Monthly Archives: June 2012

When Desire Is Found Wanting

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

Some people can work a job they hate for years, and even make a career of it. But I think it’s rare for someone in the arts to last long without some measure of love for their work. Many professional musicians can recall a “love at first sight” (or “…sound”) experience during childhood which started a lifelong infatuation with music. As young people develop their performance skills, there’s no substitute for their own enjoyment and interest in music. In many ways, intrinsic motivation—the simple desire to do something for its own sake—is the most important ingredient in long-term musical success.

Of course not all aspects of music performance are desirable. Musicians often find themselves competing for positions, gigs, and other performance opportunities (e.g., recording contracts). Though the successes in these ventures can be exhilarating, the failures can take their toll. Also, some performance activities involve heavy doses of criticism and being judged by others. The stressful aspects of real-life can chip away at a simple love of the art and the desire to “make it” in music. Young musicians may even question whether they belong in music, thinking, “I didn’t know that something so fun could end up being so hard.”

Such conditions can put pressure on musicians to improve their skills as much and as quickly as possible. And nothing can be more disenchanting to a music-loving performer than the need to practice. When it comes to “what works” for skill improvement, there’s a certain kind of practice that psychologists have identified as the key contributor to growth in performance skills. This deliberate practice is defined as being (1) effortful and concentration-heavy, (2) done in isolation, and (3) focused on deficiencies in performance (Ericsson & Lehmann, 1999). As such, practicing really cannot be intrinsically motivating to many people…it’s hard, it’s lonely, and forces you to think about your shortcomings! But, it is the way that musicians most efficiently build their skills.

I’m not suggesting that practice must be unpleasant to be effective. Musicians’ attitude heading into practice sessions can make a big difference. If they dwell on the effort involved and can’t shake the thought that they’d rather be doing something else, then their practice may be tough sledding. But with a mindset of discovery and the goal of learning something new, they will likely exit the session having improved and feeling glad they put in the time (consider checking out my previous post “Learning to Love Practice…And Other Virtually Impossible Feats”). In terms of enjoyment, however, practice really can’t compete with other activities such as jamming with friends and taking part in a group production for an enthusiastic audience. But not only does deliberate practice provide greater musical growth, it allows you to better enjoy the rewards of these other activities.

So practice is almost always extrinsically motivated. It’s not done for the sake of it, but for the rewards that come from having done it. These are often emotional rewards that come with musical participation (see Woody & McPherson, 2010). Musical children gain much from the encouragement of parents and teachers. Young people who persist in music—whether school ensembles or garage bands—often do so because of peer support. And what musician is not driven to practice by an impending concert? The extrinsic rewards of music involvement can make the necessity of practice more palatable to performers.

Extrinsic motivators can be so present and effective that they become internalized by musicians. Prominent motivation researchers Edward Deci & Richard Ryan have advanced a Self-Determination Theory, which can be used to explain how musicians come to accept the hard work of practice (Ryan & Deci, 2000). They describe extrinsic motivation as having four levels, progressing from external to internal. Here’s how I apply the theory to musicians and practice:

  1. External regulation – “I have to practice” – Shows compliance; done purely to obtain rewards and avoid punishments.
  2. Introjected regulation – “I ought to practice” – Shows self-control; done to enjoy feelings of pride and avoid feelings of guilt.
  3. Identified regulation – “I need to practice” – Shows valuing; done because the benefits are personally important.
  4. Integrated regulation – “I practice” – Shows adoption; done because it is has been assimilated into one’s identity.

It’s very important to note that even when extrinsic motivation has been fully internalized (integrated regulation), it does not result in musicians thinking “I want to practice.” It does, however, have them practicing as a regular part of life. They likely no longer wonder if they should practice, or how they’ll find time to do it with all the other things going on. With apologies to Nike…they just do it.

Below is a great quote from concert pianist André Watts, which shows his progression through the levels of extrinsic motivation to practice (I added labels in parentheses):

I wouldn’t be a pianist today if my mother hadn’t made me practice (external)….On days when I wasn’t exactly moved to practice, my mother saw to it that I did. Sometimes she tried coaxing me to the piano by relating the careers of famous musicians, hoping perhaps to inspire me to practice (introjected). At thirteen, however, I realized the necessity of practice (identified). I still don’t really “like” it all the time, but by now it has become second nature (integrated). (Mach, 1980, p. 182)

I love the term “second nature” that Watts used to describe his practicing. Second nature refers to a behavior that has become so routine, it seems instinctive. There are many music making behaviors that are “first nature”—meaning, they’re inherently gratifying—but practicing isn’t one of them.

More recently, I came across an interview in Newsweek with jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding, who won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 2011. An “everyday, diligent, warrior-like mentality” is how she described her approach to practice. “If it’s four hours, just get up and do your four hours,” she told The Daily Beast. “I really like that. It’s liberating somehow.” I suspect that what she feels liberated from is any deliberation about whether or not to practice.

Anyone who’s seen André Watts or Esperanza Spalding perform knows that they love music. It’s sustained them through the rigors of their training and demanding performance schedules. But they’ve also accepted the hard work of musicianship. I think this balance is key. People cannot be practice robots that pound away at only the most challenging skill-builder etudes. But, on the other hand, aspiring musicians will not go far only doing what’s musically fun. Performers should seek to experience the rewards that practice brings, knowing that greater skill empowers them. It frees their attention from producing their own performance to things like exploring new artistic possibilities and interacting more deeply with co-performers. As they more become convinced of these things, practice can become a less onerous and more automatic part of life. And one that can provide considerable payoff in the end.


Ericsson, K. A., & Lehmann, A. C. (1999). Expertise. In M. A. Runco & S. R. Pritzker (Eds.), Encyclopedia of creativity (Vol. 1, pp. 695–707). New York: Academic Press.

Mach, E. (1980). Great pianists speak for themselves. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

Woody, R. H., & McPherson, G. E. (2010). Emotion and motivation in the lives of performers. In P. N. Juslin & J. A. Sloboda (Eds.), Handbook of music and emotion: Theory, research, applications (pp. 401-424). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Copyright 2012 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: PuroJazz on Flickr Creative Commons