Student Engagement - Strategies?

In this topic, I would like to get some collective ideas & strategies on the table on how teachers in the tonebase community are keeping their students engaged and motivated. 

Being a teacher I find it a balancing act, between being encouraging yet realistic, assigning repertoire that's challenging yet manageable, and knowing when to move on to the next piece and when to hone in on the piece they're currently working on. Also, I would love to get ideas on how you guys are incorporating technical exercises in your approach? 

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  • Hey Igor! Great points and great question. I'm not sure how much of my own experience could apply to guitar teachers (I teach piano), but from a general music teacher's perspective I'm sure there's overlap.

    First, it goes without saying that students differ in their motivation levels. The (rare) students who come pre-motivated need merely to be guided and nurtured. The more common students who comes out of a sense of obligation, or because they're "good at it," need on some level to be inspired. This means meeting them where they are – what music do they already know and like? – and using that to introduce them to something new. Often students already have that one piece they play pretty well and are uncomfortable moving on from it. Start with that piece, what did they enjoy about learning it or playing it? Is there more about the piece they haven't discovered yet? Create a challenge for them based on their old piece so they can explore further, while giving listening assignments of three new pieces: one very similar to the old piece, one a little different (same style but different tempo, perhaps), and one very different. Listen with them. See what they think!

    In general, listening together with your students can be very eye opening for them. Enhance it a bit: have the score open, and extract a little tune or layer from the piece. Even better if you ask you to tell them what parts they like, and draw from that. Play the little phrase on the piano and have the student copy you. Try it with another element of the piece. Make a game or exercise out of it. After this, their interest level in the piece will likely have doubled because they've made contact with the piece with you, connecting their ear, their brain, and their fingers.

    That leads me to your question about incorporating technical exercises: I think it's best if the teacher comes up with their own exercises for students based on what they need, and what will be challenging in repertoire they're about to learn. You can draw from popular, tried-and-true exercise methods but just tailor them to something hard in the piece you're assigning. If you and your student sit with a new piece, listening and playing at it, and you show them the most difficult parts, it can empower them to want to learn it if you both come up with effective exercises and practice strategies right there on the spot with them.

    One could write several volumes on the subject, but lastly I would just stress that, in all of this, getting the student's ear and mind tuned in to the music (I encourage singing to accomplish this, but some students are shy about it) is absolutely the best way to increase their own sense of internal motivation. You have to teach them how music can live inside of them, and when they experience that, just a taste of it, they're far more likely to want to practice on their own.

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  • Wow, Ben, that is the most thoughtful response I have seen in a long time... Have you considered writing an article about the subject? You are clearly so knowledgeable about the topic - and I actually happen to agree with all your points here!

    The answer to your questions, igor , really depends on the kind of student we are dealing with. For a very advanced student, I tend to not assign repertoire at all, but rather inspire them to seek out their own. This is most definitely not the case for a beginner though - unless they have started playing the instrument hell-bent on learning a very specific piece, they will need a lot of guidance there.

    I tend to keep my beginner students on their toes by assigning them very different repertoire from one another and regularly organizing events where they get to hear what everybody else is playing! This is definitely harder now, with Covid-imposed restrictions, but it has been a strategy I've been using - quite successfully, I think - for over a decade now.

    I've been wondering for a while though, are there any teachers here that use a "standard" method (whether passed down from another teacher or of their own conception) to work with all or most of their students? As a child, I have, on occasion, had teachers try to do it with me. In my case however, it failed miserably, every single time - I wonder if anybody here has had any different experience with that! Either as a teacher or a student.

    As for technical exercises, I am 100% with Ben! Every student of mine is going home with at least 2-3 unique technical exercises devised especially for them every month - not because I have some sort of quota to fulfill, but simply because that's what ends up happening!

    Don't get me wrong - I absolutely do employ certain exercises by other people that I've found useful over time (see my tonebase LIVE technique workshops for quite a few examples!). But these invariably form the "backbone" on which other unique, student-specific, exercises are placed. 😎


    If you are a teacher, do you do this with your students?


    As a student, have your teachers been doing this with you?

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  • Wow, such a cool discussion here! Ben and Mircea have both presented some really cool points and I am in complete agreement. I would have to say, Ben, the singing part always works for me. I'm so glad you talked about that. I always encourage my students to sing when they're alone at home where nobody is listening as most of the times they're too shy to do it otherwise. As they do more of it I usually can tell right away that they're more inspired about playing and they keep getting more musical in their playing little by little. It helps give them more freedom. It's definitely not an overnight thing but it works if the student is passed that initial diffidence. I also make jokes about how I'm such a terrible singer and they're probably just naturally way better at it than I am and that therefore they should pursue it regularly. 


