Category Archives: Performance Psychology

Manufacturing Mozarts and Mannings

Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.

I enjoy finding parallels between music and sports. While these two domains are sometimes thought of as very different, research attests to some interesting commonalities (e.g., Martin, 2008; Nordin-Bates, 2012). There are important principles and processes that are illustrated well in both music and sports—principles and processes that are not just fundamental in the lives of performers, but in the lives of all people. These include teamwork, creativity, emotion and motivation, and anxiety, just to name a few. I’m so interested in these things that I created a course that I now teach at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln called “Music and Sports: Performance and Perception.” The topics listed above relate mostly to the performance part of the class. For the coverage of perception, we largely consider society’s adoration of musical or sporting events and players. Whether it’s an athlete on the field/court or a musician onstage, fans love to be drawn into the emotion of the scene before them and be dazzled by greatness.

Amazing child performers are particularly fascinating in music and sports. I recently watched the ESPN Films documentary “The Book of Manning,” which offered behind-the-scenes access to the development of two professional football quarterbacks, brothers Peyton and Eli Manning, whose father Archie was also a pro QB (see the trailer here). At one point in the film, the narrator calls Peyton a prodigy. The use of this term was just one parallel between the Manning boys’ development and that of exceptional young musical performers. In fact many of the characteristics of the Mannings’ childhood—including those presented in the film as most contributing to their success as adults—are often found in the biographies of professional musicians. Actually, as I heard Peyton and Eli talk about their father as their chief mentor and teacher, it reminded me a lot of how fellow New Orleans natives Branford and Wynton Marsalis speak of their father Ellis.

In my Music and Sports class, I have used a couple of YouTube videos that present two wonderful child prodigies. The videos are local news reports about kids in their communities. One is a budding pianist and composer, and the other a young basketball phenom. What I like about these videos is that they don’t just show the children performing, but they give insight into their backgrounds: their families, personalities, and home environments. Despite the news reporters presenting these children as unexplainable wonders of genetics or giftedness (and I get it…it makes for a better story), we can see how these kids have personal passion for what they do, and have had special opportunities to acquire their impressive skills.

The video of 6-year-old musician Emily Bear (she’s now 12) does much to advance the idea of giftedness. The title of the feature suggests that she is “the next Mozart” and the reporter begins by stating that she was “born to play the piano.” From those around her, she has come to believe that music simply comes from within her. Yet the report also points out that Emily grew up in a home filled with music, including a brother who plays classical guitar and sister who’s a pianist and harpist. The short video also reveals that one of her grandmothers is a “concert pianist who’s made a career of teaching musically gifted children,” and that Emily’s other teachers have included a piano faculty member at the Music Institute of Chicago and the principal keyboardist of the Chicago Symphony (she also has since been mentored by legendary music producer Quincy Jones). Personally, instead of attributing her superb musicianship to a giftedness she had no control over, I marvel at how well Emily has made the most of her opportunities, and how her own musical drives and joy have resulted in her becoming an accomplished concert pianist, jazz artist, and composer.

My sports parallel is young basketball player Jordan McCabe. Labeled a prodigy and a phenom, this kid can do some pretty spectacular things with a basketball (actually with two sometimes!). He has skills that very few other people on the planet can even approach, which would leave many to believe he’s been endowed with some kind of special athleticism. Yet this video report makes mention of the hours of practice that Jordan has put in, including with his father and grandfather; the reporter calls him “the classic gym rat.” His father recounts how Jordan got “hungrier for doing more and more” as his skills grew. In addition to this personal motivation to achieve, I’m struck by the enjoyment and reward this young man clearly gets from playing basketball.

These two videos, like the Manning documentary, illustrate a number of principles offered by the research on the acquisition of expert performance skills (e.g., Creech & Hallam, 2011; McPherson, Davidson & Faulkner, 2012). Before becoming a virtuoso musician or athlete, young people have significant exposure in the domain, and access to resources to quickly grow in it (e.g., mentors and teachers, time and places to practice). But more than this, they have an internal drive to grow and succeed in the domain. They are not manufactured by anyone else to become performers; they want to do it themselves.

