March 1, 2018
What Motivates Musicians to Practice?
Setting a goal seems to be the best motivator. But there is much more to learn...
From the very moment you started making music - long ago or recently as it may be - you probably realized pretty quickly that practice was going to be necessary if you wanted to learn, improve, master, and sound beautiful - whether your aspirations were to grace the stage at Carnegie Hall, jam with friends, play local gigs, join a community orchestra, or make music in the comforts of your own living room. But as rewarding as it can be to acquire new skills and make beautiful music, engaging in regular practice isn't always so easy. Motivation can run in short supply when life's other demands call upon your energy and attention. And let's face it: sometimes at the end of an exhausting day, all you may long to do is put your feet up, sip a soothing beverage, and unwind - not necessarily set up your music stand, and endure the inevitable ups and downs along the way to "greatness."
Finding ways to spark motivation to practice is key in music. But there's no magic recipe - every musician is motivated, or demotivated, by different things. What are some of those factors that motivate musicians to practice?
This past fall, we developed our own survey to learn from VSM's Users about some of what motivates them to practice their primary instrument. We received well over 400 completed surveys, and gleaned lots of interesting information from Users' honest and thorough responses. We learned a great deal about motivation to practice music, and have even developed a few suggestions, based on our data, that might help motivate you, your child, or your students to practice.
Nearly 75% of the musicians who responded to our survey indicated that they practice anywhere from 1 to 10 hours per week, with just over 10% practicing more than 10 hours per week, and just over 12% practicing less than 1 hour per week. These numbers are not surprising given that nearly half of the musicians classified themselves as "amateur musicians," and of intermediate skill level; and just over 16% as " music students." VSM's Users seem dedicated to at least minimal practice each week; although it is also possible that those less inclined to practice may not have filled out our survey.
A general "love" for music, "personal enjoyment" of playing music for its own sake, and having a general appreciation for one's instrument played positive roles in over 96% of musicians' motivation to practice. Musicians used words like "enjoyment," "pleasure," "love," and "joy" to describe how they feel about playing and practicing. Some musicians expressed such a powerful intrinsic enjoyment of playing music that they made no distinction between "practice" and playing for fun or performing for an audience. One musician explained, "I love being absorbed in the music and playing it. Focusing with your eyes, ears, hands, mind, and emotions leaves no room for other distractions or worry. In this, it is a form of meditation for me and I draw no distinction between practice and playing."
Many were also highly motivated by the strong connection they feel with their instrument. One musician commented, " A good, rewarding, responsive instrument is motivating to me," while another reflected, "The very tactile interaction with the keyboard and the vibrations of sound reach my soul. I feel blessed."
“The very tactile interaction with the keyboard and the vibrations of sound reach my soul.”
It also seems that what to practice may influence motivation. Learning something new at least somewhat positively motivated over 94% of musicians to practice their primary instrument, for example; and approximately 87% of musicians were also positively motivated when music felt appropriately challenging. While learning new music was an important motivational force for our survey respondents, 85% did indicate that practicing music already-mastered was at least somewhat positively motivating. While playing music that feels easy might be a valuable confidence booster, 27% of musicians were not at all motivated by playing music that may feel too easy for their skill level.
For some, however, it didn't matter so much whether the music was new or well-learned, easy or difficult. What mattered more to many musicians was the nature of the music itself - that is, whether they enjoyed listening to and felt inspired by the music. Inspiration by listening to others may be extremely important for motivation to practice as one musician explained, "I could just listen to some of the great violinists to be motivated to practice for hours." Another musician commented, "I will practice to perfect a composition that I find truly inspiring. It brings me immense peace." One musician further commented on the power of feeling inspired: "Hearing a beautiful song that I want to learn to play it. That gives me the most incentive to practice." A music teacher also explained of their students' motivation: " One great motivator [is] ... the music itself!!!! That is what I believe motivates my students especially. I carefully search for music that they love! For example, we play Vivaldi's Four Seasons about every 4-5 year's. They love this piece and will work really hard on it." For others, an element of nostalgia played an important role in their motivation to practice; that is, practicing, learning, and playing music that evoked childhood memories (the "oldies but goodies", if you will) was both rewarding and motivating.
“Hearing a beautiful song that I want to learn to play it. That gives me the most incentive to practice.”
Listening to music may also be important for motivation. Over 83% of musicians indicated that listening to recorded music featuring their primary instrument at least somewhat positively effected their motivation to practice. Similarly, over 82% reported that attending live musical performances helped spark their motivation to practice. Aspiring to emulate others can be a powerful motivator, as one musician commented, "Listening to performances of pieces I love, knowing that with work I could probably play them acceptably," and another reflected, " Listening to other orchestras and bands playing also motivates me for it sets a goal for me that I want to be like them one day."