    I have noticed that playing along with the student is also very helpful and inspiring. This is especially helpful with beginners or intermediate players but also with some of the more advanced students.  We're usually playing better instruments, have a more educated and focused sound due to years of experience, nail shaping, experimenting with different angles, levels of tension, performance practices etc, etc. That is usually really inspiring to the students and makes them want to mimic that. I think that will inspire them greatly, especially if paired with some free spirited singing and a lot of listening to great artists performing some of the same selections they are working on.  Also very important is being around like minded people they can talk to about some of these passions and the intricacies they encounter in their journey of musical study. 


    Repertoire is also very important and I usually do some small projects with my students like etudes and fun technique exercises while also working on larger projects, semester long or year long projects like major sonatas or suites or larger such pieces. I also will let my students pick some pieces but not all of them. I usually find creative ways to reach some sort of agreement on what pieces they're doing for themselves and what pieces they're doing for me (which is still really for them but I like to pretend they're doing it for me initially and then they end up getting more into it and make it more their own) . Depending on their age, chocolate for example can be a great source of "inspiration" as well :)  

    Like 2
  • Hi Igor!


    This is a great topic to discuss, especially during a time when we are in quarantine and not as engaged as we usually are. I always start every lesson checking in with my student's well-being. Even before being musicians, we are human beings!  Ensuring that our students are healthy and happy is paramount for a positive and sustained learning experience. I always tell my students that practicing technique is like putting money in the savings or retirement account. It accrues over your professional life and you can draw on it when necessary.  The earlier and more consistently you can contribute to this (technique) account, the more you can grow evenly across your career. 


    I always try to balance my student's interests with the repertoire we select together. There becomes more repertoire flexibility as the student becomes more advanced. The guitar is so interesting because you can tap into so many different cultures without going ANYWHERE, so I also use varied repertoire as an opportunity to teach a bit about music history and the composer's life and country. 


    I'm an advocate for pushing students. I air on the side of challenging them because I feel if studies are challenging then we, as teachers, are not doing are job. Usually students are musicians/aficionados - in the first place- because they are curious and explorers. I tap into that as much a possible.


    I usually have students working on three pieces at once, one that is easy and accessible, one that is middle of the road difficulty, and one that is challenging and is perhaps a bit of a reach. Depending on the age, level and hours of study, we work on a regimented practice approach divided between technique, review and new repertoire. 


    More than the nuts and bolts of the music, much of the power of guitar studies is conveyed by the charisma and dynamic approach of the teacher. The best music and studies can be boring without a teacher that inspires at every moment.  In this virtual world, I have my students send in recordings, study with another student online, listen to lots of music, tell me about what they imagine while listening to music, create a musical narrative together, all while also infusing the studies with the building blocks of technique.  Just my two cents, my friends! Reading everyone's perspective is just incredibly enlightening. Thank you!

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  • The responses so far have been incredibly inspiring and thought provoking. Thank you, all, for sharing your insights!


    For me, especially in this remote-teaching world in which we find ourselves, I've found success engaging with students when our time together begins with a minute or two of grounding, or simply creating awareness of where we are and what level of external baggage we need to leave at the door before we begin. I find that, universally, my students, who come from a wide swath of backgrounds and experience levels, are experiencing some sort of stress in their current circumstance. Acknowledging these stressors and actively setting them aside consistently puts students in a better mindset and makes them more willing to engage.


    Another thing I aim to do with my students is to not disparage or dissuade them from their musical tastes or interests. I've had students come to me with various backgrounds (from flamenco to finger-style to rock) and experience levels, and I make it clear that my responsibility is not to tell them that where they came from is wrong, but that what we do in our time together is another way of understanding our instrument. Ultimately, this "other way," with time and hard work, can be incorporated into their native musical tongue and, hopefully, lead to greater longevity and enjoyment of their own personal musical journeys.


    With repertoire selection, my goal is to make sure that my students do not feel incapable of whatever piece I provide them. They will be challenged, for sure, because without challenge there is no growth. However, I make it clear to my students that I would not have chosen repertoire for them that I didn't believe they were capable of playing. Some students will seek to play repertoire that is beyond their technical capabilities or musical understanding, and I'll let them know why they may not be ready for that particular piece. I will encourage them, though, to keep listening and to keep a log of repertoire that lights their fire that, with time and experience, they can become equipped to play.


    Once we get to the nuts and bolts of classical guitar technique and repertoire, then I ask students to set aside their previous biases and employ critical thinking skills. When I hear or see something that I disagree with, whether a physical health issue or an interpretive issue or anything in between, I pose my concern as a question. My expectation, and more often than not, the result, is that the student can critically think their way through the exercise and arrive at a desired conclusion. Revelations within the student resonate much more when they discover an answer on their own, rather than when I feed it to them. If the desired result isn't reached, then I walk them through my rationale that brought me to my conclusion.


