The Pianist’s Motivations

Supporting Your Piano Playing Journey

  • What is it that motivates us as pianists?
  • Why did we start learning to play the piano? ..
  • And why do we continue to play?
  • What are our piano goals for the future? ..
  • And how do they excite us?
  • How can we motivate and inspire our students?

Ask these questions to a hundred pianists, and there’s a good chance you will hear a hundred different answers, but common themes will likely emerge.

In this article I am going to consider the many and complex motivations we all experience in life, focussing in on the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, and how each pertains to our piano playing.

Intrinsic & Extrinsic: Yin & Yang

Categorising motivations as extrinsic and intrinsic is an approach that considers whether motivation arises from outside (extrinsic) or inside (intrinsic) the individual.

We will look at each of these in more depth in a moment. For now it is enough to remember that extrinsic motivation relies on reward (or the avoidance of punishment), while intrinsic motivation comes from within, rooted in our own desire, interest, curiosity and enthusiasm.

Educators and psychologists naturally emphasise the positive nature of developing intrinsic motivation, so it is ironic that for teachers and parents our main strategies for fostering motivation tend to rely on extrinsic motivators to push progress.

I would suggest that both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation have an important role to play, and that (to use a Daoist metaphor) they can be likened to Yin and Yang respectively.

  • Extrinsic motivation can be likened to Yang because it is external, dynamic, but often short-lived.
  • Intrinsic motivation meanwhile is more Yin, being stable, internal and enduring.

It is understandable that we regard Yin intrinsic motivation as a higher aspirational goal, but the dynamic Yang extrinsic motivation can I believe, if used wisely and in moderation, sometimes be the very spark that fans intrinsic motivation into a stronger flame.

Our goal for ourselves (and for our students if we teach) must be for the right bespoke balance in each situation.

Extrinsic Motivations

In a recent article, author and educational consultant Kendra Cherry defines Extrinsic Motivation thus:

“Extrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by external rewards such as money, fame, grades, and praise. This type of motivation arises from outside the individual, as opposed to intrinsic motivation, which originates inside of the individual.”

In the context of learning and playing the piano, the following might be considered extrinsic motivators:

  • Taking a Grade Exam or other external/formal assessment
  • Taking part in a Music Festival or Competition
  • Receiving teacher rewards such as sweets or stickers
  • Ticking off a list of accomplishments or completing an external challenge
  • Receiving a good written report
  • Receiving acclaim and praise from others, for example after a performance
  • Receiving Payment, or a specified reward (e.g. from parents)

Pianists and teachers will likely be very familiar with all of these motivators. Some might even wonder whether it is possible to motivate children (in particular) to practise without employing a cocktail of them all.

As Cherry notes in her article:

“This type of motivation can be highly effective. Just look at all of the examples in your own life of things that you do in order to gain some type of external reward… You might toil away performing tasks at work that you dislike in order to keep getting a steady pay check.”

But there are drawbacks to extrinsic motivation, as she goes on to explain:

“While offering rewards can increase motivation in some cases, researchers have also found that this is not always the case. In fact, offering excessive rewards can actually lead to a decrease in intrinsic motivation.”

This phenomenon has come to be known as the Overjustificaion Effect.

The “Overjustification Effect”

To explain this, Cherry cites the classic experiment by Lepper, Greene, & Nisbett in which children were rewarded for drawing with felt-tip pens, an activity that they had previously enjoyed voluntarily doing on their own during play time.

When the children were subsequently offered the chance to draw with the pens during play time again, those who had been rewarded for using them previously now showed less interest in doing so purely for their own enjoyment, while those who had not been rewarded remained enthusiastic to draw with the pens by their own choice.

Might rewarding those who play the piano have a similarly deleterious impact on their intrinsic motivation? It would seem so…

For example, there is a research paper by Vallerand, Gauvin and Halliwell, published by the Journal of Social Psychology, which specifically demonstrates the destructive effect that competition (an extrinsic motivator) can have on intrinsic motivation.

In another major study, Shui-Fong Lam, Pui-Shan Lim, Josephine Law & Rebecca Cheung looked into the effects of competition on motivation in Chinese classrooms. They concluded:

“Students in the competitive condition performed better in easy tasks than their counterparts in the non-competitive condition. However, they were more performance-oriented and more likely to sacrifice learning opportunities for better performance.

“They were also prone to have worse self-evaluation after failure. Although there were no statistically significant differences between the two conditions in task enjoyment and achievement attribution, the direction of the differences was consistently unfavourable to students in the competitive condition.”

“The findings were consistent with the predictions of goal theory. Competitiveness induces performance goals and worse self-evaluation after failure among Chinese students in a classroom setting, as was [also previously] found with Western students in a laboratory setting.”

