Learning to Love Practice…And Other (Virtually) Impossible Feats

Why is it that some young people devote their professional lives to musical pursuits, while others who are equally talented end up doing something else? And among musicians, why is it that so many of them don’t like to practice, even though they know how important it is for them?

In order to understand what motivates someone—be it a musical collaborator, a student, or yourself—it helps to know the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Obviously intrinsic refers to something coming from within and extrinsic means coming from outside of. But what’s often misunderstood is: within what? Outside of what? It’s a mistake to think of intrinsic motivation as that which comes from within yourself (and extrinsic motivation as coming from something or someone else). In fact, intrinsic motivation for an activity is when the rewards that are felt come from within the activity itself. And extrinsic motivation is when an activity is done for external rewards that will result from having done it. A couple musical examples: If you sing a song to yourself in the shower simply because you enjoy doing it, you’re intrinsically motivated. In contrast, if you practice your instrument in order to impress your music friends, win auditions, and advance your career, you’re doing so out of extrinsic motivation—even though you might feel a very strong drive from within yourself to do it.

Both intrinsic and extrinsic sources of motivation are necessary for musicians. In fact, I’d suggest that a balance of both is critical for sustaining long-term growth and fulfillment in a musical life. Those whose music activities are dominated by intrinsic motivation—they only do what they enjoy—are likely not developing their musicianship like they could. And those whose musical lives are filled with extrinsically motivated activities—they only do what’s assigned, what’s required, or what’s paying—run the risk of burning out and perhaps even quitting musical altogether. In a previous post, I offered some ideas for boosting intrinsic motivation in music.

Now let’s consider practicing. My reading of the research leads me to believe that for the vast majority of musicians, practice is extrinsically motivated. That is, most of us practice not because we enjoy it, but because it’s necessary. In case you’re thinking “But I don’t mind practicing…I love singing/playing my instrument,” let me be more specific about what I mean by practice. Most psychologists who have studied it have defined practice by three components: (1) it’s an effortful activity; (2) it’s done in isolation; and it’s designed to improve specific skills. Considering these three aspects of “practice proper,” it’s no wonder most musicians don’t enjoy it. It’s hard, lonely, and spent focusing on you deficiencies!

But the solitude and concentration applied in practice is key for musicians to develop their skills. Not surprisingly, research has found that practicing is made more productive if it is entered into with specific goals in mind, and carried out with an ear toward error detection and correction. In other words, it requires additional prep time (for goal setting) and constant mental focus during the activity. It is far easier to go into a session without much forethought and to “practice” whatever appeals in the moment. Far easier…and much less likely to produce results. But we know that the effort of quality practicing pays off. And doing something because it pays off essentially is the definition of extrinsic motivation.

So is it possible for someone to enjoy practice? Although I contend that it’s highly uncommon, it do think it’s possible. Here’s my current theory about this. First, there are a couple conditions that must be in place. Musicians must have strong confidence in the process of practice; they are certain that it works. Further, not only do they know results will come, they believe that they will experience (feel or hear) the results for themselves, and it will happen sooner rather than later. Their practicing is efficient, characterized by conscious goal setting and self-monitoring as mentioned above. Perhaps in the best case scenario, musicians become so engaged that they become fascinated with the phenomenon of practice itself. It becomes a time to experiment with new strategies and test theories about oneself. I’ve come across one such person online. As you’ll see in this blog post of hers (and in our exchange in the comments), Erica Sipes seems to approach her practice like a musical investigator or explorer. Beyond just capturing a great performance at the end of the process, practicing is about the “thrill of the hunt.”

For those of us who are not investigators in the practice room, our reasons for practicing are more normal. Most musicians practice because of an imminent performance. This goes for even the most advanced musicians and accomplished performers. They practice because there’s a concert or gig coming up and they want to do well. The practice pays off when they experience a successful performance.

Ideally the desired pay-offs of practice are musical in nature, and they entail receiving reward, not just avoiding embarrassment. Improvements in skill allow you to engage in more gratifying performance experiences, and to enjoy the powerful aesthetic enrichment that come with music making. This is where intrinsic motivation is so important. Intrinsically motivating experiences must be a part of a musical life in order for it to survive. If young musicians’ practice leads only to musical performances that they don’t enjoy—or even dread, as is the case with performance anxiety—they are likely heading for burnout. This is one reason why I am a big proponent of informal music making, as a supplement or even alternative to formal public performances. Whether it’s an impromptu sing-a-long at a social gathering, a jam session in the garage with friends, or a “family room concert series,” such experiences can reconnect people to the most human rewards of music.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons


17 responses to “Learning to Love Practice…And Other (Virtually) Impossible Feats

  1. Bob,
    Wow. Posts like this excite me so much because I think it’s crucial that we as musicians consider an alternative to seeing practicing as being merely grueling and necessary. I’m curious as to whether or not a more investigative type of practicing is possible for younger students. Being the optimist that I am, I have to think it is a possibility for some and I think it could help some kids that might not normally be interested in learning an instrument to be more curious about it all and to try their hand at it.

