autonomy: the ability to make your own decisions without being controlled by anyone else – Cambridge Dictionary definition

The best teachers want to be made redundant – that is, their aim is to help their students become confident, independent musicians. In other words, they want to encourage autonomy in their students.

As a teacher, perhaps the simplest way to encourage autonomy in one’s students is to give them a choice in the music they play and learn. As a child in the early 1970s, I had my first piano lessons with an elderly and very traditional teacher who decided which pieces I would play and selected all my grade exam repertoire. I would have to practice pieces until I could play them perfectly and then I would move on to new pieces. I can still recall the excruciating boredom of some of those piano lessons and intervening practicing, when the same piece of music, which I disliked, confronted me on the music stand day after day. Looking back, I’m amazed that I stuck with the piano, but when I reached around Grade 5 standard, I began to realise that I had enough ability to strike out on my own and choose which music I really wanted to play. It was around this time that my mum bought me a score of Schubert’s Impromptus and Moments Musicaux and I sight-read these pieces voraciously. (I loved them, without really understanding much about them at the time, and that affection for these pieces remains with me today.) This was also a great learning tool, although I may not have realised it at the time: finding my own way through the intricacies of Schubert’s writing improved my sight-reading, problem-solving abilities, confidence and musicality. When I took this music to my new piano teacher, she never said “Oh you shouldn’t be playing this, it’s far too advanced for you“, but helped me around some of the trickier corners, and encouraged me to explore more repertoire on my own. This was the start of my personal musical autonomy.

It seems obvious to say, but most students will be more motivated and progress better if they actually enjoy the music they are learning and playing. So don’t impose repertoire on them, in the mistaken notion that it will be “good for them”, but involve them in the selection of the repertoire by playing pieces to them. Even very young or beginner students will know what kind of music appeals to them – it may be something as simple as an attractive melody or rhythm. And if a student comes to a lesson with a piece they have selected and worked on without teacherly input, celebrate this as an important stage in their growing independence and musical autonomy.

Actively involving students in the direction and progress of their learning, seeking their opinions on the learning process, asking them what their musical goals are or how they plan to approach their practicing, all foster confidence and autonomy. For the teacher it needn’t require a huge change of approach; I found that by simply changing some of the vocabulary I was using in my teaching made the student feel far more involved in what they were doing – it was their music after all, not mine! For example, instead of saying “you should practice this passage like this“, I would ask “how do you think you might practice this passage?” or “what do you think would be helpful here?” – a simple shift from a didactic to a more collaborative approach.

Encouraging students to think about what they can do for themselves, based on their accrued technical and artistic skills, musical knowledge and experience, coupled with specific and applicable feedback and support from their teacher, helps foster a greater sense of investment in their own musical pursuits, which, hopefully, leads to increased motivation. Showing students what they need to improve and how to improve it, and helping them understand the reasons for doing what they are doing, can give them better insight, involvement and control over their own learning and leads to a deeper form of motivation than simply practicing for the next grade exam because you feel you should be practicing.

In addition, encouraging regular self-critique during lessons and in practicing, and equipping students with the tools to exercise self-critique – mindful practice, self-recording, reflection and adjustments – provides them with a framework for success when similar challenges come up later and encourages them to become intrinsically motivated. With these autonomous skills in place, students have the confidence and ability to become independent, self-fulfilled learners; above all, they enjoy their music.

The Pianist’s Autonomy – Part 1: Going It Alone


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The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) has received a barrage of criticism in response to a recent ill-judged tweet in which it stated that “Musical achievement is about how well you can do, how good you can get. That sense of attainment is tested by assessment which gives us intrinsic motivation to make us want to get better. That’s the virtuous circle of motivation.” (via Twitter, 24 September 2021)

The first and most glaring problem with this, amidst a host of other issues, is that the word “intrinsic” is used incorrectly here. “Intrinsic motivation” comes from within. Exams, testing and assessment of the kind ABRSM promotes are “extrinsic” or external motivators.

With regard to learning music, in addition to taking a music exam, extrinsic motivators include participating in a festival or competition, receiving a favourable written report, receiving praise from others for a performance (teachers, friends, parents), receiving a certificate, trophy or reward.

We all have intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in our lives – we are all a mixture of both. If you play the piano for no other reason than because it gives you pleasure and a sense of personal fulfilment, that is an intrinsic motivation. If your parents and/or teacher are pressuring you to play the piano and pass grade exams, or you have to make a living from your playing, that’s extrinsic motivation.