There are several key contributors to this kind of motivation. First, the children manage to keep the fun in their activities, no matter how much structured practice or competition they are part of. They maintain a large sense of autonomy, being able to exercise choice in what they do and have opportunities to explore and be creative. Their parents contribute to this by simply being parents. That is, they don’t necessarily aspire to be their children’s primary teacher or mentor (even if they could be), or career manager. The “Book of Manning” documentary shares that father Archie did not let his boys play organized little league football too early. So the informal and social setting of backyard games was where they got their football fix as youngsters. Archie didn’t force football on his kids, rather he insisted that they made their own decisions and followed their own passions. He was happy to share his football expertise with his sons, but they had to come to him for it. As Peyton says in the film, “He was going to be a parent first, and kind of an ex-football player after that.”

I believe much can be gained from considering childhood biographical accounts of successful performers. That said, I recognize that these stories don’t offer much to settle the nature versus nurture debate. Musical parents tend to provide their children with musical environments from the earliest stages of life. But we need not know the exact value of nature to realize that nurture is the only part of the equation that we have any control over. Parents and teachers would do well to support their young musician’s personal interests, sense of autonomy, and enjoyment in the domain.

References

Creech, A., & Hallam, S. (2011). Learning a musical instrument: The influence of interpersonal interaction on outcomes for school-aged pupils. Psychology of Music, 39(1), 102-122.

Martin, A. J. (2008). Motivation and engagement in music and sport: Testing a multidimensional framework in diverse performance settings. Journal of Personality, 76(1), 135-170.

McPherson, G. E., Davidson, J. W., & Faulkner, R. (2012). Music in our lives: Rethinking musical ability, development, and identity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nordin-Bates, S. M. (2012). Performance psychology in the performing arts. In S. M. Murphy (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of sport and performance psychology (pp. 81-114). New York: Oxford University Press.

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody

 

Source of images: wcfsymphony and Jeffrey Beall on Flickr Creative Commons

Stage Fright: What to Do When the Problem Is You

Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.

Musicians who struggle with performance anxiety would love to discover the secret to a stress free life onstage. Performers can do much to alleviate the symptoms of stage fright, yet unfortunately, it is rarely a simple problem to solve. There is no single solution or preventative measure that will work for everyone. That’s because there are many contrasting reasons for why a musician feels anxiety when taking the stage.

As I’ve written about elsewhere, treating performance anxiety can be most effective when first identifying the source of it. One popular model identifies three broad sources that can trigger stage fright: the task, when performing the music is over-challenging; the situation, when performance conditions cause stress; and the person, when a musician’s own personality or thought processes is the root of problems. When well-intentioned performers pass on their advice of “what worked for me,” the result can be a diagnostic mismatch: one person’s prescribed treatment does not fit the underlying cause of another person’s anxiety. For example, the common recommendation of doing extra practice performances in the recital hall (source = the situation) will not help if your anxiety really comes from attempting music that just too difficult for you (source = the task). Also, many recommended treatments do not address any source at all, but merely try to ease symptoms. I’m convinced that no amount of breathing exercises or relaxation techniques will erase symptoms that have been brought on by irrational worry and perfectionism (source = the person).

Many musicians’ stage fright is fundamentally caused by what’s going on inside them—their attitudes, beliefs, and thought patterns related to performance. I suspect that this source of the person is the least dealt with by musicians. We are quick to step up our situational and task-related performance preparations—more practice, greater dress rehearsal, mentally imagining performance conditions. Yet we are less inclined to enter the messier confines of ourselves to address our own thinking related to public music making.

Performance means different things to different musicians. Perhaps the best way to think of it is also the simplest: it’s an opportunity for musicians to express themselves, and usually to people who wish to hear it and are predisposed to enjoy it. Of course, it’s easy for performers to lose sight of this simple notion amid the extensive time and energy they devote to their music activities, and the real-life pressures and consequences attached to their performances. It seems that many musicians adopt an anxiety-related performance perspective early in their development, and it may be a product of more general personality traits (Thomas & Nettelbeck, 2013).

