Does Motivation Matter? Further Thoughts on Choosing to Practice

I recently posted a fairly transparent account of my decision to practice for 365 consecutive days in 2017. Shortly thereafter, a thread on social media brought up the following counter-argument:

If you’re struggling to find the motivation to practice, maybe you shouldn’t be in music.

Now, that’s not an exact quote, but I’ve encountered the same sentiment many times over in the course of my career, and it has always made me feel like an impostor. This time around, freed of the defensiveness that comes about from not having practiced, I was able to be more objective. Upon reflection I concluded that it’s a very complex issue, so complex that it’s going to take me two posts to unpack it. There are cases where that statement rings one hundred percent true. And there are other cases where that line of thinking will tell you more about the person who has uttered it than about the person upon whom it has been thrust as advice. So here are a few thoughts for anyone who reads it and feels like I used to.

There is a funny thing that happens when you cross the line from a passionate and talented neophyte to an aspiring professional: suddenly, you have to contend with the notion of work.

When you choose a pursuit to be your career, you are also choosing to cross it off the list of things you do for fun. This doesn’t mean that it won’t be fun any more or that it can’t be fun. It simply means that, while “fun” is a nice by-product if you can get it, you are making a commitment to that activity even when it isn’t fun at all, because it now bears the burden of having to earn you enough money to make rent. Nobody tells you this in high school.

Instead, we hear a lot of talk about “finding your passion” and “doing what you love.” Both these ideas are good, and I subscribe to them to a point. Even on the worst days, I would rather be practicing than bagging groceries. I think the people who are best at their jobs are the ones for whom the burden of “work” is lessened by the fact that the work itself is interesting to them. But I have also heard it said that “if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” I think this particular notion is misleading.

Here’s the reality about work, any work: you have to clock in. I don’t care if you’re a dishwasher or a sculptor, at some point in time you have to show up and do the thing that actually pays your bills. And when you choose a career like music, you are also choosing to forego the possibly-helpful stimulus of a boss who will fire you if you don’t show up. You take on that role for yourself.

This is the point at which having the motivation to practice (or not having it) makes quite a lot of difference. If you are always motivated to practice, you won’t have any problem clocking in. But we tend to confuse “motivation” with “excitement.” If I work at Kroger, I have plenty of motivation to show up at work: I want a paycheck; I don’t want to be fired; I might need the reference down the line, etc. But my motivation to go to work doesn’t automatically also mean I’m excited about working at the grocery store. In fact, I may be praying every morning for another job to fall from the heavens.* In short, there’s a huge difference between someone who can’t find the motivation to start practicing on a given day versus someone who can’t fully engage with a practice session once it’s actually underway.

In the first case, your job as your own boss is to basically say to yourself, “I don’t care WHAT you have to do, just get your butt in a practice room.” If you are managing a Starbucks, you don’t particularly care whether your employees feel like coming into work or not, so long as they show up on time and interact politely and efficiently with your customers. It’s the same thing here, and I would argue that if you are struggling with motivation in this sense, what you actually need to do is just commit to practicing and stop worrying about whether you’re in the right field. Believe me, if you practice for a year and don’t let yourself weasel out of it, you’ll know if you’re in the right field by the time you cross the finish line.

The second scenario is more serious.┬áIt isn’t good enough to practice in a distracted frame of mind; that’s not in your job description. As a professional musician, your job description in the practice room involves pushing everything else out of your mind so you can make focused, careful decisions about the status of your product. And since you’re acting as your own boss, there’s no way to fake this. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that all of us have periods in life where focusing on practice is nearly impossible. If you have a parent dying of cancer, a serious relationship that has just broken up, or a financial crisis looming, no amount of motivational pep talk is going to change the fact that practicing will be a struggle. I’ve lived through all of those scenarios, and I would argue that it’s awfully difficult to assess your level of commitment to a particular career when one of those giants keeps tromping around in the back of your mind. But that doesn’t change the truth of the fact that music requires you to show up in a legitimately focused way for a certain number of hours if you actually want to make any progress. This is analogous to the Starbucks boss who has an employee who comes to work on time every day but screws up everyone’s orders because she’s so distracted by her personal life. As a boss, you probably have a lot of compassion for that particular individual. You probably like her and you certainly don’t want to add to her troubles. But there does come a point at which you can only pour so much inventory down the drain. At this point, you have to tell your employee that inasmuch as you sympathize with her plight, her performance on the job is dismal and unless she can fix it, you’ll have to let her go. This is no different than the conversation you need to have with yourself as a musician if you consistently tread water in your practice time, whether you’re showing up for it or not.

The bottom line is that if your motivation to practice is flagging, it is possible that this is a symptom of a greater problem just as surely as looking for excuses to work late can be a symptom of problems in a marriage. But in the same way that it is unrealistic to expect to be swooning over your spouse every day for the rest of your life, it is also unrealistic to expect that you will be leaping out of bed every morning to get to your warmup routine. The greatest loves of our lives are often those that are quietest, and those loves are profound because they sustain themselves on faithfulness rather than fireworks (even though fireworks do tend to crop up along the way). The question, then, is whether your relationship to your music-making bears greater resemblance to a successful marriage or an engagement you entered into too quickly. Forget about whether you can see yourself doing anything else; do you take pride in your commitment, or do you have a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach whenever you think about your future? Feelings come and go in every area of life including music, and because the highs in music are so overwhelming it is fair to expect the lows to be correspondingly painful. The real question is not how you feel about practicing or music or even all the time and money you’ve already invested in it, but whether you are capable of continuing with that commitment regardless of how you feel, on a near-daily basis, at a high enough level that you will see progress and take satisfaction in your work. That is the choice you will make in pursuing music, and no one else can make it–or revoke it–for you.

But what about the flip side? What if you’re the person who actually is motivated to practice? Is this an indicator that you should be going into music? Check back soon, because I’ve another set of thoughts about that.


* In saying as much, I mean no disrespect to the fine employees of our local Kroger. In spite of having never worked at the grocery store, I am extremely thankful for those of you who do. If anything, I have chosen Kroger for this illustration because I have great fondness for the brand, however much I might prefer to be practicing.