Why do we play the piano?

Expression • Fluency • Understanding
Written by Andrew Eales


The question of why we play the piano would seem to be both an obvious one to ask and an easy one to answer. And yet it rarely is.

In this article I consider four “types” of player, while recognising that many of us combine aspects of most or all of them.


Four “types” of runner…

Runner’s World magazine once included a piece considering the reasons that people go running, identifying four “types” of runner. It seems to me that these types are equally useful as a starting-point framework for reflecting on the variety and combination of reasons we play the piano:

  • Exercise / Self Improvementpeople run to improve their fitness and lose weight
  • Competitionpeople run for medals, to improve their own race time and/or to beat others
  • Enthusiasmsome people run because they enjoy it, and to experience the joy of the day
  • Socialisingsome people run to be with others (for example joining running clubs and going on “fun runs”)

In this article I hope to unpack what each of these types looks like in the context of piano playing, but first let’s briefly relate these ideas to the thoughts on extrinsic and intrinsic motivations which I have previously written about.

Citing the Runner’s World article in his best-selling book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Dr. Stuart Brown notes of the four types,

“All four types are certainly running, but the internal experience can be very different. The truth is that the enthusiast and the socialiser are most likely to be engaged in pure play, pursuing the activity for the joy it brings. The other two may be running mostly in pursuit of goals…”

In other words, competition and self-improvement are measurable extrinsic motivators driven by specific rewards, while enthusiasm and socialising are more overtly intrinsic, from within.

As I have previously suggested, I personally believe both have their place provided a healthy balance is established and maintained.

We piano types…

Let’s consider the correspondences for piano players, recognising that of course most will actually find motivation and meaning in more than one of the four categories.

Those of us who play could find it useful to reflect on why we play using these four types. Which of the four do we most easily identify with? And least?

What is our internal experience of piano playing?

Meanwhile, those of us who teach could find it instructive to consider on an individual basis why each of our students play, aiming as we do so to become more adept at inclusively providing for the interests and motivations of all, and not only those whose core motivations we most readily identify with ourselves.

Parents may equally find these thoughts helpful, and want to reflect on the value that music tuition has for their children: what is the desired outcome of lessons, and are parental goals aligned with the individual child’s personal motivations?

So here are some thoughts on each of the four types:

Self-improvement

How many of these statements do you strongly agree with?

  • Playing the piano makes me a more rounded, better individual.
  • Having a range of skills, including piano playing, will help me succeed in university/job interviews.
  • Piano playing is good for the brain, helps cognitive function and is positive for general education.
  • It is really important to me to have cultural interests.
  • I like to challenge and stretch myself as a musician and person.
  • Piano grade exams and materials are a useful marker of my progress, and give me useful feedback, but the exam mark isn’t so important.

If you agree with most of these statements, then it’s likely that self-improvement is an important reason why you play the piano.

In my teaching experience, I have seen that those motivated by self-improvement are often very diligent learners, but the goal of “self-improvement” can occasionally militate against self-acceptance. There can be a need for encouragement to develop creative personality and individualism when playing.

Competition

How many of these statements do you strongly agree with?

  • Comparing my playing with others is a key way to know how well I am doing.
  • I like to perform, including in competitions and Festivals.
  • Getting a high mark in an exam shows how well I am progressing, and it’s important to me to improve my personal best score.
  • I like to receive applause and praise from others.
  • I would like to be as good as, or better at piano than … (name).

If you agree with most of these statements, then it’s likely that competing with self or against others is an important aspect of why you play the piano.

In my teaching experience, I have seen that those motivated by competition are often fast learners, but can need encouragement to stay the course, explore music more widely, and develop a lasting, intrinsic enjoyment.

Even a small disappointment can leave the more competitive learner feeling discouraged, a “failure”. I have seen many fall at this hurdle. The world really does seem to be full of ex-musicians who “gave up after Grade…”, which is a pretty tragic indictment of our music education culture.

As teachers and parents we must consider whether our educational priorities tend to be predicated towards encouraging and prizing competitive values and goals. While these have a place, it seems to me that there is a need to rebalance: a commitment to inclusion demands that teachers, schools and educational organisations support and cater for all committed learners and personality types.

Enthusiasm

How many of these statements do you strongly agree with?

  • I enjoy playing the piano and it is a really important in my life.
  • 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 play pieces my way, and it doesn’t matter whether others agree with my interpretations.
  • I enjoy creating my own music, improvising and composing.
  • Have you ever heard the music of ….? It’s wonderful…

If you agree with most of these statements, then it’s likely that personal enjoyment is an important reason why you play the piano.

Many teachers would identify their top priority as helping students develop a lifelong love of music. But do our students enthuse to friends and family about the pieces we teach them? Playing with genuine excitement, authentic expression and intrinsic motivation are certainly wonderful goals, but we can too easily lose sight of them.

In my experience working with learners, I have seen that those motivated by enthusiasm are often very engaged and imaginative, but sometimes need special encouragement to focus on developing strong core skills and playing repertoire suggested by others. In working with such players my own advocacy and enthusiasm for music needs to be especially infectious.

Another easy trap for enthusiastic players to fall into, and worth avoiding, is starting lots of pieces, but not fully learning any to a confident performing standard. The Active Repertoire project offers a good way of addressing this.

Socialising

How many of these statements do you strongly agree with?

  • I am an active, enthusiastic member of a piano club/society/meetup.
  • I like playing duets, in a chamber group or in a band.
  • I enjoy going to concerts, especially with others.
  • I often talk about music with my family/friends/acquaintances.
  • I enjoy helping others develop their love of music and piano playing

If you agree with most of these statements, then it’s likely that socialising is an important element within why you play the piano.

In my teaching experience, I have seen that those motivated by socialising are often very happy learners, but can sometimes need encouragement to quicken the pace of their own progress and develop a disciplined approach to personal practice. Adding a social element is key.

Since I began running a monthly adult piano playing club, I have witnessed the transformative effect this can have on many players’ motivation, progress and enjoyment. Piano playing can be an isolative activity (some of course love it precisely for that reason); a lot of players welcome the opportunity to get together and share their journey.

As teachers, we can look for other opportunities to bring together the piano players and learners we work with. Group activities, informal concerts, piano parties, informal social events and more formal courses can all contribute to the happiness of the socially motivated piano player.

Some Closing Thoughts

There are many excellent reasons for playing the piano, and ultimately no bad ones. This short article has merely scratched the surface of the many reason we love piano playing, but has hopefully provided food for thought and discussion.

In recognising this wealth of variety, human interest and engagement, we can reinvigorate our own motivational goals with a fresh impetus, and look to the interests of other players with more empathy and understanding.

Why do YOU play the piano? What is your internal experience of playing?


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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.