What The Research Says About Piano Practice and Motivation [Book Review]

What The Research Says About Piano Practice and Motivation [Book Review]


I’ve learnt a few things about piano practice and motivation in my time as a musician and music teacher.

Here are some of them:

  • The most important thing we can teach our students is how to practice effectively
  • Students need to be taught about practice methods including spaced practice, chunking, interleaved practice, etc.
  • We all need to understand the vital impact of rest and sleep on our ability to learn
  • Parental involvement in music making is crucial to a student’s sense of musicianship
  • Creativity and curiosity is the cornerstone of developing a life-long love of music

In order to gather this knowledge, I’ve spent a lot of time reading, going to conferences, discussing theories with other teachers on my podcast and testing things in my own studio.

However, if you’re just starting out, or perhaps you’re interested in finding out more the theory and practice of motivation, then I highly recommend checking out Michael Griffin’s book, Learning Strategies for Musical Success. 

Strategic Learning

Michael is an Adelaide-based teacher and presenter who is well known for speaking to schools and teachers around the world about motivation and mindset in music. In fact, he appeared on my podcast last year in an episode on Practice, Motivation and Mindset in Episode 30.

Learning Strategies for Musical Success is a culmination of years of his own teaching, research and practice into the what, why and how of motivating students.

The book is divided into six chapters:

  1. Music Potential
  2. How to Practise
  3. Achievement
  4. Playing music with the whole brain
  5. Creativity
  6. Music and Intelligence

Each chapter gives a comprehensive overview of the research into the subject being discussed, in dispersed with Michael’s own thoughts and those of noted teachers, business experts, motivational coaches and musicians from around the world.

Put simply, this book provides teachers, parents and students with the knowledge they’ll need to create a more strategic approach to their lessons and practice.

In order to explore some of these ideas a bit further and give you a taste of some of Michael’s research, I’m going to briefly discuss three concepts developed in the book:

  • Mindset
  • Practice
  • Motivation


There has been more and more talk recently about growth versus fixed mindsets and so I was glad that Michael covered this topic in his discussion about practice:

It is not easy to teach learning strategies to fixed-intelligence-mindset students who have a deep-set belief about their potential. By attributing failure to lack of effort or poor practice however, teachers and parents can change this mindset. Stressing the importance of effort rather than natural ability is paramount.

It reminds me of the discussion I had on Podcast Episode 26 with Nick Ambrosino about the language we use in music teaching and how a simple change (eg. using “and” where you might otherwise use “but” – listen to the podcast for the details) can have a profound impact on a student’s self-esteem and motivation.

musician's mindset

Image Ref: carriekepple.com

The research says that a student’s mindset is a strong predictor of practice efficiency and hence, effectiveness (Griffin, p.5) and that fixed-mindset students may avoid practising pieces or passages that pose difficulties they are unsure they can master. This alone can have big ramifications in the way we teach and encourage students.


Do you have competent and positive students who avoid tackling harder music even though you know they can do it? If this behaviour is innate, then it might be an issue with mindset and something that you can explore further in the research.

By the way, what’s your mindset?


There are lots of books on the market about piano practice and so I was a little skeptical when I saw a whole chapter devoted to this in Michael’s book.

Thankfully, what he has created in Chapter 2 is complete reference of all the best ideas surrounding motivation in music students, distilling the theories into practical advice for teachers and students alike.

In this chapter, you can read about distributed practice, spaced repetition, chunking, slow practice and why sleep matters. He talks about the 10,000 hours rule, its implication on students and he dispels the myth of the prodigy.

I particularly love this quote from Stephen Hiller:

The amateur practises until he gets it right. The professional practises until he can’t get it wrong.

Unfortunately, many of our students don’t understand this fundamental truth. Do you have students who ‘practice’ by playing something over and over, play it wrong five times (without even really realising), finally get it right on the sixth attempt and then stop playing?

There are so many excellent articles about practice out there and Michel summarises them into a succinct and compelling argument that will be as valuable for parents as teachers.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

My thoughts on motivation have changed significantly over the years.

