboard tuition is not the same, the importance of quality instruction is something which cannot be over-emphasised. The paper identifies three examples of requirements for a good music teacher: musicianship, skill in planning and giving instruction, and ability to motivate students (Duke, Flowers & Wolfe, 1997). It even claims that the abilities of the teacher are a more critical part of the equation than the abilities of the student themselves:

“Many would argue that the quality of the instruction itself has much more to do with educational outcomes than do the characteristics of the students who are taught.” (Duke, Flowers & Wolfe, 1997)

I asked piano teacher Rhoda Dullea how she starts teaching young children:

“I didn’t start with piano I started with singing and kids love that. They love when you sing a tune at them and ask them to sing it back. It’s developing their inner ear before they go to an instrument. Generally, they won’t respond well if you throw notation straight at them. They don’t like it…it reminds them too much of formal training so you need to do fun things. But basic scale patterns, you would start with that. They need to know stereotyped fingerings that will get them through.”

However, Rhoda added that this practice was usually unsustainable after a few weeks within the RIAM system due to the heavy emphasis on exam material:

“Quite often you’re pressured by exam demands. Like they have to get a certain number of scales done, they have to learn a certain number of pieces. Inevitably you find yourself dropping the fun stuff, the easy way in, the singing and just getting right down to it. Just getting through the first few weeks with scales and a couple of patterns and then you’re rushing them on going ‘Come on let’s get on to the pieces now’ because you only have half an hour with them, per week. I went through a scholarship system in the Cork School of Music where I was in there three times a week. It’s very very different.”

Time constraints imposed by exam pressure is an issue that was flagged by both of the teachers I interviewed and I can confirm from my own experience that it is difficult to find time for anything else when you’ve only got half an hour per week.  Violin teacher Katie Lynn, said:

When I started teaching I had this big idea that a third of the lesson was going to be exam stuff, a third would be improvisation and a third would be theory but in half an hour, unfortunately, you don’t have time to do all of that.

Learning pieces and scales without getting a decent grounding in the basic theory behind the material forces many students to memorise the music by ear instead of sight-reading. Once this process gets going it can become self-defeating; there is an illusion of progress through improved performance but the student does not gain a foundational understanding to aid in further application. They learn the how without learning the why and in my experience this can stunt musical development and lead to frustration, disillusionment and eventually to the student quitting altogether.

Typically, a teacher will just focus on what needs to be done for an exam. You’re just learning three pieces. That’s it. You don’t know what the theory is behind that, but you’re just hoping it’ll all go in. If you knew the theory you’d pick it up quicker. It’s cram learning, you’re just getting enough to get by. It’s just a flaw of classical music teaching here. (Rhoda Dullea)

In contrast, traditional Irish music pedagogy is often a much more immersive process. Learning the button accordion with Bobby Gardiner from the age of 8, I was immediately playing in a group environment with other musicians. We had regular opportunities to perform in a relaxed situation and the emphasis was less towards perfection and more towards enjoyment of performance for its own sake. When I spoke to the singer-songwriter Ailbhe Reddy, she described the pressure she felt around her piano examinations like a genuine traumatic experience:

I hated it. I absolutely despised it. I’m the youngest of four and my two older sisters were grand doing them, I guess they were more built for that kind of thing. But my brother and I hated it. My brother did a few of them and he used to vomit afterwards because he was so nervous. You feel it has to be perfect and if it’s not perfect, then it’s terrible. You do the exam and you get a score in the exam and then that’s just what you got in that, forever. You’ll never be better than that. In theory, yes but in practice music isn’t like that.  I think I became a musician in spite of that system, not because of it.

However, the aforementioned 1987 RIAM handbook states – in a note to teachers – that ‘the examiner will at all times be concerned to ensure that students are put at their ease in the examination room and given a fair and discerning assessment. The teacher’s approach to examinations will inevitably influence the candidates’ attitude to the examination experience.’ (Pine & Acton, 1998 315)  Perhaps students’ exam anxiety is more to do with their own lack of motivation and commitment to practice. Or maybe the examiners aren’t reading the handbook.

It does seem that dedication to practice is a fundamental factor in the continuation of music studies. Both of the music teachers I interviewed placed regular practice as probably the most critical element in musical training. This is backed up by a 1996 paper by Davidson & Slobodan entitled Characteristics of Music Teachers and the progress of Young Instrumentalists in which it is argued that unless a child takes to the instrument and develops a level of self-motivation from within, progress beyond a certain level is difficult.