Sixty-three percent of musicians indicated that being a member of some sort of musical group at least somewhat positively influenced their motivation to practice. For some beginners, the hope to one day play with an ensemble, band, or orchestra was highly motivating for practice, as explained by one musician: "As an adult music student, the biggest motivator is weekly lessons with the goal of joining our community orchestra." Another commented, " The biggest motivation is the pleasure from playing with others - the higher the standard, the better. The more you put in, the more you get out, so the more I prepare for playing with others, the better it goes, and the more I enjoy it." Another musician further explained the motivational force behind playing with a group: " I belong to a number of professional and semi professional organizations. Rehearsing and performing with them is exhilarating. Therefore, preparing (personal practice) for those rehearsals and performances is deeply satisfying." Additionally, many music teachers also commented that "setting an example" for their students was an important source of motivation for their own practicing, and many church musicians offered that feeling prepared to play competently for worship services motivated their regular practice.
“The biggest motivation is the pleasure from playing with others - the higher the standard, the better. The more you put in, the more you get out, so the more I prepare for playing with others, the better it goes, and the more I enjoy it.”
While about 62% experienced a boost to their motivation when practicing alongside others, practicing alone, as reported by nearly 90% of Users, positively effected motivation to practice. Perhaps this has something to do with the notion that one's own expectations of oneself, more so than others' expectations, are what is most critical. Eighty-four percent of musicians indicated that their own expectations of themselves as a musician positively effected their motivation, and these expectations of self carried far more weight than expectations of others at 55%.
Expectations of others may not be important for some musicians' motivation to practice, but 73% of musicians were positively motivated by others' encouragement. Not surprisingly, encouragement had far more positive effects than criticisms, which had positive effects on motivation for about 33% of musicians, negative effects on motivation for 18% of musicians, and 28% of musicians felt as though criticisms had no impact on their motivation at all. Similarly to the positive effects of encouragement from others on motivation, some musicians commented that bringing joy to an audience, applause, and even "surprising" friends with their progress and talents were important sources of motivation to practice as well.
Also not surprisingly, nearly 90% of musicians were positively motivated by their perceived progress, and over 88% of musicians felt as though their belief in their abilities as a musician played an important role in their motivation to practice.
Perceived progress, or even simply the desire to learn and achieve mastery, were mentioned by many musicians in their further comments. One musician explained, " ... learning the necessary techniques to play wonderful music has always been a strong motivation for me." Maintaining skills was also an important motivator for many, as explained by one musician: " I am motivated to not lose what I've learned as a 60+ beginner/intermediate--reading notes, fingering, feeling agile." This powerful impact of perceived progress and mastery on motivation to practice is no surprise. According to Self Determination Theory, one of the leading theories of motivation, competence (which we may think of as mastery, progress, or perceived musical ability) underpins one's inner drive; that is, the more one feels one is capable of making progress and mastering skills in music, the more one is likely to be intrinsically motivated to practice.
Logistics are also a key factor when it comes to motivation to practice. having a place conducive to productive practice, for example, at least somewhat positively affected motivation for 88% of musicians. Additionally, 71% of musicians indicated that having time in their schedules to adequately practice at least somewhat positively affected their motivation to practice. For example, one musician explained that they felt most motivated to practice when they had "adequate free time, a clear mind (it is very rare), being alone and calm without people nearby."
Nearly 80% of musicians indicated that having specific music-related goals positively affected their motivation to practice. Many mentioned an intense "desire" to improve, and felt a satisfying "gratification" when progress was realized through practice. One musician commented, "I'm motivated to practice, just because of all the goals that I have set for myself, and that I am starting to see be achieved." Another reflected, "I am always trying to make a beautiful sound; when I succeed I feel good, and realize that I have improved because I practice."
Relating to the notion of making progress and realizing musical goals, 68% were at least somewhat positively motivated when they had upcoming performances, but not necessarily competitions, for which to prepare. As one musician explained, "Upcoming performances, no matter how easy, music is a big motivator to practice. It's insurance that you will get it right on the day."
The survey we developed could not possibly have covered all potential factors influencing motivation to practice, and musicians elaborated extensively on some of their own specific experiences with motivation. The potential positive effects of making music on well-being emerged as a widespread facet of musicians' motivation to practice. Music practice enhances mood, reduces stress, uplifts the spirit, increases energy, and brings about a sense of peace. As one musician explained, "When practicing/playing a given piece, if I can get the phrasing and expression 'just right,' it produces a certain euphoric feeling that encourages me to "want to do it again." Another musician commented, "When I play the guitar, the outside world disappears and there is only the instrument and I. Hence, a feeling of peace comes so that I gain energy to be used in other activities." Practice also helped sharpen the mind, stave off cognitive decline, and keep arthritic, achy joints limber and agile. One musician reflected, "in retirement music is both the ultimate enjoyment and a necessary mental challenge to sharpen and improve brain function," while another offered, "The physical activity of playing the piano strengthens my arms and upper body. The mental stimulation from playing the piano helps prevent Alzheimer's disease." Our quantitative and qualitative findings from our survey support the well-documented notion that music, whether listening to it or creating it, has widespread positive effects on the brain (for more on this topic, read our article "Is music really good for the brain?").
