The science behind practice and motivation


Stickers, charts, money, candy, points, and prizes are frequently used to motivate students but, do they really work?  Is it our job as teachers to motivate our students? From what I've experienced, incentives and even teachers do NOT hold the power to motivate. I believe progress holds the power to motivate.

Let me explain with a personal experience.

Joe is on the far left bike

Joe is on the far left bike


In a Friday morning cycle class, we were challenged to pedal one mile in three minutes. Joe, the instructor, set the large timer in front of the room for the three-minute countdown, cranked up the music and even the disco lights to charge us up for the "road" ahead.

The small computer on my cycle showed me the time, how fast I was pedaling and gradually added one tenth of a mile as my feet went round and round. I thought I was not that competitive, but, it turns out that I was extremely driven to reach the mile mark by the end of three minutes. Joe strategically included the one-mile challenge not just once but, three times within the hour to build up endurance. Even though the last mile 3-minute mile was the hardest, I did not let myself slip. I was determined to beat the clock and improve my stamina.

I discovered that this challenge wasn't about beating anybody else, it was all about successfully reaching the goal set before me. Clocking the time, adjusting my speed and pushing myself kept me moving forward to earn the "prize." The fact that I met the goal in the first three-minute round empowered me to carry on and push forward and do it again and then again. I was motivated!

Progress has a magnetic pull. Once we experience progress and see the success that it brings, we want more. It entices us because it makes us feel good. The more progress we make, the better we feel so we try for it again and again.

Progress = The advancement or development towards a better state.

Joe's calorie-burner choreography uses objective-based skills and measurements to help cyclers reach their anaerobic threshold. In other words, the class promises to burn calories, strengthen muscles and build endurance. The result: cyclers make progress towards maintaining or achieving fitness for a lifetime. I went home from class high on endorphins, ready for a shower and also feeling successful because I beat the clock. (Learn more about this format in this video which features Joe on a local TV station.) 

This fitness class scenario is not that much different from those who are learning an instrument. If students are given a challenge and succeed, it's addicting. The rush that success brings triggers the desire for more challenges to conquer. That’s called motivation or specifically intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes naturally from within and does not come from outside rewards like stickers or bribery, which are extrinsic motivators.

Motivation = The general desire or willingness of someone to do something.

Is it the teacher’s job to motivate? From my cycle-class experience, I’d say we teachers need to modify that description. Our job is to set challenges for our students and to equip them to succeed and progress. Joe didn't have to bribe me with coffee and a scone to succeed, he just provided the objective and set the clock. In the same way, the promise and thrill of progress is what will drive budding musicians to their instrument on a daily basis. Stickers, candy and bribes don't hold the promise of progress and won't cut it in the long run.

Teacher = equips students with skills to succeed.

Progress = holds the power to motivate.

The essential "equipment" students need to see progress are practice strategies guaranteed to conquer challenges between lessons. Science has shown that the six strategies listed below will do just that. These are a critical part of any curriculum and should be put into action at every lesson.

Six Scientifically Proven Practice Strategies that Promise Progress

The six practice strategies come directly from the cognitive psychological scientists at Megan Smith and Yana Weinstein hold doctorate degrees and have applied their systematic research on the brain and how it learns to the classroom setting. I’ve taken their learning strategies one step further and applied them specifically to practicing an instrument. A good portion of the following paragraphs closely resemble their findings and I greatly appreciate their inspiration for this post!

The main point of their research is how the brain remembers best. It's not through repetition nearly as much as through retrieval of information.

“Every time you leave a little space, you forget a bit of the information, and then you kind of relearn it. That forgetting actually helps you to strengthen the memory. It’s kind of counterintuitive, but you need to forget a little bit in order to then help yourself learn it by remembering again.” -Weinstein from

You may find the list below validating like it was for me. I've encouraged most of these tactics for years and am thrilled that they are now scientifically proven to work thanks to Dr. Smith and Dr. Weinstein!

Perhaps you'll feel the same? Each strategy is first defined in the clinical terms found at Next, you'll read how I relate them to practice. I've also connected visuals to each strategy to help practicers understand and recall each one.

