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Motivation, Attitude and Enthusiasm
Motivation, attitude and enthusiasm should be the musician’s best friends
by Robert Rawlins, Ph.D.
Robert Rawlins is assistant professor and coordinator of music theory at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. He is the author of A Simple and Direct Guide
to Jazz Improvisation (Hal Leonard, 1995), Intermediate Serial Duets for Two Flutes (Southern Music, 1990), and has published many articles on various aspects of music theory and performance. Dr. Rawlins has performed extensively on flute, saxophone and clarinet in both jazz and classical venues.
A book in my library contains a marvelous picture of Thomas Edison taking one of his famous catnaps. He’s lying on a hard wooden table, fully clothed in a drab Edwardian suit, sound asleep. No doubt, within minutes he was wide awake and back to work.
Edison considered himself a regular employee of his company and even punched the time clock like everyone else. His time cards reveal that he often spent more than 100 hours a week at the laboratory. Whenever I think I’m working hard, I just think of Thomas Edison to remind myself what real ambition is.
Edison was totally dedicated to every task he set for himself. He was typically so enthusiastic about his newest project that he was too excited to sleep or to think of anything else. We’ve all experienced at least small doses of this feeling.
I recall the summer when I wrote my first master’s thesis. Like everyone else, I harbored some doubt as to whether or not I could complete such a project. But once I gained momentum and I knew I was making progress, there was no stopping me. From the instant I woke up in the morning, sometimes as early as 4:00 a.m., I was mentally “writing” and couldn’t wait to put the actual words down. I was locked in battle with the beast, and it looked as if I was going to win. I wasn’t about to rest for a moment.
The difficulty lies in sustaining such enthusiasm. How did Edison do it? After all, what do you do after you’ve invented the phonograph? Why, you invent the light bulb, of course. New goals must replace those already achieved if we want to keep growing. But what if our goals aren’t so lofty? What about those of us who are just trying to find time to practice and survive the semester?
I think a lot about motivation, and I believe it’s part of my job to motivate students. With this in mind, I’ve compiled some techniques that I have found useful in motivating myself and others. Many of these suggestions have been around for generations. Some are my own. Others have been retooled to apply to musicians. They are all designed to help musicians—students and teachers alike—to work smarter, accomplish more, and enjoy the process.
The practice equation. Musicians like to discuss practice routines, teachers, natural ability, early training, schools of playing, and a host of other parameters that do, in fact, have a bearing on progress. But we must never forget the undeniable equation that lies at the heart of learning any instrument: hours invested = results achieved. To a great extent, the more skillful performer has simply spent more time with the
instrument.
Of course it matters what and how you practice, but divergent approaches are more likely to affect the type—not the quality—of performer you become.
Jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, for example, had so little guidance on the instrument that he actually played wrong fingerings, yet he went on to complete mastery of the instrument.
As an undergraduate, Bill Evans neglected to prepare the material assigned at lessons, yet he spent eight hours a day sight-reading and improvising. While he never learned the standard repertoire, he developed into one of the most influential jazz pianists in history.
Examples are legion. Don’t get hung up on methodology. Find a practice routine that works for you, and stick to it. Just play.
Enthusiasm is self-perpetuating. You’ve heard that enthusiasm makes the difference and that the enthusiastic worker is the better worker and so forth, but you might not have considered that enthusiasm tends to sustain itself.
When you’re enthusiastic about something, you think about it a lot, work hard at it, and become good at it. Of course, it’s easy to be enthusiastic about something you’re all wrapped up in. Conversely, if you dislike something, you put it out of mind, avoid it, never learn to do it well, and come to hate it even more. We might call the first example “the enthusiasm circle” and the second “the drudgery circle.” Once you get caught up in either one, it’s hard to get out.
Consider this scenario: a new policy is adopted that requires all music majors to pass a language proficiency test in German.
