What’s Your Motivation?

One of the biggest challenges that violin teachers confront, actually all music teachers I’m guessing, on a daily basis is motivation, specifically the “what” and “how-to” of keeping a student interested, connected and making progress. A comment I remember reading once in Noah Adams’s book Piano Lessons struck me as being the logical starting point for motivation. He interviewed a piano teacher in New York who did not have a practice requirement for her students. Her rationale was essentially that of Albert Einstein:  love is a greater motivator than a sense of duty. If a student loves what he’s doing, he’ll practice, willingly, without being told. And woe to anything that gets in the way. If he doesn’t, he won’t. End of story. And most students, especially older kids and adults, understand the difference.

She, and Einstein, have a point. My initial reaction was, “What?! She must be insane!” (Tongue-in-cheek, of course.)But you know what? When I love a piece of music, I am more inclined to practice it, digest it, dig into the core of the piece to get everything I can find.  I become more receptive to the nuance of what the piece is supposed to teach me logically, emotionally, morally, as well as in ways that are more intangible or difficult to describe. When I was a young beginner, the pieces that served as my initial motivation were the “First Seitz” (Concerto No 2, 3rd mvt., first piece in Suzuki Violin Book 4), and the first movement of the e-minor Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. The Seitz piece made me want to play the violin; it was the spark. The Mendelssohn made me want to be played by the violin, a full-fledged roaring flame. If you have had this kind of experience yourself, you understand perfectly what I’m talking about.

However, the logical part of me (and I suspect, of many violin students, especially adults) says, “What’s the point of taking lessons if you’re not going to practice? What, do you think that one day you’re going to wake up and the Bow Fairy will have magically endowed your ability to play Mendelssohn?” (or Tchaikovsky, or Brahms, or what have you?) Most students would automatically say, “Well, that’s one of the silliest things I’ve ever heard! Of course not!” They understand that there is a certain amount of work involved in perfecting the skills needed to make playing one of those pieces easy. The Bow Fairy works really hard, you know.

I have always had a philosophical problem with teaching (or attempting to teach) students who won’t practice. It would seem to be a colossal waste of time to take lessons when the student would rather be doing anything but. It also seems hard to believe that a student would only love playing violin for that 30 minutes a week during lesson time. If it’s something you really want to do, I believe that the necessary time will be found, on purpose, to enjoy it every day. [Note: Please understand that I’m talking about older students and adults here. It is customarily up to the parents, and expected in most studios, to set practice schedules for Pre-Twinklers and young beginners.] It’s just as applicable to other parts of life. For example, I love to eat: the smells, the taste, the texture of food, simple or complex, done well and, as my husband teases, made with love. It’s much more enjoyable when I’m able to cook in a relaxed manner, and somehow it just tastes better. I also love to read, but unless I make time to do it, it often gets pushed aside. It’s no longer something essential to my personal well-being and intellectual growth; it becomes a selfish, guilty pleasure. I end up feeling less connected, less “smart”, less of a whole person when I neglect the things, activities or people I love.

I believe that there is a piece of music out there for each and every musician that provides the basis for their motivation, one piece of music that arouses such intense emotion in the soul that the preparation for learning that piece becomes an obsession, or close to it. That piece that will open both eyes and heart to one’s potential, and make the student feel connected to the universe. The great classic rockers, The Eagles, put a modern spin on the question of motivation in their megahit song “The Long Run”: “Did you do it for love? Did you do it for money? Did you do it for spite? Did ya think you had to, honey?” Do we practice for love? Or do we practice because it provides a paycheck? Or to gain a competitive advantage over a perceived rival? Or because we think we will disappoint someone we love if we don’t?

What is your motivation? Have you found Your Piece? Clarifying your motivation is a huge step in making progress on your violin journey.

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