Spaced Practice

Every time you “drive-by” the piano, try out a piece you are learning

Every time you “drive-by” the piano, try out a piece you are learning


"Space out practice over the day instead of in one block of time. Forgetting and then relearning a piece overtime strengthens your memory bank."

How to apply this to practice: "Drive-by" or stop and practice before dinner, then "drive-by" again after dinner.  Run through a couple of assignments before school and see what is remembered after school.


Practice a piece, then do some math homework, then try the piece again

Practice a piece, then do some math homework, then try the piece again


"While repetition is vital, research says we will actually learn that skill more effectively if we mix our practice of it with other skills. This is known as interleaving."

How to apply this: Mix up assignments. After practicing a scale a few times, play a piece, then go back to the scale. Switching between tasks will help practicers to think more critically and will encourage them to give more thought before playing. Or, practice a piece, do some homework and then play the same piece to test reliability and accuracy.

Retrieval Practice

Retrieval practice is like digging a rut in the brain

Retrieval practice is like digging a rut in the brain


"Practice bringing information to mind without the help of materials." 

How to apply this: Repetition of a piece digs a "rut" in the memory bank. To dig the rut deeper, put the book away and see how much can be recalled without looking. Remembering the piece without reading the score helps practicers learn more effectively and permanently.Avoid binge practice and instead, put away the score before it's completely memorized. Later "drive by" and play it again and see if it can be played error-free the first time it's played.


Lock concepts in with clear explanations

Lock concepts in with clear explanations


"Explain and describe ideas with many details."

How to apply this: Get under the hood of a piece and discuss all the elements: form, key, chord progressions, dynamics, mood changes and any other details. Analyzing the nuts and bolts will boost the understanding of concepts and lock in memory anchors when retrieving a piece or definition of a term from the memory bank.

Dual Coding

Think of at least 3 different relate new concepts what’s familiar

Think of at least 3 different relate new concepts what’s familiar


"Encourage students to pay attention to visuals and link them to the text by explaining what they mean in their own words. Then, students can create their own visuals of the concepts they are learning. This process reinforces the concepts in the brain through two different paths, making it easier to retrieve later."

How to apply this to practice: Connecting the word and image of an apple which has two syllables and yet is one word explains the concept of two 8th notes sharing one beat. Learn more about how I connect rhythms to all kinds of fruits and vegetables in my Rhythm Produce Cards for here.

Concrete Examples

Think of at least 3 visual or tactile tools to explain concepts

Think of at least 3 visual or tactile tools to explain concepts


"Use specific examples to understand abstract ideas. In addition,  help students extend their understanding by coming up with examples of their own."

How to apply this: The D major chord uses a white key, then a black key and then a white key, just like this triple dip ice cream cone has a chocolate scoop in the middle of two scoops of vanilla. To extend their understanding, ask students to imagine the scoops of a C major triple dip ice cream cone. Take a look at the interactive e-book that I wrote with help from Bradley Sowash called the The Full Scoop On Chords. It connects ice cream scoops to chords. For teaching intervals, I created a FREE interactive e-book called Understanding Intervals which relates intervals to shoes.

Print these for your student families

Print these for your student families


I believe you'll find these six tips incredibly helpful and encouraging as you train musicians to progress. I've made it easy to share these strategies with your students by creating a printable infographic that will fit perfectly inside their practice pouches or wherever they want to store them. If you have students who favor binge practice, this scientific evidence about how the brain learns and retains information may help them turn from their default practice mode for good!

Feel free to share this post with student families so they can support their practicers with methods that are backed by scientific research!

The other side of the printable includes a word cloud packed with practice tips and ideas.

A big thanks to Dr. Megan Smith and Dr. Yana Weinstein for sharing their researching and making it applicable to learning and practicing.

Happy practicing!


Information was used and inspired from articles found at both of these respected educational-based websites:

"Six Powerful Learning Strategies You Must Share with Your Students"

"Six Strategies for Effective Learning"