Grow an Inner Carrot, Forget the Stick

I would advise my young colleagues, the composers of symphonies, to drop in sometimes at the kindergarten, too. It is there that it is decided whether there will be anybody to understand their works in twenty years’ time. ~Zoltan Kodaly

Lately I’ve been buried in research on motivation, an intricate and slippery topic when we start to look closely at what it means to be motivated, how someone comes to have the “rage to master” (a term coined by Dr. Ellen Winner, whose research focuses on cognition in the arts in typical and gifted children). It’s no surprise that I’ve posted over 10 entries that include some aspect of motivation, and yet I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this fascinating and important topic as it relates to music practice.

One thing the research record tells us is that incentives and other forms of extrinsic motivation don’t work very well to motivate us, nor do punishments. Carrots and sticks only work if you’re an ass. Much better is motivation that comes from within, or intrinsic motivation. And sometimes training can be a hindrance, too, as you’ll see in the vid below. This thought-provoking TED talk is a great way to see the real-world example of how incentives often mean horrible performance, and training isn’t always a good thing. Learn the simple reason why kindergarten kids beat out MBAs in a design challenge. Though experience may not help you, strategies probably will, and effective practice is all about strategies (stay tuned for more of these). The vid also has some good thoughts about building teams, which is what we do when we play music together.

To induce some intrinsic motivation, some questions we should ask ourselves in relation to our music practice are, “What are the musical things am I most curious about or intrigued by? What are the songs/sounds that I love and want to play? What musical things do I really want to do?” For me, the answers of the moment are: 1. Improvisation, 2. Chris Smither tunes like the brilliant and funny Origin of Species, and 3. Play soprano trombone (if I don’t get one for my birthday, I’m buying one!). What are some other questions that might stimulate motivation? Please share!

If we can keep in front of us the aspects of music that get us really excited, we’ve gone a long way toward keeping that intrinsic motivation alive, and this will get us excited to go sit in a room alone and make sounds. A marshmallow now and then wouldn’t hurt either.

Take care and good luck with your practice.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

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