These studies perhaps make troubling reading for those who heavily rely on graded exams, competitions, music festivals, and other extrinsic motivators.

However, I suspect that most readers will, like me, be loath to simply reject these activities. Our experience suggests that they can be helpful motivators, and that used wisely and sympathetically they are often beneficial, so long as they don’t become an end in-and-of themselves.

To give a simple example:

  • learning a piece selected for an exam, playing it as instructed by a teacher in order to achieve the best result (extrinsic),
  • can lead to a deeper understanding of music which the player might otherwise not have encountered, so fostering a deeper and broader love of music (intrinsic).

Intrinsic Motivations

Ask piano teachers what their ultimate goal is, and many will answer that their deepest wish is to inspire a lifelong love of music in their students.

This is, in simple terms, lasting intrinsic motivation.

That we too often rely on extrinsic means to motivate students is thus a significant irony. But how do we spot intrinsic motivation in action?

Here’s a checklist of statements which all point to intrinsic motivations for playing the piano. See how strongly you agree with each statement:

  • I enjoy sitting down and just listening to music
  • Music is really important in my life
  • If I am unable to play the piano for a few days, I miss it
  • I like to choose the music I want to learn
  • When I play a piece well, I feel accomplished and a sense of satisfaction
  • I like to play the piano for myself. It doesn’t matter whether others listen
  • I am curious to discover new music and new styles of music
  • I like to challenge and stretch myself as a player
  • Playing the piano can be lots of fun
  • Playing the piano helps me to feel positive about myself
  • I like to play pieces my way, and it doesn’t matter whether others agree with my interpretations
  • I enjoy creating my own music, improvising and composing
  • I enjoy helping others develop their love of music and ability to play

Once you’ve considered your own intrinsic motivation, have a think about your students (if you are a teacher). Isn’t it great to hear them say statements such as those listed above?!

And intrinsic motivation has been shown to have many benefits. Piano players with intrinsic motivation are likely to:

  • be more focussed in practice and less easily distracted
  • be more creative players
  • experience fewer motivation swings
  • be more focused on learning and improving
  • become more confident and self-sufficient
  • feel greater satisfaction in their musical achievements

But is intrinsic motivation always enough?

If the Yin /Yang analogy is useful, shouldn’t there be a balance?

Kate’s Story

Consider the story of Kate (not her real name), an adult student of mine who took up the piano as a beginner in her late twenties. For three years or so, she made excellent progress, propelled almost entirely by intrinsic motivation. She wanted to be able to play, enjoyed lessons and practice, loved listening to music, and regularly attended piano concerts.

Just recently, however, Kate has lost some of that enthusiasm. She started to question whether or not to continue. The well of intrinsic motivation seemed to be running dry. In Kate’s lesson, we took a look at her motivation. Why did she start lessons, what has she enjoyed up until now, and what might have changed?

It became clear through discussion that her intrinsic motivation needed a boost, and while not ignoring evidence that an over-reliance on extrinsic motivation can be deleterious, my model of Yin/Yang balance proved helpful here. A small dose of extrinsic motivation, an external goal towards which Kate can work, could be just what she needs to rekindle her intrinsic motivation.

Kate never performs to others at all, outside of the lessons, and has no interest in exams. But I suggested she set a date in a few months time, when she will invite 2 or 3 friends to her home for the evening, ply them with wine, and play them a few tunes.

I also suggested that although she doesn’t want to actually take a grade exam, working through that material would give her a better sense of her progress and current attainment. Kate seemed enthused by both these ideas, and left the lesson with a renewed motivation.

Beyond the Self

Before concluding, I must point out that both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are fundamentally based on selfish interests, rooted in our nature.

Professor Steven Reiss suggests in his pioneering work on motivation that there are 16 Basic Desires which govern behaviour; these are all personal as opposed to altruistic.

In my recent reflection The Pianist’s Kindness I offered an alternative perspective: moving beyond either intrinsic or extrinsic motivation, suggesting that:

“… ultimately we will want to move towards kindness without possessiveness, and with no attachments.”

Similarly, in another recent reflection The Pianist’s Generosity I noted that our piano playing can be for others, quoting my good friend Paul Harris:

“Performing is an act of giving.
If we perform with artistry and skill – at any level, and with unconditional generosity – then everyone is the better for it.”

These ideas may be more utopian and idealistic than Reiss’s psychological observations, but I would love to believe that we can move beyond personal motivation alone, and towards more altruistic goals.

It is surely worth all our whiles to consider afresh what truly lies at the heart of our motivation to play the piano, along with 10,000 other things!

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.