It has been rainy cloudy weather for many days now here in California. However, for the last 3 years California has been in a drought. I could say “I have not been able to go outside for many days”, or I could say “The rain is very good for the plants and it is becoming very green on the hills.” Both would be “true.” I also could say “The sky is clear” ignoring the rain and hoping that the weather would change. This might serve to make me feel better. When I focus on the green healthy plants I am accepting the situation as it is and I also feel grateful that we are not in a drought.

When working with children, affirming the positive aspects of the situation does much more than make the child feel better. It also serves as a positive feedback loop. By telling the child; “when you moved your finger that time the sound was much better”, you are helping the child to connect their actions with the result in a way that enables them to learn faster. This ability to learn and improve is the primary motivating factor for the child. By giving the child an affirmation of what they are doing correctly, we are increasing their ability to learn and improve. Positive affirmation is one of the seven principles of core education.

This is very different concept than the “carrot and stick” approach of “positive/negative reinforcement.” A simple example of “positive reinforcement” would be: “If you practice with good concentration for 15 minutes you can watch TV”.

There is a fascinating new book (December 2009)by Daniel H. Pink entitled Drive – The surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
Publishers weekly writes this review:

“According to Pink (A Whole New Mind), everything we think we know about what motivates us is wrong. He pits the latest scientific discoveries about the mind against the outmoded wisdom that claims people can only be motivated by the hope of gain and the fear of loss. Pink cites a dizzying number of studies revealing that the “carrot and stick approach” can actually significantly reduce the ability of workers to produce creative solutions to problems. What motivates us once our basic survival needs are met is the ability to grow and develop, to realize our fullest potential. Case studies of Google’s “20 percent time” (in which employees work on projects of their choosing one full day each week) and Best Buy’s “Results Only Work Environment” (in which employees can work whenever and however they choose—as long as they meet specific goals) demonstrate growing endorsement for this approach. A series of appendixes include further reading and tips on applying this method to businesses, fitness and child-rearing. Drawing on research in psychology, economics and sociology, Pink’s analysis—and new model—of motivation offers tremendous insight into our deepest nature”.

Daniel Pink cites an important book; “The hidden costs of rewards” by psychologists Mark Lepper and David Greene written in 1978. They did an experiment on motivation with preschool children. They watched a classroom and identified children who chose to draw in their free play time. Next they divided those children into 3 groups: the “expected reward group” was told they would receive a blue ribbon for drawing, the “unexpected reward group” who received a certificate after they chose to draw, and the third group who received “no reward.” Two weeks after the first session where the rewards were given the “expected reward group” had little interest in drawing. The “unexpected reward group” and the “no reward” group were both still engaged in drawing during their free time. These researchers went on to prove their thesis in many more experiments. Daniel Pink goes on to site many more studies and examples of how extrinsic rewards diminish motivation.

I believe this is partially because the child looses their sense of autonomy and feels controlled rather than nurtured and supported. The question then is not whether to use a “carrot or a stick” to influence a child’s behavior, but how can we preserve and nurture intrinsic motivation? Think about a baby learning to walk. It’s great when parents are happy that the child is trying to walk, but it is also obvious that the child is trying to walk because they are driven to do so. I have never known a parent to give candy to a child if they took an extra step! It is great to recognize progress with natural authentic enthusiasm, and fine to have an occasional treat when something is really accomplished. This would fall under the “unexpected reward” category.

When we give children appropriate feedback about what they are doing that is improving their ability, we are helping them learn while preserving their motivation. It is rarely necessary to point out what is wrong because the child has the sound internalized. It is ok to bring awareness to something that needs attention such as the finger numbers by singing them, or asking the child to check to see what fingers are playing. This keeps the learning objective and helps reduce negative emotions related to the necessary concentration and work required in learning. It is important to empower the child in their own learning. This preserves their own internal drive to learn. This week-end I was teaching students at a workshop in Philadelphia that I had never met before. I was truly amazed at their desire to learn. After listening to them play, I would help them by affirming what was really good in their playing such as “The first part of the piece sounded very nice”, or “You have learned all of the notes to the piece” and then give them a point to practice. Next, I would ask “Do you want to keep working on this?” Invariably the answer was “Yes.”
What happens if the child says “no?” Most often this happens because the child feels for some reason that it is too hard/takes too long. If this happens, make the assignment easier and/or smaller until the child feels it is doable. It doesn’t matter if you think the assignment is hard or not. It is the child’s drive (intrinsic motivation) to do it that is important.
Success then is the ability to do the assignment well without extrinsic reward or punishment. In the long run, success and improvement is what will motivate the child and develop the ability to practice.

Inspiration is inherent in motivation. Listening to the disc is an important part of providing inspiration because it provides the model. This involves listening to music that is well beyond the pieces that the child is currently learning as well as the current pieces they are learning. Having opportunities to perform and share with others is also very important. Hearing a live concert is probably the most inspiring experience because it most directly raises our concept of what is possible, our ideal.

Lastly, we inspire children when we give credence, and a voice to their aspirations. At the Philadelphia workshop after a student played a Bach minuet I asked her if she had heard other pieces by Bach and recommended some Bach pieces (Italian Concerto) for her to listen to . I told her that I could imagine her playing many pieces by Bach because she had a good feeling for the style of Bach. She said “When you say that I feel so inspired”. It is the teacher/parents unerring belief in the child’s capacity that develops and sustains aspirations-the desire to learn the next piece, finish the book, the vision of playing a concerto for Level 10 graduation, etc. Inspiration and aspirations go together just like inhale and exhale. We need them both. Inspiration and Aspiration are the basis of intrinsic motivation.

On the assignment:
Finger numbers and note names: Please continue the repetition on these skills. They may be good to do after a period of concentration.
Ready Practice -on each note of the A phrase of Twinkle: This practice of the ready without any playing is for the purpose of making the shifting from one finger to the next easy without having to reposition the hand/elbow/body. Once this is easy, the ready time on each note of the Twinkles will be shorter and the assignment will now go faster. It is good to do one time at the beginning of practice.
Twinkle A: It is good to do the whole Twinkle now instead of just the first phrase. This will help them to memorize the sequence.
Twinkle B and C: Continue to experiment with the way you say “go” in order to help the child have good rhythm. Be aware of the physical changes your child makes when you say “ready” and only add other words when necessary.
Twinkle D: Sing sometimes,and other times say “Please move your fingers, please move your fingers, soft hand” in a quiet voice. Sometimes have your child do a performance where they bow, get ready, say go for them, play Twinkle D (by themselves), and then bow. Perhaps you can make a video, have other people watch, set up the stuffed animals for a performance, or other idea to make this “performance” or “recital” different from the regular practice.
Right hand melodies: Some children will prefer to try to find the notes without much help. Others will prefer that you sing the solfege. You can ask. Try it both ways. Switch back and forth. Also it is fine to sing finger numbers sometimes. We want them to be able to respond by playing the finger we sing. So, try different ways and always ask what your child thinks is helping. This helps them be objective about their learning and separate their emotions from their mental/physical learning.
Time: Be mindful of your child’s natural concentration period. Each day is different. It is good to give choices (“Twinkle B or Twinkle C?”) and set priorities on any given day (“Let’s do Twinkle D one more time to get your fingers really moving and then we can work on Lightly Row tomorrow-is that ok?”). Choose review to develop skill, choose the new pieces to motivate as long as they are not too difficult. Let the child decide which is better for that day.
Day by Day,
Affirm, Motivate, Inspire
Leah Brammer

Recommended Reading:

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