    And thank you for what you wrote in that last paragraph. It sums up so much of how I feel about music-making, its role in society and culture, and the possibilities it offers in building young folks’ sense of belonging, pride, and emotional well-being.


    • Erica – Thanks for your comments here, and of course, thanks for your blog and twitter presence. Over the last year, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at just how much I’ve gotten out of following folks like you. The online community is full of so many great musicians, educators, artists, scholars, etc.! I look forward to your future contributions…


  2. I agree a lot with this article, having a balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators seems to best way to get more out of practice. Also really knowing why you are practicing what you are working on is extremely important for motivation.


  3. Bob,

    Fabulously put. Now, to put this into practice (pardon the pun) both in my own musical life and that of my students, family and friends.

    As performers, it’s so easy to be extrinsically motivated: applause, laughter (at the right or “wrong” times), so it can critical as a musician to learn to identify and honor one’s own inner authority.

    And yes, there is great joy to be had in making music in a variety of “venues” and to notice the places where playing/practicing our instrument(s) is rewarding.

    Playful blessings,
    Stan (aka @muz4now)

    • Stan – Thanks for reading. I really value your comments here. I’m an avid follow of yours on twitter! From your own site–from your sign-off above, for that matter–I know you recognize the importance of PLAY in music making. Talk about intrinsic motivation! Thanks again.


  4. Bob, I’m new to your blog, but have enjoyed Erica’s immensely. I’ll admit it. I LOVE practising, exactly in the analytical way you so eloquently describe. I try to stay fairly dispassionate while practising as I internally monitor physical sensations (good or bad), select where my attention is (what I’m trying to achieve on this playthrough), moving my listening around the room, and of course score markings. The emotional highs can come later (I’m kind of a hot-headed player), but I enjoy the craft of practising as much as (or even more than) performing. Like you and Erica, I write often on these processes — though towards a book, not a blog.

  5. Sue – Thanks for offering your comments above. It’s so interesting for me to hear descriptions of practice from folks like you. Your comments about monitoring physical sensations and attention…great stuff. Thank you for sharing!


  6. You always have such interesting posts. Since so much of what we do is in the solitude of the practice cell, I have always conceived of practicing in the context of the monastic tradition. I think that most monastics would have a hard time fitting what they do inside of an intrinsic/extrinsic paradigm. That is, the motivation may come from a category that transcends normal Cartesian subjective/objective categories. To say it another way, I don’t know why the hell I do half of the things I do. How is it that I can practice for several hours a day and not be able to match my socks? Are my socks unmatched out of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation? If it’s neither, then do I practice for the same reason that my socks don’t match?

  7. “The craft of practicing”. I like that term. Thank you.

  8. This is a great articulation of a concept I’ve been chewing on for a long time – thanks so much for putting it into words so concisely! I’ll definitely be spreading this blog entry to my students and others, as well as looking into your book. Thanks so much!

  9. Pingback: From the Mouths of Music Majors: Loving and Learning | Being musical. Being human.

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  11. What an excellent post – thank you! As a professional musician and Alexander Technique teacher, I was struck by a facebook exchange that I had the other day, in which a well-known professional insisted that what we do is “hard work” and not “fun”. I was very saddened to be reminded of how many musicians do not enjoy practicing, and your post points out some of the important reasons why. I wrote a blogpost on this topic, myself, as a result of that exchange. Perhaps you’d be interested in reading it – it is my most popular post to date, by far; it really struck a nerve in many. Musicians need to enjoy what they do; otherwise they will suffer not only from burnout but also from much psychological and physical pain. Here’s the link: http://www.artoffreedom.me/a-shocking-exchange-on-facebook-about-music-and-hard-work/

  12. Pingback: Do you really love music? | MusicSpoke

  13. Bob, this is an excellent post!

    I’d be interested to hear what you think of PitchPlay. The site helps musicians practice (aimed towards inspiring and motivating). It is still in development but I would love to hear your thoughts. Here’s a link to the site: https://pitchplay.io if you are interested in following us on Twitter, we can keep you up to date on what’s happening: @PitchPlayIO

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