A 2011 research study in the journal Psychology of Music probed the performance anxiety of children and adolescents, and offered some interesting insights (Allen, 2011). This research considered the state anxiety of these young musicians, that is, their feelings of fear, worry, and unease around performance. Kids in the study were introduced to free improvisation as a performance activity, in contrast to only playing pieces of music from the solo repertoire. The results showed that the free improvisation experience reduced anxiety. In interviews with the researcher, the kids talked about worrying less about “hitting the right notes” and being more able to “expressive myself” (p. 84). Of course, free improvisation is not the only kind of music making that allows performers to truly express themselves through music. I believe the main takeaway of this research is how one’s conception of performance contributes to the amount of anxiety felt going into it. It matters whether you think of it as an opportunity to communicate expressively to others, or as some kind of test of performance correctness.

A more recent study showed that how you think about your musical instrument can affect your susceptibility to anxiety (Simoens & Tervaniemi, 2013). These researchers identified several attitudes that musicians may hold. They can feel united or “as one” with the instrument, they can see it as something to hide behind, or they can think of it as an obstacle to overcome between themselves and an audience. As might be expected, the research revealed that those with a united mindset had the lowest scores of performance anxiety. They also scored favorably in other measures of well-being, including confidence and the experience of positive feelings or boost during performance. The researchers suggest that those who feel united with their instruments can more freely express themselves and be less vulnerable to the opinions of others.

As musicians, the way we think about performance results from our past experiences and the musical cultures in which we’ve developed. It can be a difficult and unpleasant exercise to try to identify the attitudes and thought processes in ourselves that undermine our performance success. But I believe it’s well worth it. The wealth of past research on stage fright has indicated that the most damaging thoughts are those that are irrational and negative. One of my favorite terms from the performance anxiety research is catastrophizing, which refers to those vague but overblown feelings of gloom and potential disaster. While we just try to push these thoughts out of our mind…until the performance is imminent and they overwhelm us. What needs to happen, however, is to acknowledge these negative thoughts, expose them for their faulty “all or nothing” quality, and, most importantly, replace them with realistic and task-centered thoughts (see Hoffman & Hanrahan, 2012).

Effectively changing your own thinking—or cognitive restructuring, as psychologists call it—does not happen without some work. Fortunately, the work that is required is, in a way, familiar to musicians. It’s practice. If you’ve determined that the source of your performance anxiety is your own inner dialogue, then you can practice new thought patterns. Irrational and negative thinking will fade as you deliberately rehearse thoughts that are realistic and that focus on the true nature of music making.

References

Allen, R. (2011). Free improvisation and performance anxiety among piano students. Psychology of Music, 41(1), 75-88.

Hoffman, S. L., & Hanrahan, S. J. (2012). Mental skills for musicians: Managing music performance anxiety and enhancing performance. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 1(1), 17–28.

Simoens, V. L., & Tervaniemi, M. (2013). Musician–instrument relationship as a candidate index for professional well-being in musicians. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7(2), 171-180.

Thomas, J. P., & Nettelbeck, T. (2013). Performance anxiety in adolescent musicians. Psychology of Music. Published online before print July 31, 2013.

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody

 

Source of image: Lisa Forget

How Practicing Less Can Foster Musical Growth

Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.

As a teacher and a parent, I’ve had to remind (nag?) many young musicians about the need to practice. And I continue to advise other teachers and parents on strategies to encourage more of it. So I’m not of the belief that excessive practicing is some kind of epidemic among music students, and I’m not about to deliver the message that practice is not that important after all. I do, however, believe that most musicians can make their practicing more efficient. In doing so, they can give themselves a motivational boost, and free up time in their lives for other activities that also can advance their musicianship.