Student A thinks this is ridiculous and repeatedly says so to himself and others. Reluctantly, this student studies a minimal amount, hating every minute of it, and takes a whack at the exam, knowing it can be repeated three times. He fails. Next year he studies a little more, hating it even more, and fails again. Finally, he forces himself to study in earnest, all the while cursing any and all things Teutonic. By sheer, brutal effort he manages to pass the test, vowing never again to look at another page of German. Result: two years of pain, worry, and inconvenience, with almost nothing gained. (This scenario takes place in graduate schools all across the country every year.)
Student B knows something about how the human mind works. Without hesitating a moment, this student jumps into the enthusiasm circle, tackling the study materials and indulging in “the game” by buying a collection of Goethe’s poetry, recordings of German lieder and tickets to a Wagnerian opera. He greets his friends with German phrases, conjugates German verbs on his napkin over lunch and belts out, “Alle Menchen werden Brüder,” in the shower. Within a few months he’s ready for the exam, passes it with ease, and retains a knowledge of and respect for the German language that will last for the rest of his life.
In the long run, student B has in-vested less time than student A, but that time was well spent, productive and rewarding.
It’s supposed to be hard. The best things in life are . . . difficult. Consider the man who had a euphoric experience while reading Kierkegaard, not because of anything Kierkegaard said, but because he couldn’t believe that he was really reading Kierkegaard and understanding him. The satisfaction to be gained from mastering a difficult task is immense.
One way to avoid frustration when something seems incredibly hard is to interpret the difficulty as a reflection of the value of the task. The harder it seems, the more precious it will be when it is mastered. When learning new pieces that seem nearly impossible, keep your sights on the prize. Think of yourself as acting out the Pilgrim’s Progress—few have trodden where you now go.
Keep a positive attitude. If you don’t have a book by Norman Vincent Peale on your shelf, maybe you should. (If this is too prosaic for your taste, then a volume of William James will give you the same stuff in loftier terms.) Your mental disposition has everything to do with how well you perform a task.
If you don’t think this is so, then watch a baseball pitcher’s performance deteriorate after an argument with the umpire, or recall an incident when stage fright affected your ability to perform on your instrument.
Mental attitudes also affect our productivity when we practice or study. Certain emotions are conducive to learning (determination, confidence) while others are not (anger, fear, frustration). We don’t have to enter the realms of hypnosis or mind control to achieve a desirable mental state. Alarms should go off when you think thoughts such as “I don’t want to be doing this,” “I hate this” or “I stink at this.” The next time you fly, imagine your pilot muttering those words as he enters the cockpit.
Focus on your own progress. Sometimes musicians become discouraged when other students seem to be improving more rapidly than they are.
It’s too easy to jump to conclusions. You don’t know how much other students practice. You don’t know how much they’ve practiced in the past. And you don’t know how well they perform in other subjects. In short, you’re simply not equipped to judge their progress, much less compare it to your own.
Even if another student seemed to be getting better faster but practicing less, what difference should it make to you? Who’s in a hurry anyway? Just be confident that if you keep working, you will improve.
Get some sleep. A recent study found that subjects who were sleep-deprived performed more poorly on standardized tests than those who were legally drunk. There may be professions in which “being there” is all that matters, but music is not one of them.
Whether you’re in the classroom, an ensemble, or the practice room, you need to be alert and focused. Out of 24 hours in the day, surely seven or eight can be allotted to sleep. Don’t let work pile up toward the end of the day. Get up earlier and do it then. Many people claim to be “night people,” and you may feel better late in the day, but almost everyone can concentrate better early in the morning.
The 15-minute principle. While you’re up early, try this. Choose one subject or skill that seems to be lagging, and devote 15 minutes to it each morning. The greatest advantage of doing it first thing in the morning is that you’re sure to get to it. It’s one thing to promise yourself to spend some extra time on sight-singing, but quite another to block out 15 minutes every single day and keep it up for a month.
I wonder how Thomas Edison would have approached the tasks that confront music majors.
When he was employed as a telegrapher as a young man, he used to come in after hours to practice and improve his speed. Others thought this absurd. Imagine if a store clerk practiced extra hours to get faster on the register or if a carpenter set aside extra time each evening to practice his hammer technique. I suspect if Edison were a music major, he would show up early to practice writing German sixth chords.
And I’d sure want him in my class.