Music student well-being

Teaching music to support music student well-being via autonomy support

Music students can have a tough time during conservatory or university studies. Having experienced a conservatory training program myself, the pressure to succeed and the accompanying anxiety can be crushing. Although many years ago now, back then I did not understand much of what was taking place psychologically from these pressures. I look back now and can  better understand better what was taking place. Moreover still, through my research and understanding of music student motivation and well-being, I have a greater understanding which may help music students improve their motivation and well-being.

The instrumental music tradition

Instrumental music instruction has the heavy weight of history behind it (McPherson et al., 2002). The one-to-one pedagogy is at the core of western instrumental music tradition. It can be thought of as ridged, formalised, structured and little room for student input (Creech et al., 2012). Conservatoire training is where the teacher is an expert. To survive and succeed, music students must follow the same well-trodden path and to not question existing rationale. Working in studios behind closed doors, little is known of what happens in the dialogue between teacher and student. Competition is high. Repertoire is demanding. Teachers are demanding. The pressure to succeed and perform more and difficult repertoire is constant. This environment would seem to be very controlling (Evans et al., 2015).

More and more, attention is being paid to the well-being of students. It is understood that without a healthy psychological well-being, success musically or academically is challenging. Teacher-student relationships are key to well-being. The teacher in a higher education music teaching studio can offer a great deal of support for music students, both academically as well as psychologically. The psychological support is little understood and is the subject of this post.

There is preliminary research demonstrating that higher education instrumental music teachers can support music students’ well-being via autonomy-support. Autonomy is a dimension of self-determination theory (Deci et al., 2002). According to self-determination theory, autonomy support concerns the extent to which teachers consider the students’ perspective and needs, and provides the flexibility to support these needs without undue pressure.

Autonomy support

The autonomy supportive behaviour of teachers via their teaching and pedagogy (interpersonal style) can motivate students to improve academically. Autonomy supportive teaching also has benefits beyond academic scholarship. The benefits of autonomy support in education and music education are well-known. These include positive effects on students’ motivation and engagement, improved academic outcomes, improved persistence int he face of challenges, the ability for self-regulation, and improved mental health. One area we are beginning to explore are the effects of autonomy support on music student psychological well-being.

Recent research

In a recent study, Bonneville-Roussy et al., (2020) asks the following questions regarding music teacher autonomy support in higher education institutions: 

  1. Do instrumental music teachers use autonomy supportive teaching strategies? 
  2. Do instrumental music students perceive autonomy support from their teachers?
  3. How does autonomy support affect music students’ well-being?

For clarity, self-determination theory argues teachers can also use controlling strategies in their lessons. Controlling strategies have negative effects on student motivation, achievement, and well-being. Controlling teachers are not intentionally controlling, however, their interpersonal style may be perceived as controlling. Controlling teachers put pressure on students to behave in a way they want, limit students choice (such as repertoire), have certain expectations regarding progress and amount of practice time, and may appear favourable to some students and less favourable to others. 

Study findings

Bonneville-Roussy et al., (2020) surveyed and interviewed both students at teachers at several higher education institutions which offer instrumental music courses. In their study of autonomy support and its relation to well-being in higher education instrumental lessons, they authors found results which related to well-being, passion for the subject, career intentions and anxiety. 

The provision of choice

The provision of choice is an important aspect of autonomy support. Choice was mentioned by a large number of students. Choice is a positive benefit to students, for example when their teacher allows for choice in selections of repertoire. However, choice was perceived as a negative as well. Many students rated that they did not have any choice or enjoyed any freedom in their instrumental lessons. Some students also stated that choice was not equally distributed. Some students experienced more freedom and choice than others.

Autonomy support and psychological control

In terms of autonomy support and psychological control, Bonneville-Roussy et al, (2020) found it related to future intentions to pursue a career in music. The provision of choice was positively related to student passion for music and to pursue a career in music. Psychological control was found to be negatively related with intentions of a future career in music. 

Controlling behaviours were mentioned by students in their comments. One student mentioned that the institutions still believed they were there to train soloists which has little relevance to a career in music today. Teachers also mentioned controlling behaviours coming from institutions. Teachers felt that the institutions themselves pressured and time controlled students. 

In terms of control, the teachers felt the controlling attitudes were emanating from the institution itself and forced teachers to take on a controlling approach in their lessons. This is very much on concert with prior research on the controlling from above commonly found in educational institutions (Pelletier et al., 2002).