Whereas a child’s initial reason for starting to learn might seem to be transitory – liking the sound, wanting to be in the band, imitating their peer group – if the effort needed to sustain learning is to be developed, a more intrinsic level of commitment needs to emerge: “unless external motivation develops into internal self-motivation by the early teenage years, it is difficult to sustain the commitment required to persist with musical instrument learning” (Sloboda & Davidson, 1996 141-160).

This raises an interesting point about the age at which it is best to begin lessons in music. Rhoda felt that there are advantages and disadvantages to starting young. While she said that kids are ‘like sponges’ when it comes to absorbing new information they often lack the basic conceptual understanding of melody and rhythm that most older children and adults have obtained. She also feels that kids are easier to teach since they don’t have pre-conceived ideas or habits built up over time, so they are like a blank canvas in a way, while adults can often be a little more set in their ways.

In some ways, children would be very responsive, like I say like sponges. You see, children are new to everything anyway, so they’ve not had any ingrained learning. They haven’t got this one way of learning and they want to stick with that because it’s they’re comfort zone. Adults unfortunately do have a comfort zone and you have to work with that a bit. Quite often, they’ll have very good ears anyway…So, they’ve got a repertory in their heads of tunes and the way tunes go…They wouldn’t have the same dexterity as children can have but they’ll pick up musical concepts quicker. It’s the manual dexterity that comes quicker to kids than it does to adults because they’re kind of set in one place. Often adults don’t have flexibility in the fourth and fifth fingers and you have to get them doing lots of scales which is just as boring for adults as it is for kids. But they need to do it to get the flexibility. It’s trying to find that balance, they’re picking up the concepts quickly but technically they’re lagging behind the concepts they’re picking up. With kids they’re learning everything at the same level. The concepts are going in at the same level as the technique, ideally. Obviously there’s going to be issues with kids who have learning disabilities or dyslexia where they mightn’t pick it up. But generally with adults I always find there’s that divide between…’yeah that’s the musical concept, I know…now why is it not happening in my hands’

Katie also felt that regular practice was essential for development but also noted that, without a musical ear, practice on the violin can sometimes be in vain especially if the students intonation is poor and they can’t hear it themselves.

You have to have an ear, you absolutely have to or else you can only go so far. I have students who’s intonation wouldn’t be great and I have to ask them ‘can you hear when you’re out of tune?’ or if they know why I’m telling them that they need to correct the notes. They usually say yes, but I don’t know for sure. I don’t know how far you can go with it without having a natural ear. You can learn where to place your fingers and that’s what scales are for but…if you’re going home and practicing loads on your own and you can’t hear if you’re out of tune, that’s a problem.

This raises another issue about how important it is to possess ‘natural’ talent when learning music. I think this is very closely linked to practice actually, especially the student’s own perception of which is more important – practice or natural ability. I had an aptitude for music which enabled me to get away with not practicing as much as I should have. Years later I realised that this had a detrimental impact on my development as a musician. My sight reading is still quite poor because I would just learn the pieces by ear and play them, fooling the teacher but mainly myself. Edward P. Asmus Jr.’s 1986 paper Student Beliefs about the Causes of Success and Failure in Music talks about the Attribution theory arguing that what students attribute to be the causes of success and failure at a task will decide how the task is approached in the future. For instance, a student who attributes success at playing a musical instrument to lots of practice would be more likely to persist in learning difficult material than one who attributes success to some kind of natural ability. (Asmus Jr., 1986 262)

Teachers who encourage students with effort-related attributions are more likely to have students who adopt the view that if they try hard and apply themselves, they can achieve in music. Such a view is congruent with the idea that practicing will make a student a better musician and is more likely to result in students who do practice. Those teachers who promote ability related attributions are suggesting to students that it is some innate characteristic that only a few people possess that allows them to be good at music. Students who adopt such a belief pattern are less apt to practice unless they view themselves as an individual with the requisite talent. (Asmus Jr., 1986 262)

