Category Archives: Practicing

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.


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


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.


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

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.


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

When Practice, Practice, Practice Isn’t the Answer

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

For many musicians, it’s a common scenario: You stand backstage about to go on, and you can feel the adrenaline coursing through your body. You may feel your chest pound, your breathing grow shallow, or a swarm of butterflies attack your stomach. As you take the stage, you notice your hands shake. It’s bad enough that you have to experience these unpleasant feelings, but you also worry that they will ruin how your music sounds onstage.

For those who’ve struggled with it, performance anxiety can seem like a fact of life. They accept it as an inevitable part of performing. And accordingly, they may come to believe that they’ll never sound in concert as good as they did in rehearsal. Performance quality—how accurate or otherwise “good” the music sounds to an audience—is paramount. So dealing with anxiety means somehow compensating for the drop-off in quality that happens onstage. “If I play it 95% well in rehearsal, but only 80% in performance,” one might think, “then if I can get it to 110% in rehearsal, I can expect 95% on stage. Right?”

From this perspective, many have advised musicians that the key to a successful performance is over-preparation. Practice your music so much that even your worst rendition still sounds pretty good. Practice so you know it incredibly well, then practice it some more so that your body will deliver it onstage without thinking, without trying. Then, according to this view, you can have utmost confidence and no reason to worry going into a performance.

I’m certainly a believer in the necessity of practice for building musical skills. But I don’t believe it is always the key to overcoming performance anxiety. In fact, I would suggest that if you can play or sing your music well in rehearsal, but not in the concert, then additional practice is a poor strategy for managing stage fright. Instead of accepting and coping with a drop-off from practice to performance, I’d recommend seeking to remove the factors that diminish quality onstage.

Psychologist Glenn Wilson has divided the sources of musical performance anxiety into three categories: the task, the situation, and the person. Many musicians and researchers, including myself, have found this model useful for understanding performers’ anxiety issues and selecting effective treatments (Klickstein, 2009; Lehmann, Sloboda & Woody, 2007, ch. 8; Wilson & Roland, 2002; Valentine, 2002). When musicians experience anxiety because they believe they’re physically incapable of playing or singing their music, then the task is the source, and additional practice is a viable treatment. However, the situation is a more likely source when worry is brought on by the conditions of a public performance. Situational factors include the presence or absence of co-performers, the makeup of the audience, and any consequences of performance (e.g., an audition or competition). The person as a source of anxiety refers to the influential role that musicians’ own thinking plays. As I mentioned in a previous post, performers’ own thought processes can be empowering or debilitating.

As prevalent as performance anxiety is, the value of diagnosing it has not seemed to catch on. More common are recommended cure-alls, ranging from the silly (“imagine your audience in their underwear”) to the simplistic (“practice, practice, practice”). Also popular are reactive strategies for confronting anxiety. Breathing and muscle relaxation exercises have been found effective for many, and some turn to beta blocking drugs. I think this reflects the fatalist attitude mentioned above, in which musicians accept anxiety as fact and resign to battling symptoms without considering what’s causing them.

A preventative approach starts with identifying the source. While practicing the musical task is undeniably important when approaching a concert, much research suggests that also very influential are the performance situation and what goes on inside the heads of musicians themselves. Here I’ll share a couple recent studies that highlight the impact these can have and the value of addressing them specifically in treatment strategies.

In a 2011 study published in the journal Psychology of Music, three researchers in the UK compared perceived performance anxiety experiences of several different types of musicians, including classical, jazz, and popular (Papageorgi, Creech & Welch, 2011). Across all of their participants, solo performance elicited more anxiety than group performance. Additionally, classical musicians tended to report higher levels of anxiety. The researchers concluded that the traditionally formal context of classical performance may create additional pressure and increase anxiety levels.

That higher anxiety is linked to solo performance (vs. group) and classical contexts (vs. more informal) has been reported in much previous research. These clearly represent situational factors. Greater mastery over one’s music (the task) through practice does not address the intense “on the spot” feeling of a public solo performance, or additional pressure that may be brought on by formal concert settings. Instead, musicians can deal with situational stress through mental rehearsals, in which they try to remain calm while vividly imagining aspects of public performance. When situational anxiety is particularly debilitating, performers may choose a program of systematic desensitization. In this treatment approach, musician carry out a series of performances, learning to control their physiological arousal while gradually progressing from least anxiety-inducing to most anxiety-inducing conditions.

In another recent study, British conservatoire students underwent a “mental skills” training program that addressed sources of anxiety within the categories of the person and the situation. Participants learned to manage anxiety through goal-setting, cognitive restructuring (changing thinking through self-talk), and vivid imagery in mental rehearsals. Compared to a control group, those who received the training experienced a significant increase in their self-efficacy (i.e., perceived competence) toward performing. The post-training comments of these musicians “revealed greater levels of self-awareness, confidence, facilitative views toward and heightened control over anxiety, and healthier perspectives toward music-making” (p. 342).

As the old joke goes, the way to get to Carnegie Hall may very well be practice, practice, practice. But it may not be the key to having performance success once onstage. What’s more, excessive practice may not lead to enjoyment of the experience. Not only can stage fright harm the musical product being presented to an audience, it can prevent musicians from enjoying performance for themselves. I would suggest that many would be better served to focus not on the quality of their music—which may just drive them to more practice—but on finding greater “in the moment” awareness and reward for themselves during performance. This may prompt them to think more carefully about the situational factors that affect their performance experience, and reexamine their thought processes during music making.


Clark, T., & Williamon, A. (2011). Evaluation of a mental skills training program for musicians. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 23(3), 342-359.

Klickstein, G. (2009). The Musician’s Way. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lehmann, A. C., Sloboda, J. A., & Woody, R. H. (2007). Psychology for musicians. New York: Oxford University Press.

Papageorgi, I., Creech, A., & Welch, G. (2011). Perceived performance anxiety in advanced musicians specializing in different musical genres. Psychology of Music. doi: 10.1177/0305735611408995

Valentine, E. (2002). The fear of performance. In J. Rink (Ed.), Musical performance: A guide to understanding (pp. 168-182). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Wilson, G. D., & Roland, D. (2002). Performance anxiety. In R. Parncutt & G. E. McPherson (Eds.), The science and psychology of music performance (pp. 47–61). New York: Oxford University Press.

Copyright 2012 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: luxorium on Flickr Creative Commons.

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