When I first started teaching, I used a lot of extrinsic motivators (food, stickers, etc.) as it’s how my teacher taught me. However, the more reading I did, the more I realised that this might not have been the best way to go as we want students to have their own sense of motivation.

Interestingly, I’ve now formed a middle ground after reading this book and speaking to Anita Collins in Episode 32. I now realise that in order for children to reach an intrinsically motivated state, they will need some extrinsic motivation to get started.


Michael explains the research about motivation in music students and its link with Optimal Challenge and Flow. He shares ideas about how teachers can set increasingly difficult, but achievable, challenges that regularly place students into a new state of incompetence in order to push them to the next level of achievement.


This review has only just scratched the surface of what’s in the book. Michael covers a vast range of topics from multiple intelligence theory, Maslow’s heirarchy of needs, autotelic learning, creativity and memorisation to name just a few.

But while the book encompasses a lot of material, Michael threads the topics so seamlessly that you never feel off-topic. Indeed, I feel like it’s the kind of book that I might have written if I wanted to condense all my thoughts about music and education into one volume.

This is a book that should be on the shelves of any music teacher.

Even if you feel you’ve already read lots of the research into learning and motivation, I guarantee you’ll be highlighting, notating and dog-earing the pages. It’s the kind of book that you could also recommend to parents and adult students.

It’s well-organised and easy to read at just over 155 pages. One minor improvement I would make would be to print the book in a serif font (like this one) to make it even easier to read.

The book features lots of figures, tables and quotes to reference what is being discussed. Michael has even written some of his own music to illustrate practice methods and ideas!

You can find out more about Michael at his website.

Special Offer for Readers

If you’re interested in getting a copy of Michael’s book, you can grab 10% off today!

If you’re in Australia, you can email Michael and ask for him to send you the book for $AUD36 including postage. (RRP is $35 + postage.)

For international readers, click here to order from Create Space and get 20% off with this code: NCJRGBFQ.

What is the biggest thing you’ve learnt about motivation and practice?

Either as a student or a teacher, what’s had the biggest impact on your learning?

Leave a comment below.

Tim Topham

Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular Integrated Music Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as integrated teaching, creativity, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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  1. What a great article!

    I especially enjoyed the insights with a student’s mindset and internal/external motivation.

    I also noticed a correlation between mindset and motivation. If a student has a growth mindset, they are internally motivated. If a student has a fixed mindset, they do not have an internal mindset, and will need an external motivator of some sort to change their mindset.

  2. Hi Michael,
    I realize there is no short answer to this issue, but your reply remind me that teacher’s mindset could be fixed.
    Thus I suddenly find out my student probably does not refuse to learn to sing louder, she is just 7 years old, maybe she needs more time (longer than I expected, in this case she spent 10 months to start singing) for her to accept her body and voice.
    Thanks Michael and looking forward to the book.

    • Oh! I posted the wrong place.

  3. Hi Tim,
    I have a student who cannot take criticisms very well. She gets upset/frustrated/stressed if I give her new pieces or feedbacks.. She will say ‘I can’t do this or this is way too hard, I’m panicking’.
    I always give positive feedback after she played a piece and then I give her advice on what needs to be improve such as correct fingerings/rhythm error or if she played a wrong note etc. She always panic and I don’t know how to handle this situation very well. Every time I say something about her playing she goes on a panic mode (shaking her hands) or about to cry. Telling her to relax, not to worry about making mistakes, breathing exercises doesn’t seem to help her at all. She said she doesn’t panic at home when she practice but she feels stress at the lesson. She is very emotional and wants to be perfect all the time. Any advice? Thank you!

