Staying Motivated

May 15, 2012, 2:49 PM ·

People who are unable to motivate themselves must be content with mediocrity, no matter how impressive their other talents.”
–Andrew Carnegie (The Musician’s Way, p. 105)

We all know that musical excellence takes persistent practice. Still, motivating ourselves to practice isn’t always easy.

I’ve found that knowing a simple formula helps me and my students fuel our drive to practice. I hope that you find it useful too.

V x E = M
In On Course: Strategies for Creating Success in College and in Life, author Skip Downing points to an equation used by motivation theorists:

Value x Expectation = Motivation (V x E = M).

That is, the more we value our work – both in terms of the outcome and our experience doing it – and the greater our expectation that we’ll succeed at it, the higher our level of motivation.

For instance, let’s say that when we start on a new piece:

a. We’re in love with the music, so we deem the value of learning it to be 10 out of 10.

b. We could master the piece in a week, so our expectation of success is also a 10.

c. Multiplying V x E, our motivation score totals 100, so we’ll be keen to practice.

In a different circumstance, suppose that we pick up another composition that we value at a 10, but we realize that it outstrips our ability, so our expectation of success is a 2.

With a total motivation score of 20 out of 100, we might be inspired initially, but our urge to practice will probably fade because we know that we won’t be able to perform the music acceptably.

Likewise, with repertoire that’s easy (E=10) but unappealing (V=2), our motivation ebbs.

In sum, to motivate ourselves, we have to choose goals we value and know that we can attain.

Raising the Value Factor
Have you identified what you value about making music?

If not, I encourage you to write down why being a musician is important to you and what you dream of achieving (see my post Artistic Vision for an exercise).

Then, share what you’ve written with teachers, peers, and family members so that they can support you. Read accounts of other artists’ missions, too.

With your values clear, it also becomes easier for you to find meaning in routine practice tasks.

For example, when you connect working on technical exercises to your larger aim of contributing beauty to the world, your practice resonates with value, and your V number rises.

Such big-picture values ignite our devotion to practice and enable us to persist despite life’s ups and downs.

In the words of Luciano Pavarotti, “People think I am disciplined. It is not discipline, it is devotion. There is a great difference.” (The Musician’s Way, p. 106)

Boosting the Expectation Factor
Whether you strive to perform professionally or not, here are some tips that will help you succeed as a performer and thereby feed your gusto for practice:

For inclusive practice and performance strategies, see Parts I & II of The Musician’s Way.

A version of this article first appeared on The Musician’s Way Blog.

© 2012 Gerald Klickstein


May 16, 2012 at 03:16 AM · Hi, I would just like to say that I LOVE your book. We read it in my string seminar class last semester and I enjoyed every page of it. One of my favorite lines (similar to the quote you posted at the top of this blog) is "Musicians who repeat without excellence marinate in mediocracy". I actually loved that so much that I put it as the welcome message on my phone! Anyway, just wanted to say that your book is amazing and it really helped my have more effective practice sessions!

May 16, 2012 at 12:35 PM · Thanks Emily - that's very kind of you to say and most gratifying to hear!

May 17, 2012 at 09:44 AM · Did you mean to say --Play artfully under pressure or Play artistically under pressure ? The first sounds as if it means crafty and you are getting away with it . Maybe you mean both together .

May 17, 2012 at 10:49 AM · Hi John - Thanks for the question. Maybe it would have been clearer if I had said, "Play at your best under pressure."

What I mean is that we have to practice in ways that build awareness and instill the habits we need on stage so that we can play artistically no matter how high the pressure climbs. Conversely, musicians who practice on autopilot instill a kind of muscle memory that doesn't hold up under the lights, causing them to be anxious, ineffective performers. More about this in my post Becoming a Confident Performer.

May 17, 2012 at 01:50 PM · Gerald - Thanks so much, as always, for sharing your valuable insights with us. It is one of the great things about that people in your position are willing to give the rest of us the benefit or what you have learned as a professional.

May 17, 2012 at 08:37 PM · Thanks, Tom. It's a pleasure to contribute to the community and most rewarding to know that my work is appreciated.

May 18, 2012 at 10:27 AM · If you added up what motivates a player , not all of it would relate to the music. Money is in the picture but not really central stage . Playing with a very famous soloist could inspire and terrify at the same time .The venue could make you nervous if it had a long illustrious history. Oistrakh said he treated a concert as if it was a party to enjoy. He also got nervous before playing too ,which surprised me . Kreisler would chat to all the players in an orchestra as if he was one of the lads . He could maybe find the whole famous bit a little lonely at times . Fascinating topic . The "success in life "section of the title above might link with the idea of a manufacturer thinking of giving the customer the best value as his main priority and working back from there.Then the business begins to thrive .

May 18, 2012 at 11:03 AM · Hi John. Motivation is indeed a fascinating topic, and I agree with all your points.

In a sense, to advance musically, we not only need to build artistic & technical proficiency but also become adept at self-motivation.

You bring up the importance of employing both internal and external motivators - i.e., pursuing goals for their own sake and also committing to obligations that require us to practice. I touch on these topics in a related post called The Self-Motivated Musician.

May 19, 2012 at 08:45 AM · What about the negatives to motivation? Living in hotels. Strange beds.Where and what to eat ? Clean shirts (John Williams the guitarist got fed up with that ). Finding your way around strange cities and countries. Oh ,now I`ve unravelled all your good work .

May 19, 2012 at 10:26 AM · Thanks for the humor, John. Yes, any endeavor comes with challenges, but when we go forward purposefully, we can address challenges in constructive ways.

May 21, 2012 at 01:34 PM · I sometimes sabotage my own success by straying from my appointed practice time. Your blog helped me see a logical reason that I drag my feet practicing some selections.

I am self motivated. I do not have a goal to set the music world on fire or make a lot of money. I just want to learn to play the violin for as long as I am able. So to keep generating some steam I need to forget about being a "student" and to remember to feed my soul with music that I like to play--so I will practice---more. Yes--I do like to play "duets." I get the sheet music, buy the CD, slow down the tempo and play along. That is fun for me.

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