A Case Study in Musical Motivation

In the summer of 1947, two parents living in a small Southern town had to choose a birthday present for their 11 year old son. He was a pretty typical boy so the gift ideas were, well, pretty typical. The parents had their options narrowed down to a bicycle or a guitar. It surely wasn’t the only factor in their decision, but there was a considerable price difference between the two. The more expensive bike was passed over and the boy received his first guitar on his birthday.

The boy as a teenager


A musical instrument seemed the perfect gift for a boy who had shown great fondness for music all of his childhood, mainly by singing every chance he got. He did much of his singing in and around church, but he also found opportunities at family gatherings, at school, and while playing in the backyard with friends. He was probably the kind of kid who sang about every spoonful of cereal at breakfast. But people enjoyed his singing and he constantly fielded song requests from teachers and friends. He eventually entered a talent show at the local fairgrounds, where he won second prize. So when his parents presented him with his first guitar, it made sense. It would help him further develop his singing.

After getting his guitar, the boy received some tutoring from a couple of his uncles who played. Armed with a few chords and recordings of his favorite music, he labored to reproduce the sounds loved. His singing likely benefited from this practice but not enough to keep pace with the increase in musical expectations that come when a singing child becomes a singing teenager. His eighth-grade music teacher saw no special potential in him and did not invite him to perform in the school’s top vocal group. He began to identify the musical settings in which his skills were best suited. He jumped at certain performance opportunities–he especially enjoyed making music for and with his friends–and avoided others with equal enthusiasm.

His love for music was never shaken and his involvement in it never stopped. In high school he participated in sports and other school clubs, but there were also many times when he sacrificed leisure activities in order to work on his music. Because his family struggled financially, he also had to take part-time jobs. As a teen he worked at a downtown theater, then later at a metal products factory. Upon graduating from high school he took a full-time job driving a delivery truck for a tool factory. But music was still his passion.

On many of his deliveries, our singing guitar-playing truck driver passed a small recording studio. It offered a make-your-own-recording service to anybody willing to pay the studio costs. The young man’s first recorded song impressed the studio’s office manager, who then shared a copy with the record producer who owned the studio. The producer was only moderately interested and waited nearly a year before approaching the aspiring singer. Now under the tutelage of the producer, the young musician still struggled. The producer eventually matched him up with some more experienced musicians in hopes of developing his skills. What followed were many more months of hard work.

But by now, young Elvis Presley was fully committed to a career in music.

It deserves mentioned that once Elvis did get his “big break” and performed for the first time at the Grand Ole Opry radio program in Nashville, he was no instant success. In fact the head of the Opry talent office, after hearing Elvis’s performance, told him that he should go back to driving a truck!

Although certain parts of Elvis’s biography are very unusual–especially after achieving stardom–some aspects of his development are common to many musicians: an unceasing love of music, the support of others, the maximizing of available resources, and perseverance through adversity. As described above, it was a combination of environmental factors and experiences that allowed a young boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, by way of Memphis, to become “The King.” But identifying a common storyline just scratches the surface in understanding musical motivation. Where did Elvis’s deep connection to music come from? How did he sustain it through distraction and hardship? Why didn’t his musical failures cause him to give up? These kinds of questions, which I won’t try to answer here, capture the curiosity of many performing artists, educators, and psychologists. Count me among them! And it seems the more I learn about motivation, the more I realize how complex and fascinating it is.


One response to “A Case Study in Musical Motivation

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