Motivating Middle School Musicians

group of children standing

When adults think back on their time in middle school, many recall feelings of deep insecurity, shame, and listlessness. Middle school is proven to be one of the most difficult periods in an adolescent’s life, making the mission of those who teach kids this age of paramount importance. Music, something studies show brings massive benefits to children, can be a particularly positive force in the life of a young person during difficult times.

A major challenge middle school music educators struggle with is keeping their students motivated and engaged. For many teachers, getting a group of 11-14 year-olds awake and interested in their often work feels like an impossible task. In this paper, we’ll share strategies for how to inspire middle school music students and shed some light on the myriad challenges facing middle school kids today.

Gaining perspective on why middle school is so hard on kids

In recent years, scientific studies have proven the suspicions of many when it comes to middle school being much more challenging for kids than other seasons of adolescence. According to a recent article on NPR’s website, studies show that children are particularly socially and academically vulnerable during their middle school years. “A large body of research suggests that students who go to middle school or junior high do worse academically, socially and emotionally, compared to the young teenagers who get to be the oldest students at schools with grades K-8.” These years are so damaging for some students on an academic level, that they don’t recover for years. Everything from chronic absence to social distraction has been blamed for the waning academic performance of middle schoolers, but it’s clear that there’s no single root cause for why kids this age perform poorly compared to their elementary and high school counterparts.

A 2016 article published in Quartz profiles a study testing the “Top Dog” theory, which suggests that students at the top tier of the age hierarchy in their schools perform better than their younger peers. “Top dogs are less likely to report bullying, fights, and gang activity and more likely to report feeling safe and welcome in school than bottom dogs due to their top dog status. In contrast, bottom dogs report higher rates of bullying, fighting, and gang activity and lower rates of safety and belonging than top and middle dogs.” Your music students might appear apathetic and hesitant to learn because they’re learning how to adjust to a new academic setting with vastly less agency and security than they’re used to. The American Psychological Association blames puberty and the challenges of adjusting to a more challenging learning environment for the poor academic performance of middle schoolers.

The impact great music education programs have on middle school students is huge

Whether one lists puberty or losing “top dog” status as the main culprit for a middle school student’s apathetic attitude, one thing is clear: middle school music educators have a monumentally difficult and crucial task on their hands. The grit and life skills music students develop in their middle school years are things that will go on to benefit them throughout their adolescence and beyond.

instrutor teaching a student

A fascinating new study recently profiled by Pacific Standard followed 30,000 Florida students for over a decade and found that 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students who took an elective arts class enjoyed significantly higher GPA’s and better standardized test scores than students who didn’t. But the benefits of music education for middle school students far transcends the academic realm.

Non-academic benefits of middle school music programs:

Top reasons why middle schoolers quit music programs

kid with a book on his face

Middle school music programs are proven to deliver a myriad of positive benefits to students, but that doesn’t keep a great number of them from quitting every year. Every middle school student’s challenges and backgrounds are completely unique, but there are patterns we can look to when it comes to why students of this age throw in the towel when it comes to music. Here’s a few of the most common reasons why middle school students quit music:

  • Students and parents alike not prioritizing music enough over other subjects
  • Kids not viewing band or orchestral music as “cool” or socially relevant
  • Students not willing to put the time and energy into practicing at home
  • Lack of academic and musical confidence in a student

Each of these main reasons for quitting are completely different, but a common thread between them is an overall lack of motivation. Students in middle school quit music programs because they’re not motivated enough to see the value of music and stick with it.

The challenge of motivating middle school students

An article published by the music education blog We Are Teachers reveals one fascinating theory for why many middle schoolers are plagued by academic apathy:

“Elementary schoolers love learning. You tell them they’re going to learn fractions or write an essay or whatever it is they do, and they express their joy with hugs and handmade drawings. Middle schoolers don’t do that. High schoolers, on the other hand, see the real world rapidly approaching, and eventually realize they should probably get their act together before it hits them like an oncoming bullet train. Middle schoolers don’t see that, either. Instead, school is an eight-hour-a-day prison that serves no higher purpose, and good luck convincing them otherwise.”

Simply reading a list of musical benefits to middle school kids isn’t likely to motivate them to get with the program and take their work seriously, but there are plenty of strategies for educators to look to for help.

Middle school motivation tactics

Education expert Janelle Cox writes that showing a genuine interest in the lives of your students is one of the best ways to motivate them: “Students seek approval and need encouragement. To do this, make a valid attempt to get to know all students. Allow a student to come eat lunch with you on her birthday, be encouraging, ask about her day or interests, or just plain listen to him when she talks.”

kids playing instruments

Middle school is an especially vulnerable time for kids because they’re discovering their identities for the first time. Forming real relationships with your students is a way to keep them motivated because they’re looking to feel known and accepted. recommends incorporating popular culture into the classroom as a way to motivate middle school music students: “As a music teacher, you are actually uniquely positioned to access students at the middle school age. Music changes with the times, and your students will feel invested in learning about music if your lessons incorporate the different types of music they actually enjoy. This does not mean that you should only use R&B or pop music if that is what your students like, but it does mean that these styles can give you a starting point for thinking about musical concepts and ideas. If you are interested in getting your students singing, playing instruments, and dancing, they are more likely to be active participants when you let them choose the songs.”

Students in middle school often quit music when they feel like what they’re learning has no direct connection to their lives. Making real efforts to understand what music your kids relate to and present it in an engaging educational context is one of the best ways to combat this. Most music store selections are packed with a constantly updating offering of modern sheet music.

Middle school is a deeply unfun experience for many students, which gives music educators an opportunity to motivate their kids through silliness, self deprecation, and games. Making music class fun for middle school students gets kids engaged and interested in the music being covered. It’s also important to note that students this age are hugely invested in appearing confident, cool, and socially secure. Diffusing that tension with fun gets students away from insecure mindsets and into positive mental spaces for learning.

Middle schoolers are in the midst of a transformation from child to teen. Giving your students more autonomy in their work is a strategy that honors this change and motivates your kids at the same time. Educators inspire and motivate when they give their kids choices and more freedom in their work. From letting a classroom vote on the next song they’ll tackle to leaving time for musical improvisation at the end of your lessons, approaching a middle school classroom with a mind open to letting students dictate some of what happens is a winning strategy.

And lastly, highlighting progress and accomplishments often and loudly is a phenomenal method for inspiring middle school music students. Encouraging words and praise from an educator can completely transform the way a student feels about themself. Celebrating progress, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, lets vulnerable and often unconfident students know that they’re on the right track and capable of greatness. Awarding certificates to your students in front of the class is an affective motivational tool, but not all praise needs to be formal. When you see something good happen in your classroom, make sure to celebrate it.

Resources for middle school music educators

man studying

Middle school education is a field where teachers can do everything right and still feel exhausted and frustrated from time to time. Books like this one provide further guidance and detailed instruction for how middle school music educators can build and sustain winning programs. also provides bountiful resources and tools for middle school music educators.

When the going gets tough in your middle school music program, do your best to remember how important of a role you’re filling. It’s not often easy to see, but the hard work you put into inspiring your students really does improve their lives.

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