    • Hi Berry – just time for a quick response, building on my reply to Jay, below.
      Didn’t to assess the situation from afar, but resistance to criticism and other feedback possibly signifies a mindset issue. Without knowing your student though, I’d be careful about assessment.
      What I would recommend is that you explore the nature of feedback, praise and criticism further. I’m not assuming what you know and what you don’t- but this area is a minefield and needs to be properly understand. For example, the significant research on praise and self-esteem mostly suggests that we get the reverse of what we hope for when praise is used indiscriminately. (Those praised the most become the lest secure of their skills, etc.) It is elf-efficacy rather than self-esteem leads to achievement. I’ve attempted to present this subject in detail in my book.
      I hope this helps,

  4. Mindset is the basic things to improve instrument learning. I just bought the book and wonder how Michael deal with those students mindset fixed. Good review !

    • Hi Jay
      In order to change student mindsets we need to reach teachers. Student mindsets are created mostly through us, and parents as well. It is mostly from the language of attribution and feedback – i.e. why am I good at this?
      No easy task when estimates of up to 75% of music teachers being fixed-mindset when it comes to musical ability.
      This is a large and complex subject, too much to write about here, but some things to remember:
      – It doesn’t matter what the truth of ‘genetic giftedness’ is (despite the lack of evidence) its the perception that counts. The fixed -musical-mindset says ‘I’m not musical’ which is essentially a declaration of not trying anymore. It gives an excuse for giving up.
      – Teachers (unwittingly perhaps) give more time and opportunities to those that they judge as to having more potential. Students are VERY perceptive at picking up teacher expectations.
      – Teacher expectation is a driving force of achievement
      – The human genome project has been spectacularly unsuccessful at finding variant genes that explain a pre-disposition for excellence in any field. (Height and body characteristics aside).
      – Superior achievement is explainable. Just because we don’t understand exceptional achievement ourselves doesn’t mean it needs to be subscribed as an unexplained gift.

      This only just touches the surface – each point has a body of depth. Its a good topic for teachers – and needs to be addressed because teacher subject judgements about potential (no-one can predict potential) impact student futures.

      Next week I’m addressing music staff at a school in the UK – Eton College – specifically on this topic. The 80-strong music faculty – highly educated and diverse – will no doubt engage in strong discussion and dialectic – it is an emotive subject!

      I believe this is the most important issue facing music education today. I continue to learn (just read Ericsson’s ‘Peak’) and will continue to write (building on ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’) and present on this topic in the future.

      • Hi Michael
        I realize there is no short answer to this issue, but your reply remind me that teacher’s mindset could be fixed.
        Thus I suddenly find out my student probably does not refuse to learn to sing louder, she is just 7 years old, maybe she needs more time (longer than I expected, in this case she spent 10 months to start singing) for her to accept her body and voice.
        Thanks Michael and looking forward to the book.

    • Thanks Jay 🙂

  5. Tim, you just stole my thunder! Ha! In June Mario Ajero invited me to present a webinar for MTNA (it’s happening next Wednesday, Aug. 24th at Noon EST). Anyone who has read your post here is going to think I stole a bunch of material from you, but I can send you the outline I sent Mario last month. The timing is uncanny! Needless to say I love this topic and absolutely agree with everything you said here! Nice work, mate!

    • Not sure where the green “yikes” face came from. If I got to select the emoticon to match my comment it would be a huge grin “no way, too funny!” face.

      • Hahaha no probs Aeron. Did you meant to post this on the online teaching podcast with mario? This is the practice/motivation book review post.

        Oh, and the green guy is automatically activated – you never know what you’ll get unless you have a “gravatar”.

        • No, this is the post I’m referring to. My webinar is to titled “UNLOCKING STUDENT POTENTIAL- Coaching for Self-Leadership” and among other things I will be referencing many of the same books (Growth Mindset, The Talent Code, Talent Is Overrated, Outliers), moving students from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation, and an accountability program we developed (and have been using for six years) designed to teach students how to practice effectively and engage productively in lessons. I haven’t read Michael Griffin’s book but it sounds like we have done a lot of the same reading and have come to many of the same conclusions in our teaching practice. I’m sure I could learn a ton from his experience and expertise. I’ll check his book out. Thanks for sharing the review, Tim!

          • No problem, Aeron – hope it goes well 🙂

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