Although the amount of practice done on one’s musical instrument (including the voice, as for singers) is likely the single greatest contributor to performance success, it’s not just a matter of logging time on that instrument. Researchers who have studied music performance expertise have defined practice as an activity that is effortful, usually done in isolation, and specifically designed to improve skills (Lehmann & Jørgensen, 2012). To get the full benefits of practice, musicians must enter it with a well-developed plan and a focus on tackling the problems that stand between them and their performance goals.

So as important as practice is, how could less of it ever be a key to musical growth? First consider the motivational realities of practicing. Because it can be difficult solitary work focused on weaknesses, it’s usually extrinsically motivated. It’s like dieting or leaving your bed at 6:00am for a treadmill at the gym. Though practice is not an enjoyable task, musicians understand the value of it, and know it must be done. Some people who’ve made music their life’s work can come to feel an inner pressure to practice. Constantly thinking about all that they should be practicing—scales, fundamentals drills, ear playing, technical exercises, etudes, repertoire—they may believe that they’re never getting in enough time. An obsessive orientation toward practice has been linked to feelings of guilt and anger, and an overall dissatisfaction with one’s musical life (Bonneville-Roussy et al., 2011).

Even with the will to do it, large amounts of practice come with other risks as well. The physical toll may lead to overuse injuries to instrumentalists and vocal nodes in singers. These conditions will stunt the benefits of practice and can eventually force a stoppage of all music making so the body can recover. Also, early-bird and night-owl practicers should make sure that the schedules they keep are not interfering with the efficacy of their practice. A growing body of research has established that sleep is crucial for new musical psychomotor skills to become permanent (Duke & Davis, 2006; Simmons, 2012). From one day to the next, musicians can lose some of their newly acquired skill without the memory consolidation that happens with adequate sleep.

Instead of trying to carve out more time in the day, musicians can excel by making modest levels of practice more productive (see Jørgensen, 2004, for a review of strategies). Efficient practicing begins with thoughtful goal setting. Not only should musicians enter practice sessions with a plan for the sequence of activities (e.g., 1. warmup, 2. run scales, 3. work problem spots in concert pieces, etc.), they should target aspects of performance where improvement is sought. Broad goals like “I want to sound better” are not nearly as helpful as specific ones, such as “I want even rhythms on arpeggios in both fast and slow tempos.” Efficient practice also demands that potential distractions are eliminated. Of course this can be quite a challenge in our age of smart phones and iPads. While these devices do offer apps that can be used constructively in practice, they also can tempt with the diversions of social media and games, among other things.

Maintaining mental focus is critical as musicians allocate their attention among various tasks. Conscious effort is required to execute new skills, while simultaneously monitoring what is heard and felt during performance. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, they must choose strategies to address deficiencies. Error detection and correction is a special hallmark of expert practicers, as compared to novices (e.g., Duke, Simmons, & Cash, 2009). These are the processes during practice in which musicians serve as their own teachers. They must evaluate their music, diagnose performance problems, and prescribe solutions in real-time. None of these is an easy task by itself, let alone while doing them all concurrently.

Considering the mental energy required for effective practice, it’s no wonder that so many opt instead for the ineffective approach of mindless repetition! The most focused experts are subject to mental fatigue, especially when trying to power through a marathon practice session. This is why several shorter sessions spread throughout a day (i.e., distributed practice) is a better option than a single prolonged session (massed practice). Distributed practice is employed by many who go on to reach the highest levels of performance expertise. However, even among the most advanced musicians, who are careful to take breaks between sessions, about two hours per day is an optimal amount of practice; about four hours is the single day max. These figures are based on a landmark study by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer (1993), who reported that the training practices of elite musicians were similar to those of professional athletes and chess masters.

Choosing to focus on practice quality over quantity can free up time for other music activities away from the instrument, which ultimately can make practice more effective. For example, score study is a useful exercise done by classical musicians to become familiar with compositions they are preparing for performance. And musicians can always benefit by increasing the amount of music listening they do. Listening is a primary means by which we encode into memory what “good music” sounds like. It is how we build the aural perceptual skills needed to accurately evaluate our own music production during practice. Especially when it comes to listening, time not practicing is not lost time in the pursuit to improve musicianship.