Musicians also reflected on the power of music's transcendent quality with regard to their motivation to practice. Playing and practicing music, for some, offered a chance to become absorbed and "get lost" in the music, as one musician explained: " On days I feel I need to lighten my mood or want to escape into another world, it will encourage me to practice my piano." Another musician passionately stated, " Playing the violin or piano allows me to leave this world and enter a place where I am conversing with Vivaldi, Chopin, Beethoven, Brahms in their own tongue! The pleasure and motivation derived from that is totally indescribable!!" Interestingly, another musician reflected on how music's transcendent quality brought about a deep sense of grounding in the present: " The masters call it focus and being in the now. When I practice everything else disappears and I am in the now. The time goes by and then I come back, unaware of the passage of time. It is an amazing place, a meditation for me. I am so blessed to play."
The creative, expressive, exploratory nature of playing and practicing music was another interesting facet of motivation that came forth in the survey responses. Composing and "tweaking" one's own compositions and improvising served as important sources of motivation for some. Others enjoyed the chance to experiment with new techniques (especially those found in VSM's weekly Music Expert Videos, as well as on YouTube), and also felt motivated to improve their skills as a musician so they could enjoy the expressive nature of playing music.
With these fascinating findings in mind, here are some tips, drawn right from the data, that might help cultivate motivation to practice for you, your child, your colleagues, or your students.
How can you spark motivation to practice?
- Fuel your motivational fire by maintaining a steady stream of new music to learn and new techniques to master. Make sure your selections are appropriately challenging for your skill level - that is, music that stretches you just beyond your limits, but not so far that you become frustrated and discouraged (a sure fire way to extinguish your motivational flame). Playing music that feels easy for your skill level may help boost your confidence, but the motivational effects may be short-lived. And don't underestimate the power of dusting off some of those already-mastered favorites and stand-bys. They may be just what you need to spark your inspiration and get you back on track.
- Set goals for yourself to help you stay focused and motivated. Your goals should be specific, challenging yet attainable, and most importantly, relevant and meaningful to you. Goals set by others for you that don't resonate with you may be more discouraging than motivating, so work with your teacher, colleagues, and other supporters if and when you need help setting appropriate goals. After all, it's your own expectations and beliefs about yourself and your abilities as a musician that are the foundation of your motivation.
- Designate a dedicated practice space - one that is accessible, prone to few distractions, and a pleasant space where you can spend quality time with your instrument. A place with a little bit of privacy is ideal, and a place that is kept relatively clean is also important - so you don't have to declutter and rearrange furniture just so you can practice.
- When possible, set aside time in advance for music practice. Leaving time to practice up to your whims and the trajectory of your day may leave you scrambling at the end of a long, exhausting day with little time and energy left to practice. If all you can manage is 10 minutes, then 10 minutes it is. When it comes to music practice, quality is better than quantity.
- Use your love of music to your advantage. When you need some inspiration, listen to some recordings of your instrument, or even attend live performances if you have the time. Local libraries, museums, arts councils, colleges, community orchestras, and other cultural institutions may offer free or low-cost events for you to attend, enjoy, and use as valuable sources of motivation. Stay inspired by listening to recordings, watching videos, or attending live performances of the music and the musicians you most admire.
- Cultivate an understanding of and appreciation for your instrument. Learn about its history, how it works, who some of its champions have been, the role your instrument has played in cultures around the world, and even the contributions your instrument has made to movies, TV, advertising, and popular music.
- When you feel confident in your progress and musical ability, join a group. Making music with others, whether for pay or for fun, not only provides a chance for socializing and comradery, but knowing that you play a role in a larger whole and that others are counting on you may also be rich incentive to practice. Practicing with the group may also be highly motivating, but practicing by yourself in preparation for playing with the group may be even more powerful.
- Make space in your music practicing routine for less disciplined time to explore, create, and express yourself. While holding fast to your foundations of good technique, compose, improvise, or pour your emotions into whatever you're playing - simple songs, exercises, virtuoso pieces, and your own creations.
- Allow yourself to experience the benefits to your physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being whenever you practice. If you've had a stressful day, for example, enter into music practice with the hope that music will soothe your soul and ease tension. If you need a pick-me-up, allow your music practice to invigorate your spirit and get your blood and brain cells pumping. If you need to escape and transcend regular life for a while, then let your music practice take you to the place where you can find grounding and peace.
Think about what underlies your or your students' motivation to practice. Not every musician is motivated by the same forces, so boosting your motivation will work best when you tailor your strategies to your unique inclinations. You might also consider what serves as motivational forces in other areas of your life: work, hobbies, home maintenance, relationships, etc. While some elements of motivation for music practice may be music-specific, you may also find that your motivational style in other facets of life can be easily and effectively applied to your music practice as well.
It is totally normal for motivation to ebb and flow. Every musician experiences ups and downs to their motivation, so try not to feel discouraged if you find yourself running on fumes from time to time. Stay in touch with your own motivational tendencies, and be creative in finding ways to stoke your musical fire.
How about you? What motivates you to practice music?
Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below!
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