The trouble with extrinsic motivation is the more we are driven by extrinsic values, the more we starve our intrinsic motivation, which can lead to lack of motivation, feelings of failure, anxiety and even depression. Unfortunately, outward displays of achievements or material gain are all too common in our Insta-driven world – signals which say “look at me, look at my achievements, envy me” (just think for a moment about how Instagram really makes you feel…).

The graded music exam system is primarily built upon extrinsic motivation. Marks and certificates (“rewards”) are awarded to successful candidates, and this reward system makes the prospect of progressing to the next grade and the next smart certificate very appealing to students, and their parents and teachers. But it’s actually a superficial form of learning, based on “if/then” rewards (“if you do this, then you’ll get that“), which simply reinforces extrinsic motivation and is only effective in the short-term. We’ve all had students who rarely or never practice and then all of a sudden do the work for an exam, only to revert to not practicing once the exam is over. And putting students on an “exam treadmill” is unlikely to encourage a real love of music. Thus, exam success is not the “virtuous circle of motivation” as the ABRSM tweet suggests, but rather a vicious circle of superficial values founded on a desire for external endorsement.

Exams are a great short term motivator, but they generally don’t encourage students in finding sustained motivation, success and joy. Sadly, for some – students, teachers, parents – certification of musical achievement is regarded as the ultimate goal of instrumental learning and confirmation of musical competence, an attitude which I find profoundly unmusical.

Exams are also a form of “credentialisation” (that Grade 5 with Merit, a Grade 8 with Distinction), the popularly-held belief that credentials will open the door to further success, advancement, recognition and enhanced status. In their tweet, the ABRSM are, in my opinion, guilty of credentialising music – it’s all about being judged (by others), gaining status, “how well you can do, how good you can get”. Unfortunately, it’s an attitude that pervades musical childhood and adolescence, and beyond, reinforced by grade exams, diplomas, end of year assessments, festivals and competitions, which risks turning music performance into some kind of competitive points-based activity, and which amplifies the fear of doing something wrong and being marked down for it – again, profoundly unmusical. Credentialisation also encourages feelings of superiority and inferiority or envy (think again how Instagram really makes you feel…..). In practice, it doesn’t really encourage students to become motivated, self-determined, and, above all, happy, self-fulfilled learners.

I accept that graded music exams and assessments can be useful in benchmarking progress, or to show that the student has reached a certain level of competency, and the preparation for an exam (and the prospect of a good mark) can foster commitment, motivation to practice, and focus. When I taught privately in south-west London many of my students (and their parents) were keen to take exams (this may have had something to do with the affluent, aspirational demographic where I lived). Grade exams also help non-musical parents understand where their children are in their progress – but they can also impact directly on the attitudes and behaviour of students, teachers and parents for the reasons outlined above. The implication in the ABRSM’s tweet is that music exams demonstrate competence as a musician; most musicians, music teachers or those who play an instrument for personal fulfilment and pleasure would disagree with that assertion.

Instead, we should be encouraging intrinsic motivation – motivations and values without external rewards, which come from within, and which encourage self-determination, task persistence, self-evaluation, autonomy, purpose/intent. These values are associated with the kind of in-depth learning which emphasises achievable goals and mastery, and they can set students on a path to both long-term success and personal fulfilment. Learning music is a life-long endeavour and therefore it’s important to consider how the learning environment and the way in which students are taught and supported can help promote long-term intrinsic motivation.

Thus, instead of reminding students that they must practice in order to pass the next grade exam, we should help them understand the reasons for doing what they’re doing. That it’s not about the next grade and certificate, but rather cultivating a deeper understanding, enjoyment and appreciation of the music. When my students told me they wished they “played better” on the day on the day of the exam, or achieved a higher mark in their piano exams, I would remind them that the exam is a one-off, a fleeting moment in time, which may be disrupted by any number of personal or external forces which can tip the balance one way or another. Far better to reflect on and appreciate the huge amount of learning and accumulated knowledge which come from regular thoughtful practising and knowing how to apply that knowledge to learning new repertoire and improving one’s technique, musicality and artistry. All that good, important work can never be taken away nor undermined by any examiner, adjudicator or critic. Knowing this can give students better insight, control and investment in their learning, rather than tempting them with transitory “if/when” rewards, and fosters a better type of motivation than simply practicing for the next exam, festival or competition. At the most basic level, this is about encouraging students to enjoy playing the piano, to find greater personal satisfaction and creativity through the joy of music and a sense of accomplishment from having played a piece or even a section of a piece well, regardless of the level at which the student plays. By fully engaging students in the learning process, giving them the opportunity to play the kind of music they want to play, and encouraging their confidence and self-reliance, we can help them become independent, self-motivated learners – skills which they will carry forward not just in their musical development but also as important life skills.

Further reading

A Passionate Pursuit: the pianist’s mastery


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