There are no shortcuts around practice on the path to musical expertise. But I encourage music teachers to not just tell their students to do it, but instruct them how to do it efficiently. And I implore more advanced musicians to not get caught up in an “arms race” of practicing, thinking that more is always better. The constant struggle to find practice time can cause stress, and excessive practice can take a toll physically and motivationally. By focusing on quality over quantity, musicians can avoid burnout, enjoy their musical lives more, and maximize their growth.

References

Bonneville-Roussy, A., Lavigne, G. L., & Vallerand, R. J. (2011). When passion leads to excellence: The case of musicians. Psychology of Music, 39(1), 123-138.

Duke, R. A., & Davis, C. M. (2006). Procedural memory consolidation in the performance of brief keyboard sequences. Journal of Research in Music Education, 54(2), 111-124.

Duke, R. A., Simmons, A. L., & Cash, C. D. (2009). It’s not how much; it’s how: Characteristics of practice behavior and retention of performance skills. Journal of Research in Music Education, 56(4), 310-321.

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406.

Jørgensen, H. (2004). Strategies for individual practice. In A. Williamon (ed.), Musical excellence: Strategies and techniques to enhance performance (pp. 85–104). New York: Oxford University Press.

Lehmann, A. C., & Jørgensen, H. (2012). Practice. In G. E. McPherson & G. F. Welch (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of music education, volume 1. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199730810.013.0041

Simmons, A. L. (2012). Distributed practice and procedural memory consolidation in musicians skill learning. Journal of Research in Music Education, 59(4), 357-368.

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: Photographer Zach Goldstein of www.ZachGoldsteinPhoto.com

Do Better-Looking Musicians Make Better Sounding Music?

Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.

SingingBeautyIn a week or so, two media-heavy music events will be upon us. Touted as “Music’s Biggest Night,” the Grammy Awards will be televised just one week following the musical-visual spectacle that is the Super Bowl halftime show. If you consider the musicians who’ll be at these events—Taylor Swift, LL Cool J, and Rihanna headline the Grammys, and Beyoncé stars at the big game—as well as other successful performers in the music industry, you might conclude that today’s audiences believe that the best music is offered by the best-looking people. Or perhaps they just prefer to open their ears to those who are also “easy on the eyes.” Of course, this is not just a modern phenomenon, nor is it limited to popular styles of music. The classical world has long featured performers who take the stage adorned in elegant gowns or suits, their appearance further ornamented by makeup, jewelry, and other accessories. Beauty, it seems, is a staple in most all kinds of music performance.

Research has established that what we hear in music—or perhaps more accurately, what we think we hear—is affected by what we see. Musicians (and producers) realize this and choose visual aspects of performance accordingly. As we saw over the recent holiday season, Christmas music usually comes with wintry images for the secular songs and religious ones for the sacred. New Years Eve performances are put on amid eye-catching party scenes. As for the performers themselves, facial expressions, bodily movements, and other visible attributes can heavily influence audience perception of musical quality. This includes the performer’s physical attractiveness.

It’s no secret that physical beauty can make people think and behave differently than they normally would. TV news programs seem to routinely run hidden video social experiments on how beautiful women affect the behavior of men (here’s one I came across recently). Typically, two people act as motorists stranded on the side of the road; one is an attractive woman and the other is…well…not. The cameras capture just how quickly men stop to help the damsel in distress. Of course, visual bias hasn’t always worked in women’s favor, as veteran symphony musicians can tell you. Female musicians were largely excluded from orchestras until behind-the-screen auditions were commonly instituted (Goldin & Rouse, 2000). Sexism notwithstanding, beauty bias seems to extend beyond our highways and into our concert halls, and often serves to advantage musicians who have the right look.