However, a 1967 survey by the National Association for Music Education in the U.S. found that willingness to practice showed no significant relationship to the continuation of music activities later in life (Lawrence & Dachringer, 1967). The former students surveyed were broken down into P (those who still play their instrument) and N (those who never play). Of the former piano students, 43 percent of the P’s practiced willingly, 44 percent were constantly reminded to practice, and 13 percent were forced to practice. On the other hand, 40 percent of the N’s practiced willingly, 46 percent were constantly reminded, and 14 percent were forced to practice. Comparison of these results with other instrumental categories finds similar parallels. (Lawrence & Dachringer, 1967)

Probably, each student’s reaction to music study and practicing is a variable which moves from high enthusiasm to boredom, indifference or outright hostility, and depends upon the age, social and psychological factors in the student’s life, and his musical needs at any given period. Although willingness and consistency in practice may have little bearing on carryover, experimentation in guiding students during “low” periods could prove of value in diminishing the “quitting” tendency. (Lawrence & Dachringer, 1967 23-31)

The theme running through all this – and what I believe to be the most important factor that impacts upon a student’s motivation to continue or quit music – is whether or not they have their own musical awakening in time; the point where it clicks into place for them and they get how it works. I believe that the only way to sustain an interest in music is to have that realisation before you quit out of frustration. For me, it happened when I picked up the guitar at fourteen and started messing around with chord progressions. By that point, I already had around eight years of musical training behind me but I had no idea how to apply it because it wasn’t put into context. Ailbhe Reddy made a comparison between the RIAM pedagogy system and the Leaving Certificate due to its heavy emphasis on exam preparation over all else:

I’d almost equate it to the way people do Irish up until Leaving Cert because you have to. And then, you have all these thousands of people who have Leaving Cert Irish who can’t speak a word of it. You’re just learning to get the end product but you’re never actually using it. I wish I had played it more but I just didn’t see it in the same way as guitar. I saw the guitar as being more of a free instrument when I was younger because it wasn’t put into this kind of ‘ok you sit down and you learn the pieces’. I never saw the piano in that way until I was older. I feel like it put me off it. Which is a fault in the system I think because it’s too rigid and clinical and it doesn’t have to be…

Obviously the RIAM system is only one of many different forms of music pedagogy in Ireland and I think there’s a case to be made that if it’s used for its intended purpose – as a yardstick to measure individual progress on a given instrument – it works just fine. However, clearly the lines were blurred somewhere along the way to the point where now, that single half an hour per week combined with practice is considered to be enough for a student to develop into an independent musician. If we accept that it isn’t enough, then this issue needs to be addressed so that students can have their musical awakening sooner rather than later or in the worst cases of all, never.

For the purposes of my research I conducted three qualitative interviews. My first interviewee is Rhoda Dullea, a lecturer and piano teacher in University College Cork. Rhoda trained in conservatoire environments from a young age and now teaches students of all levels on the RIAM and ABRSM examination systems as well as being an accomplished professional piano accompanist. I also spoke to Ailbhe Reddy, a Dublin-based singer-songwriter and musician who spent five years in formal piano lessons on the RIAM system as a child before quitting and becoming a self-taught guitar player. Ailbhe is currently recording her second solo E.P. and is a regular on the Irish festival circuit. Lastly, I spoke to Katie Lynn, a violin teacher who teaches to both the RIAM and ABRSM examination systems. Katie is also an accomplished classical and folk violin player, touring regularly with the band Gypsy Rebel Rabble among others.

References

Asmus Jr., Edward P. (1986) Student Beliefs About the Causes of Success and Failure in Music: A Study of Achievement Motivation. JRME. 34.

Cooper, T.L. (2001). Adult’s perceptions of piano study: Achievements and Experiences. Journal of Research in Music Education, 49

Davidson, J.W., Moore, D.G., Sloboda J.A., & Howe, M.J.A. (1998) Characteristics of Music Teachers and the progress of Young Instrumentalists. Journal of Research & Music Education , 46

Lawrence, S. J., & Dachinger, N. (1967). Factors relating to carryover of music training into adult life. Journal of Research in Music Education, 75

Pine, R. & Acton, C. (1998) To Talent Alone: The Royal Irish Academy of Music 1848-1998. Gill & Macmillan

Steinel, D. V. (Compiler). (1990). Data on music education: A national review of statistics describing education in music and the other arts. Reston, VA: Music Educators National Conference

White, H. (1997) The Conceptual Failure of Music Education in Ireland. The Irish Review. 21.

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