    As for my pedagogy itself, I begin from my core belief that understanding any topic is best understood once you can consistently employ the interconnected ideas of particularity, relationship, and movement. These ideas are with the student and I together in everything studied from posture to literacy to advanced repertoire, and regardless of the text or method.


    I am very much looking forward to following this thread and learning more about how colleagues around the world are engaging with their students. Thank you all for your insights!

    Like 1
  • Thank you all for your thoughtful insights and ideas! It is wonderful to be a part of such a community.
    I couldn´t agree more with what has been already said! I will just add a couple of thoughts to the discussion...

    One very important aspect we tend to underestimate is the role that our personal motivation and engagement play in our teaching. When we keep ourselves motivated, excited, and passionate about our instrument, our repertoire, our sound, etc. this feeling can be somehow transmitted to our students. Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach writes in his famous treatise about the importance of personally experiencing the emotional meaning of a piece before trying to communicate it to your public. I think it works in a similar way when it comes to motivation. So, it is very important to intentionally preserve our excitement about the guitar despite any difficulties we may face as human beings, artists, and teachers. If we really feel deeply excited when we listen to a beautiful phrase played on the guitar and we know how to communicate this joy then it is much easier to motivate our students.  It is not some kind of witchcraft, it´s how empathy works!

    When we personally feel motivated, challenged, and creative then it is much easier to trigger the student´s curiosity and creativity, a very effective tool, especially with younger students. Something that I always do with my very young students is to compose with them their own pieces. Even if the piece contains only quarter notes for example you can teach a great deal of music theory with it. Then I let them find a story and a title for the piece or maybe even draw a picture at home that visually depicts the piece they composed. In the end, they are much more motivated to practice their own piece than a boring song they don´t really know. With more advanced students I use of course a different vocabulary: It is not so much about pictures anymore but more about dramaturgy, analogies with our language, etc.  Finding analogies with other student´s activities can be also very motivating for some students. I once explained left-hand shifting with Barcelona´s passing and running into space soccer style!  We teachers sometimes try to find recipes that apply to all students...Analogies that work for everyone, explanations that are always understandable, exercises that always work, etc.  It is exactly like in performing...there are no recipes. The only recipe is to stay creative! 

    Nevertheless, the very first thing I try to do when a new student comes to my class is to understand whether he/she is "internally" or "externally" motivated. Ben pointed this already out. It is also important to remember that this can change over time.
    It is very helpful to find the original motive of a student. For some students, the motive can be to please their parents. Some others like the feeling of accomplishment and they are performance-oriented. Performing in public is something that works most of the time for both types of students... Recording a video can also play the role of a public performance! This was one of the most interesting revelations of the last months of online-teaching! Even weaker students were much more motivated to practice since they had to record themselves and send a video to me once per week!

    So, long story short: Stay motivated, be creative in finding ways to trigger curiosity, perform in public, and/or record as much as possible :) 

    Like 1
  • What a bunch of good ideas! THANK YOU.

    We could write docens of books on this. For the sake of shortness, I´ll only tell you what I do with beginner students (for me, those who still need to be always watching their fingers):


    I teach in a Music School. No exams, no official certificates. I had to face long ago that most of my students (who play guitar as a hobby) don´t play much at home. Wich means a slower progress and losing motivation. We can´t compete with the immediacy of smartphones, game consoles, internet, etc.


    My strategy with beginners is to use guitar methods with short duo pieces that give the students an "easy victory" at the end of each study session at home (even in 10 minutes) or in class. Examples in different levels: F. Noad part 1, J.A. Muro Basic Pieces 1, "The Guitarist´s Way".  This way, it is enough for the student to play for 10-20 minutes a week in order to have something to show his/her teacher, which lessens the worry of going to class having done next to nothing.


    Playing duos is also important, because:

    a) music is a "team sport".

    b) students like to play with their teachers. It sounds good and feels good.


    Of course, when they are ready, I will suggest them to play some more difficult pieces. As I don´t have to follow a Currriculum, I never impose repertoire.  I may suggest some pieces more vehemently than ohers, though. 😈


    Last but not least: we don´t teach music. We teach people (this is a whole topic by itself). Every 2-3 years you´ll see  that any person´s level of motivation makes up and down patterns, irrespective of their activity or skill level. Patterns related to dates, seasons, school or work holidays, exam deadlines, and what not. The funny thing is, they don´t notice it. So, know your students well and keep an eye on these patterns (up-down-up...).


    I hope this makes some sense. It does, in my head.🤔

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