There is research that suggests that listeners hear music as more appealing when it comes from a more attractive musician. Over the last 15 years, an assortment of studies has shown that people tend to rate musical quality higher for performers who are judged to be physically attractive, as compared to those not judged as such (North & Hargreaves, 1997; Ryan et al., 2004; 2006; Wapnick et al., 1997, 1998, 2000, 2009). And it’s not just stage presence that’s more highly appraised. The quality of their sounded music is rated higher. This effect has even been found among highly trained musical evaluators (graduate level music study).

Simple physical beauty may have an effect, but there are other factors that influence how visually attractive a live performance will be. As I alluded to in a previous post, audiences are affected by the visuals cues of a performer’s wardrobe, bodily gestures, and stage behavior. We perceive the sights and sounds of a music performance together. These two forms of sensory input interact with each other (Kopiez & Platz, 2012), and both are filtered by our preexisting tastes and beliefs (e.g., the prestige effect). These cause us to form expectations for performance, which surely vary according to our knowledge of the performance conventions of different styles of music. What is considered attractive in terms of wardrobe and bodily gesture can differ greatly from one musical subculture to the next.

With this in mind, I would suggest that physical attractiveness bias in performance is not merely a matter of a musician’s absolute beauty (if there exists such a thing). Rather, we form expectations of what a “good musician” looks like, and we use them to judge whether particular performers look the part. The journal Psychology of Music recently published a research study smartly entitled “Posh Music Should Equal Posh Dress: An Investigation into the Concert Dress and Physical Appearance of Female Soloists” (Griffiths, 2010). As the title suggests, people’s opinions about the appropriateness of various performance attire—in this case jeans, a short nightclubbing dress, and a longer concert gown—were related to whether the performer played classical, jazz, or folk music. Judgments of appropriate dress coincided with higher ratings of musicality and technical performance ability.

The author of the “Posh” study says her research reinforces the idea that judgments of musical ability are connected to physical appearance. She makes specific application of her findings to the performance practices of female classical musicians. “Women wishing to project a body-focused image,” she writes, “should note that this may have a detrimental effect on perceptions of their musical ability” (p. 175). This research underscores the fact that attractiveness is culturally defined, and certainly different musical subcultures define it differently. It brings to mind the controversies that can be stirred up when classical musicians stray from traditional concert dress. The concerts of pianist Yuja Wang often yield reviews that spend just as much attention on her dresses as on her music making. And when critics have taken issue with her fashion sense, others have taken issue with that.

Though some may disapprove of her wardrobe choices, I imagine that fewer people would dispute that Yuja Wang is an attractive young woman. As mentioned above, a musician’s physical attractiveness can contribute to favorable evaluations of her performing. But could it be that some people actually become better musicians because they are better-looking than others? There is some evidence to suggest this. The studies by Wapnick and colleagues indicated some bias toward attractiveness even when the performers were not seen. In these cases, the performances rated highest in audio-only conditions tended to be those of more attractive musicians (as judged separately). In explaining this, the researchers have theorized a deeper bias: as young musicians develop through training and other performance experiences, those who are more attractive garner more attention, opportunity, and encouragement. “It is conceivable,” they write, “that the effects of attractiveness on progress in music may begin early in life, may be long lasting, and may be profound” (Wapnick et al., 1998, p. 519).

Be it from a natural human mixing of sensory signals or the pervasiveness of beauty-driven media, there clearly exists an attractiveness bias in our modern society. It should not surprise us that it is so evident in music. Though music may primarily be an aural phenomenon, it is well established that visual elements are quite consequential in the appraisal of musical quality. In a meta-analysis of studies on audio-visual music perception, Kopiez and Platz (2012) conclude that the visual dimension is “not a marginal phenomenon…but an important factor in the communication of meaning” and it “exists for classical as well as pop and rock music” (p. 75). It seems that many of the top musicians of today understand this and stage their concerts accordingly. Perhaps with music, audiences shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but research suggests that it’s an awfully hard habit to break.

References

Goldin, C., & Rouse, C. (2000). Orchestrating impartiality: The impact of “blind” auditions on female musicians. The American Economic Review, 90(4), 715-741.

