In teaching, we spend much of our time figuring out how to motivate students to learn. In the real world, motivation is often reduced to cheerleading combined with offers of money, and status. If you've ever seen a sales convention of real estate agents or car salespeople, you know what I mean.
But the motivation to study (and you may substitute the word practice for study) has to come from somewhere else. No one is going to pay you for mastering a particular scale, arpeggio, or musical concept. And in the early stages, large audiences don't applaud your every effort. In fact, if the music you play does not have a large audience to begin with, you may never reach large numbers of people with your music. So how do you stay motivated to continue studying and playing?
Motivation can be broken down into two basic categories: external and internal. External motivation comes in the form of outside rewards: money, success, M&M's, etc. Another type of external reward is recognition. People will take all kinds of risks to be recognized, and this often allows them to overcome all kinds of obstacles to keep working toward a goal.
Internal motivation is the motivation to continue doing something just for the sake of doing it. That is, the reward is the activity itself. This is not something that comes quickly or easily when undertaking a new activity, if the new activity is at all challenging, like mastering a musical instrument.
When I first started touring professionally, I was on the road in Florida with a show band, playing cover material. We traveled from Holiday Inn to Holiday Inn performing nightly for largely indifferent audiences, getting poor pay, and living in crowded, often discouraging accommodations. The musicians I worked with had been playing this circuit for years. I lasted two months. Why?
Every night, the members of the band would sit down to scheme a way to commercial success. As young as I was, these nightly discussions seemed pipe dreams even then. But the talks were what kept this band of mediocre musicians getting on stage every night in motel restaurants to perform for tourists. The dream of success, of recognition, was part of their external reward system. The renewed the reward by talking about it. Since I wasn't trying to achieve stardom, I found the discussions discouraging, not motivating, because they didn't address my goals. So I quit and moved on.
As musicians, we need to reflect on what direction we're going in. Once we are content with our direction, then we should examine on how to remain motivated to move toward our goals. If you are focused on your eventual commercial success in pop music, your technical and musical skills will eventually become secondary to the skills of reaching an audience, self-promotion, and developing commercially viable material. If you're focused on improving as a musician, then the external rewards will seem less important. You'll derive your rewards from the music itself. For a lucky few, these overlap: they love music that has wide appeal. Their rewards are both internal and external. Eventually, though, when success has eluded them long enough, the music becomes enough or not.
Examine for yourself what motivates you. Are you hoping for eventual popular success? There is nothing wrong with that, but it's worth remembering that the sacrifices are considerable, and most never achieve stardom.
Do you play because you love the music you perform? Is the thrill of performing the music you love what motivates you? This will carry you as far as the music itself demands.
Finally, is it the act of mastering your instrument and expressing musical ideas that you find rewarding? If it is, then you can easily imagine yourself playing your instrument simply for the sake of making music, without regard for external rewards. And that will keep you playing music all of your life.
Matthew Brown is a bassist and teacher in Worcester, MA who finds writing articles intrinsically rewarding.