Anxiety and well-being

Anxiety, general mental health and well-being were addressed in this study. Anxiety and stress were prominently mentioned by students. Additionally, mental health and well-being were mentioned by students but not by teachers. Students in this study found studying music to be stressful and felt not enough was done to maintain or improve the well-being of students.

Subject passion an career intentions

In terms of passion for the subject, both students and teachers mentioned their passion and their love for music as a major motivator for them. In terms of career intentions, both teachers and students mentioned the influence of teachers on their career intentions and the motivation to pursue a career in music. Students reported they were more likely to pursue a music teaching career as opposed to a soloist career, or another career entirely, when their music teacher indicated low levels of passion. This was found to have a large effect size. 


Structure was also addressed in this study. Some students wished for more structure surrounding their learning and lessons. Prior research (Jang et al., 2010) has shown that the provision of choice along with a framework or structure to guide that choice, is more beneficial to student progress than just choice alone. Students wanted more preparation from their teacher and the structures in place when given choice.

Perspective taking

Perspective taking was mentioned by teachers and students. The importance of having an understanding of the perspective of students helps to build a warm and trusting relationship. This  was of benefit to students in instrumental music lessons. However, and very interestingly, some teachers mentioned they perceived a change from their role as developing a good nurturing and working relationship, to one of being a service provider for students. Teachers in these situations felt their role was to provide knowledge to the students. Other participants reported they did not feel valued or encouraged by their teachers thought lack of perspective taking

Final thoughts

The study found that the effect sizes between teachers and students perceptions of autonomy support were small. However, both teachers and students perceive autonomy supportive behaviours in instrumental lessons. The provision of autonomy support and passion from their teachers was found to be beneficial and a motivating factor to music students’ musical career intentions.

In general, the majority of respondents reported an autonomy supportive instrumental lesson environment. This is in contradiction to prior research (Evans, 2015) where music institutions and instrumental lessons are found to be a controlling environment. It may be that autonomy support is context specific and the scope of controlling behaviours may differ from context to context. 

In the one-to-one instrumental pedagogy framework of the western music tradition, controlling behaviours may be understood as necessary in order to succeed. An alternate explanation may be that autonomy support in instrumental music lessons differs according to level of education in which it is provided. For example music education might be less controlling in higher education settings than it is at school level.

Overall, high levels of autonomy support were found to coexist with increased levels of psychological well-being. Furthermore, students put well-being at the core of their music learning concerns. Their music teachers less likely to do so. They felt pressured by institutions to adhere to existing protocols and standards and in turn had a more controlling interpersonal style during instrumental teaching.

Students reported mental health and anxiety a big issue. In addition, students felt institutions should do more to better improve their mental health. Interestingly, teachers did not report any concerns about the mental health of their students. It may be that teachers do not understand the complexities of mental health and refrained from giving advice to students.

The learning experiences of music students in higher education institutions can partly be explained by the autonomy supportive interpersonal style of their instrumental teacher. Passion for music and an autonomy supportive style was found to positive effect students’ well-being.

#Self-determination theory #autonomy support #well-being

© iteachpiano, 2020

Bonneville-Roussy, A., Hruska, E., & Trower, H. (2020). Teaching music to support students: How autonomy-supportive music teachers increase students’ well-being. Journal of Research in Music Education, 68(1), 97-119.

Creech, A., & Gaunt, H. (2012). The changing face of individual instrumental tuition: Value, purpose, and potential. In G. E. McPherson & G. F. Welch (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Music Education (Vol. 1). New York: Oxford University Press.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2002). Handbook of self-determination research. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Evans, P. (2015). Self-determination theory: An approach to motivation in music education. Musicae Scientiae.

Evans, P., & Bonneville-Roussy, A. (2015). Self-determined motivation for practice in university music students. Psychology of Music, 1-16.

Jang, H., Reeve, J., & Deci, E. L. (2010). Engaging students in learning activities: It is not autonomy support or structure but autonomy support and structure. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(3), 588-600.

McPherson, G. E., & Gabrielsson, A. (2002). From sound to sign. In R. Parncutt & G. E. McPherson (Eds.), The science and psychology of music performance: Creative strategies for teaching and learning (pp. 99-116): Oxford University Press.

Pelletier, L. G., Séguin-Lévesque, C., & Legault, L. (2002). Pressure from above and pressure from below as determinants of teachers’ motivation and teaching behaviors. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(1), 186-196.

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