Music Educators Association of New Jersey

Serving teachers and students since 1927

April 2023



Do you have a Safe Sally in your studio who always chooses secure options, pieces nobody else plays, and appears to lack confidence? Or a Hopeless Henry who won’t even look at a new piece because he thinks it’s too hard? We all have probably had these two types of students at some point in our teaching careers. How can you as the teacher replace the negative feelings with positive, self-confident ones?

Dr. Carol Ann Aicher, teacher of pedagogy at Manhattan School of Music, has some cogent insights. In teaching graduate students of all majors, her approach uses principles and skills that are applicable to every musician and is a specialty that she and her predecessor Vera Wills developed. Unique in the field of pedagogy, she incorporates contemporary educational philosophies and brain-based research into her courses. The curriculum is focused on increasing the students’ understanding of their own learning skills in order to help themselves as well as others. Understanding the learning process allows students to benefit from core thinking and learning skills in solving musical problems, as well as reducing anxiety in performance.

When asked “What motivates you to practice?” Dr. Aicher’s students answered: 1) scholarships; 2) parents; 3) inner desire (intrinsic motivation); 4) it makes me happy; 5) competitions (extrinsic motivator); 6) do not want to disappoint parents or teacher; 7) it feels good; 8) positive feedback. Sometimes sound itself is the motivator.

What demotivates you? 1) when my parents nag me; 2) repertoire is too hard; 3) not able to win competitions; 4) teachers not helping me improve or not giving me enough time to work on or perfect a piece; 5) negative feedback — what I did wrong.

While extrinsic motivation can jump start a person’s interest, like wanting to win a competition, it’s the intrinsic motivation, the inner feeling of competency and self-efficacy that really counts over time. It’s being allowed to make choices independently that will build confidence and strengthen the ego. Motivation occurs when you enjoy the process, owning what you are doing. Dr. Aicher encourages student self-assessment: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how did you do today?” she’ll ask. It’s always enlightening to hear what they think. Students need to listen to their own playing so they can evaluate themselves. Suggest that they use their phones to record practicing at home or a piece during a lesson.

How many times have your students’ parents asked you, “How did my son do today?” They shouldn’t ask the teacher; rather they should ask their son. He needs to think about how he did and evaluate his own performance. Will that encourage him to do better next time? Hopefully. Even if the student hasn’t practiced, the teacher can always create a positive learning environment. Be FLEXIBLE. It is most important. Listen to YouTube; improvise a duet; play a listening game; work on note recognition.

Let’s look at five different personalities who may attend your piano studio and consider how to engage them in more positive learning.

  1. Anxious Ann. Ann is an average student, an underachiever who lacks self-confidence. She constantly makes excuses, complains of headaches, doesn’t have time to practice, has too much homework. You know this girl. What to do? First, let’s help her to set her own goals. “Ann, how many times do you want to practice with each hand?” for example. Little things. Let her choose her own pieces. As the teacher, play more than one piece and give her the option to choose what she likes. Inspire her to attend concerts or listen to performers on YouTube. Make performing in recitals optional; wait ‘til she’s ready and feeling confident; then perhaps ask her, “Would you like to be in a recital?” Always give her positive feedback about what you think she’s doing well, even if it seems insignificant.
  2. Safe Sally. Sally is also an underachiever. She may look self-confident, but she is motivated not to fail. This is why she chooses easier pieces that no one else plays; she doesn’t have to compete with anyone. So, play a variety of selections and encourage her to choose what she wants to play. Express your enjoyment of her choices and compliment her strengths as she masters those pieces. Keep trying to expand her repertoire so she can advance her level of play and not just play it safe all the time.
  3. Hopeless Henry. Another underachiever, Henry views himself as not succeeding. He won’t look at a new piece because he knows it’s just too difficult. So start small, perhaps practice with him only small sections at a time. Have him set the goals: only four measures? Maybe 8? Create a comfortable environment for him with positive feedback. Be honest and compliment him when he does certain things well. Correct fingering? A nice legato phrase? But be honest, that’s most important.
  4. Satisfied Susan. Susan is motivated to play only what interests her. She’s not really present in the lesson and has a relatively short attention span. The attention span for adults averages 18 to 20 minutes; students average less, so it is a challenge to engage piano students to concentrate for a full lesson. Once you have an idea what Susan’s interests are, however, you can suggest pieces that relate to them. Playing duets may also help to engage her curiosity about learning, since being with a partner is more social and demands her attention in order to succeed.
  5. Defensive Dan. Dan wants to avoid looking dumb. He is absolutely petrified about playing wrong notes. By not trying, he avoids that scenario and covers up his lack of practicing. We need to allow students to make mistakes. It’s OK; it’s not a wrong note, you just misread. Here again, help Dan choose his own pieces. Try shorter pieces that can be easily learned so he can acquire a sense of accomplishment quicker. Reassure him that it’s OK to make mistakes. Help him gain self-confidence by helping him to own his pieces. Self-assessment works here too. What do you feel you have accomplished this week, Dan? What do you think you can accomplish next week?

The learning environment is fundamentally important. When asked what the qualities of their best teachers are, Dr. Aicher’s graduate students said they were patient, kind and they listened. The teacher/student relationship makes all the difference. It’s what may lead to your greatest accomplishment as a teacher — that your students will enjoy music for a lifetime.

Carol Ann Aicher surrounded by a few of the meeting’s attendees: (L to R) Charlene Step, Ruth Kotik, MEA President Danette Whelan, Beverly Shea, and Aziza Khasanova-Madaski

Carol Ann Aicher earned her doctorate of education from Columbia University Teachers College; a Master of Music degree in piano performance from Manhattan School of Music; a piano pedagogy certificate from MSM’s Piano Pedagogy Institute; and a Bachelor of Music degree in piano performance with a minor in music history from Oberlin College Conservatory.


Charlene Step
Writer and Page Designer