Griffiths, N. K. (2010). ‘Posh music should equal posh dress': An investigation into the concert dress and physical appearance of female soloists. Psychology of Music, 38(2), 159-177.

Kopiez, R., & Platz, F. (2012). When the eye listens: A meta-analysis of how audio-visual presentation enhances the appreciation of music performance. Music Perception, 30(1), 71-83.

North, A. C., & Hargreaves, D. J. (1997). The effect of physical attractiveness on responses to pop music performers and their music. Empirical Studies of the Arts, 15(1), 75–89.

Ryan, C., & Costa-Giomi, E. (2004). Attractiveness bias in the evaluation of young pianists’ performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 52(2), 141-54.

Ryan, C., Wapnick, J., Lacaille, N., & Darrow, A. (2006). The effects of various physical characteristics of high-level performers on adjudicators’ performance ratings. Psychology of Music, 34(4), 559-572.

Wapnick, J., Campbell, L., Siddell-Strebel, J., & Darrow, A. (2009). Effects of non-musical attributes and excerpt duration on ratings of high-level piano performances. Musicae Scientiae, 13(1), 35-54.

Wapnick, J., Darrow, A., Kovacs, J., & Dalrymple, L. (1997). Effects of physical attractiveness on evaluation of vocal performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 45(3), 470-479.

Wapnick, J., Kovacs-Mazza, J., & Darrow, A. (1998). Effects of performer attractiveness, stage behavior, and dress on violin performance evaluation. Journal of Research in Music Education, 46(4), 510-521.

Wapnick, J., Kovacs-Mazza, J., & Darrow, A. (2000). Effects of performer attractiveness, stage behavior, and dress on children’s piano performances. Journal of Research in Music Education, 48(4), 323-336.

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: PianoNOLA on Flickr Creative Commons

When Passion is a Prison

Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.

Musicians are often highly driven people. Their drive and passion sustains them as they practice long hours, spend evenings and weekends at various performance gigs, and do the many other things required to build and maintain a music career. Being a musician is rarely a nine-to-five job. It’s more like a way of life. Research has shown that musicians, more than those in many other lines of work, tend to wrap up their personal identity within their occupation. And while the rewards can be great, they also require effort and can come at the expense of other things. So while music is an art for everyone, for those who make it their life’s focus, it’s also a discipline.

Being a passionate musician doesn’t always mean the same thing. Two people who are equally driven may have very different motivations underlying their drive. The key to a rewarding musical life is not just being extremely motivated or dedicated to your music. Some musicians’ passion may be driven by their infatuation with the creative and expressive potential of the art. Others’ passion may be characterized by their being wholly committed to their success as a professional. An emerging line of research is suggesting that the type of passion that musicians have can determine their potential for long-term fulfillment in the field. I believe that even for the most dedicated among us, there’s benefit in examining the motivation that’s at the root of our drive.

To date, the go-to research on musician passion is a study conducted by Bonneville-Roussy, Lavigne, and Vallerand (2011), published in the journal Psychology of Music. Drawing on the prior research of Robert Vallerand and colleagues (2003, 2008), this study of advanced classical musicians provided evidence for a Dualistic Model of Passion. This model indicates two types of passion: (1) harmonious passion, characterized by unpressured choice to engage in an activity, and the experience of positive emotions during and as a result of engaging in it; and (2) obsessive passion, typified by an unmanageable compulsion to carry out an activity, even through negative consequences. Harmonious passion (HP) musicians show a flexible persistence, and are able to balance their music activities with other aspects of life. Obsessive passion (OP) musicians are driven to practice and perform to attain the approval of people in their lives, or to maintain a self-esteem that is contingent upon musical success.

From the descriptions above, it’s probably not surprising to know that in the Bonneville et al. study, as well as others, harmonious passion seemed to facilitate a number of desirable outcomes. HP has been linked to the use of mastery goals (practicing to accomplish something, rather than to avoid failing), more productive practicing behaviors, overall performance level, and psychological well-being (self-reported satisfaction with life). Obsessive passion has been found to be unrelated to these. In contrast, OP is associated with the use of performance-avoidance goals (e.g., practicing to avoid an embarrassing concert) and the experience of guilt feelings when not practicing or improving “enough.”

