Motivating Students to Musical Success

Motivating Students to Musical Success

In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink presents research on motivation, along with some case studies, and proposes that the three keys to internal motivation are: Autonomy, Master, and Purpose (AMP). While the book only discusses music briefly, I found it to be powerfully relevant to the needs of my students. Below I share some ways I have transformed my teaching as a result.

My Experience

I stumbled upon Drive at a time when I was building a program and struggling with motivating my new students. As I read, I soon realized the disconnect in my instructional approaches. Most notably, absent in my teaching was the idea of allowing students autonomy in their learning. In education, we call autonomy by another word; differentiation.

Having worked for a few micromanagers in the past, the examples in the book resonated with me. When I was micromanaged, my motivation waned, and I took fewer risks. I found myself waiting to be told what to do, when to do, how to do it, and devoted little time to thinking about how to improve. As I read Drive, I came to the difficult realization that I was similarly compromising my students’ self-direction.


We all know that our students are very diverse in how they learn, when they learn, what they enjoy learning, and what motivates them to learn. We see the range of their musical abilities daily in our classes. Yet, all too often, we provide our students with a one-size-fits-all approach. For much of my career, I had micromanaged the learning experiences of my students.

Additionally, I struggled with motivating the student who was “good with being good” and reaching the student who had decided they were never succeeding on their instrument. Like many people, I find the act of teaching the top-tier students to be straight-forward. Keeping these students engaged can sometimes be a challenge, but they usually take care of themselves. However, teaching the best and ignoring the rest is no way to build a program. I knew I needed to do a better job of reaching those other students.

Running their Own Musical Race

It is important for us to remember that every student is running their own unique musical race, and the only person they are trying to outrun is themselves. We should strive to create an environment which allows them to run that race.

If you have watched or participated in a long-distance running race, you likely noticed that the group of racers trying to finish first is relatively small. As time moves on the number of runners completing the race grows and then tapers off. In a footrace, making everybody finish in exactly twenty-five minutes might not present a challenge for the top runners but could overwhelm everybody else. Yet, in our music classes, we often make everybody cross the finish line at the same time.

One of the best examples I’ve experienced comes from a student I will call Bruce, who had visual processing issues and received speech therapy. He struggled with note reading, rhythm reading, and basic articulation. He was behind the class all year. Because he was working so hard  (albeit with limited success) he received numerous extensions on his pass-offs.

If Bruce had been graded using an academic class approach, one-size-fits-all, he would have failed or come very close to failing band that year. By providing him with the needed differentiation/autonomy throughout his musical journey, we allowed Bruce to run his own race, and he eventually went on to earn a place in the All-State Band in the eighth grade.

How Do We Make these Adjustments?

For me, I started with my beginners. Our pass-off system, called Earning Your Stripes, is a multi-tiered performance project which provides students with the necessary first-year skills. To implement the three keys suggested by Pink, I moved my class away from traditional assignments, like an academic class, and moved toward a project-based approach. This performance project, as well as our other projects, is built upon the principle of musical mastery, clear purpose/goals, and the freedom for students to complete the work at their own pace.


We give students the entire year to complete their Earning Your Stripes performance project, with benchmarks and goals to keep them on track. Those who are falling behind receive remediation from teachers. All students have the autonomy to work at a pace that matches their abilities and interest.

Within the project, there are options to choose different assignments to provide some flexibility in the project. Struggling students can be given extensions on deadlines as needed. It is, however, not uncommon for numerous students to complete the year-long project in the first semester. Students ready to move at a faster pace can work ahead of the class and earn a place in our extra-curricular advanced band or the opportunity to participate in our state-sponsored solo and ensemble festival.

The flexibility of this project is key to the success of our students. There are countless examples of students who started slowly, struggled, but kept working and eventually experienced success.


Our students know that mastery is always the goal. We talk about it daily. We have them self-evaluate how close to mastery they are on any given assignment.

We describe in detail what mastery would sound like or look like. We pick exemplars from the group and then ask them to self-evaluate. Our students also know that all students will achieve this goal and we are uncompromising in this standard. “As many times as it takes!” is something we explain to the parents and students when they enter the program.

It does take some time to teach students (and parents) that music is not a class where 90% is very good. If we were to award an A when someone scored 90% on a scale or rhythm test we would be rewarding students for learning a scale incorrectly or playing wrong rhythms.

We tell them that there is no failure in band, just opportunities to work differently and improve until you reach the standard. To listen to student performances, we use a mix of in-person performance, in class pullouts, and submitted recordings through SmartMusic and other recording programs.

For me, “Mastery” was the one area I felt like I had been doing a good job of providing my students. However, without the other two concepts, I found myself often only serving the best and brightest. For the program to grow and for more students to succeed, I knew I had to make changes.

SmartMusic can help develop mastery through differentiation. Try it for free!


On our projects, we strive to provide students with meaningful incentives/goals to help them focus their practicing and musical efforts. These goals include performance opportunities, trips, honors/awards, additional selective ensembles, audition preparation, and chair placement, to name a few.

With our sixth-grade performance project, students are given the incentive to work ahead and earn a place in our sixth-grade advanced band. Later, an additional incentive is offered for students to complete the Earning Your Stripes project by February; those students can participate in our district solo and ensemble festival. These opportunities are strong motivators.

For many students, grades are not a motivator and are often a painful reminder of a life of struggle in other academic areas. If we are to help break that cycle, we need to provide them with different opportunities to learn and to demonstrate their success. I encourage you to think about meaning goals your students would value and pursue and then connect these goals to your projects.


To AMP-up your students, ask yourself three questions:

  1. How do I give my students autonomy to control their own learning while still providing the needed structure to move them in the proper direction?
  2. Do I teach to mastery or do I allow my students to earn a grade which may reflect academic success but not musical success?
  3. How compelling are the goals and opportunities I provide for my students which could help to motivate them toward greater musical success?

I encourage you to reflect on your answers as you work to provide your students with the motivation that works for them.

Additional Resources

  • Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
  • Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson
  • Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
  • The Talent Code: Unlocking the Secret of Skill in Sports, Art, Music, Math and Just About Everything Else by Daniel Coyle
  • The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green
  • The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle
Andrew J. Poor

Andrew F. Poor is a composer and educator, currently serving as the director of bands at South Forsyth Middle School in Cumming, Georgia, and the brass caption head at Spirit of Atlanta. Dr. Poor earned a BME from the University of Florida and a MM and DME from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He is a 6-time recipient of the NBA Citation of Excellence and he has twice presented at the Midwest Clinic as well as at several state conventions. Additional information can be found on both his website and blog.

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