By Duane Whitcomb | From the November-December 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
I grew up in a musically rich home. A caring teacher, a youth symphony program, summer music camps, encouraging parents, frequent performances and competitions with my brother and sister. As a result, the three of us became very skilled young players.
And, each of us—like most of our peers whom we sat alongside in the youth symphony and school orchestras—eventually stopped playing music. The attrition rate of string players in my cohort was pretty dismal. Were you to draw a graph of our musical participation, it would show a downward slope until high school graduation. At graduation, the slope became a cliff, leaving very few of us actively playing music in college and beyond.
I was unusual, though. Through a stroke of good fortune, I found my way back to the violin in my thirties. A few years later, I started my two children in music lessons with some local teachers. I started going into their school and teaching their friends. Though I was not interested in becoming a teacher (yet), I loved being a dad and being involved in their lives. Each day, as my children practiced, and each day as I taught their friends, I kept wondering: What were the odds of their continuing in music?
This question became a mild obsession that totally energized me.
I began quizzing everyone and anyone I could talk with—why did you quit playing music? The answers varied: It wasn’t fun. I hated the competition. It was really difficult. I didn’t like the music I had to play. I wanted to play sports. My teacher was too strict. I didn’t want to practice. I wasn’t getting any better. It was taking too long. I was too busy!
With each answer, I either felt relief (e.g., I’m not strict), or I made some fast changes (e.g., seeking out “fun” music). I soon realized there was an obstacle I was not addressing that was more fundamental to why students quit: motivation. Motivation is the desire or willingness to do something. Psychologists, not surprisingly, have been studying it for years. One of the important things they have learned is that there are, actually, two very different types of motivation. Students can be “extrinsically” or “intrinsically” motivated.
Students who are extrinsically motivated play music because they want a reward or to avoid punishment. They describe playing as something they “should do” or something they “have to do.” These students are much more likely to quit playing once the reward is achieved or the threat of punishment is gone.
Students with intrinsic motivation describe playing the violin as “fun.” They play the violin because they simply enjoy it. These students learn faster, have positive emotions about playing, and are more creative and more likely to continue playing music as adults.
So, the big question I faced was how to get my students to be intrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation, I learned, was not something I could influence by simply changing the style of music or changing my expectations for practice. Healthy, intrinsic motivation requires the fulfillment of three needs: to feel capable (or competent, smart, and effective); to feel connected (a sense of belonging and that they matter); and to feel like they have a choice (to be autonomous and do things they want to do).
By practicing and learning the music I assigned them, my students might feel capable. But it certainly didn’t do much for connection or choice. The attrition rate of my students still looked similar to my own childhood experience.
So I began looking for activities that I had the energy for. I ran my first music camp 17 years ago—five students in the local park. I was initially quite nervous. How could I possibly keep a group of kids entertained for the day with just our violins? But it became clear that it was actually easy to create a space for kids to have fun. They simply wanted to be together doing a shared activity—and students loved being in the park on a nice day learning songs together!
It was so much fun, in fact, that we began doing informal jams. Local musicians would drop in occasionally. Sometimes people would dance as we were playing. We began running dances in a local community hall. All fun—but these things take time!
I tended to avoid high-stakes events like recitals and concerts, mostly because they took more time and energy than I had to make them succeed. Jams and potlucks were the easiest things to do: they required very little preparation and only a few people. And they gave students as much fulfillment as recitals I had done in the past.
Over the years, as I took on more students, I enlisted parents and joined forces with other teachers and community members. Together, we were able to create new activities for students and expand on those already up and running: fiddle clubs, orchestras, camps, jams, busking opportunities, concerts, group classes, potlucks, road trips, overseas musical adventures, peer mentoring, and more.
These activities give students lots of incentive to keep playing throughout their school years. More importantly, though, the experience they get playing diverse music in different settings during their lesson years gives them the skills and confidence to build new musical relationships after they leave home. For teachers interested in developing healthy, intrinsic motivation in their students, the most important advice I can offer is to connect with other musicians of different styles and backgrounds and work together.
I spoke of the attrition graph of string players—the sloping hill, followed by the cliff. The better we prepare students for the diverse music that awaits them in the world, the more likely they are to keep playing after they finish lessons and step over the cliff’s edge.
Duane Whitcomb is a teacher in Ashland, Oregon. He is executive director of Creekside Strings, a nonprofit that builds music communities in Oregon. He is also the owner of FiddleQuest, a multigenre violin curriculum.