I first became aware of the research on passion when I was invited to be a part of a “Music and Motivation” session at the International Conference on Motivation a couple years back. Like the research study reviewed above, the presentations there were compelling and led me to think much about this. The drawbacks of an obsessive passion orientation figured heavily into my suggestion in a previous blog post that practicing less might actually foster more musical growth. Fellow Psychology Today blogger Jeanette Bicknell also was moved to write about this line of research when she asked her readers, “Can you be too passionate about music?

As Dr. Bicknell suggests in her post, musicians can be too passionate about their pursuits. Or perhaps they can come to rely on a type of passion that is not optimal for them. But before oversimplifying it as “obsessive passion = bad” and “harmonious passion = good” let me point out some aspects of the OP approach that may at times serve a productive purpose. First, OP musicians often practice to attain the acceptance or approval of their instructors and others. Of course, among children who are beginners on a musical instrument, this kind of extrinsic motivation is very common. Music teachers provide incentives for at-home practicing, and parents add in their own rewards (or punishments) as part of their highly influential support (Creech, 2009). These things are considered by many to be necessities for young musicians to progress through the earliest levels of skill development. Second, it’s been reported that OP musicians experience guilt feelings when they miss practice sessions. Recall, though, that there are two kinds of guilt feelings. One is the proper outcome of your conscience if you actually do something wrong. If young musicians have taken on the responsibility to practice, and they choose to skip it, I’d say guilt feelings are a healthy response.

Note that I’m suggesting these two aspects of obsessive passion—desiring the approval of others, and experiencing guilt feelings—are not so bad if they’re present in young musicians’ lives. As they develop, however, they should depend less on such things for motivation. More and more, they should do music for themselves. They don’t practice because they have to, in order to please others or to avoid guilt feelings—especially if they’re the other kind of guilt feelings, i.e., those stemming from an imagined offense of some kind. Developing musicians ideally learn to practice because it’s become personally meaningful to them. Their musicianship has become an integral part of their identity. They don’t practice and perform out of pressure, or to avoid failure. They do it because they choose to, and because it’s who they are (see my earlier post about Self-Determination Theory).

Especially once they have outgrown the supervision of parents and teachers, even the most driven musicians should not be operating from a sense of compulsion, avoidance of shame, or fear of failure. Being driven by a harmonious passion may not be second nature for many, but the long-term benefits can be great. As mentioned above, HP musicians experience a sense of choice and feelings of enjoyment in their activities. They apply a flexible persistence to their practicing and performing, and are able to balance it with other things in their lives. Those who find the HP approach elusive may want to take stock of their musical activities, and identify sources of anxiety and guilt. They may also look for positive experiences that are missing from their music making, perhaps some that they once enjoyed. Transitioning to a harmonious passionate orientation may feel strange for some, but it may be the key to receiving the best rewards of a musical life.

References

Bonneville-Roussy, A., Lavigne, G. L., & Vallerand, R. J. (2011). When passion leads to excellence: The case of musicians. Psychology of Music, 39(1), 123-138.

Creech, A. (2009). The role of the family in supporting learning. In S. Hallam, I. Cross & M. Thaut (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of music psychology (pp. 295-306). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Vallerand, R.J., Blanchard, C.M., Mageau, G.A., Koestner, R., Ratelle, C., Léonard, M., Gagné, M., & Marsolais, J. (2003). Les passions de l’âme: On obsessive and harmonious passion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 756–767.

Vallerand, R.J., Mageau, G.A., Elliot, A.J., Dumais, A., Demers, M.A., & Rousseau, F. (2008). Passion and performance attainment in sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9, 373–392.

Copyright 2014 Robert H. Woody

  

Source of image: Daniel DJL248 on Flickr Creative Commons