A “Backwards” Strategy for Cultivating More Passion about Music You’re Not in Love With

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Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was once asked which of the pieces he programmed on a recital was his favorite. To which he replied, “The one I’m playing at the moment!” (or something to that effect).

It is a whole lot easier to deliver a compelling performance of a piece you love, than one you feel totally blah about. Not just because it’s easier to feel connected to the music, but because there is more motivation there to explore the score, uncover all the tiny nuances and details in the music, and really throw yourself into the challenge of making the piece your own.

Of course, we don’t always have a choice about which music we have to play. And only playing pieces that we love can be pretty limiting.

So what are we to do when we’re faced with repertoire that we feel ambivalent about?

Is there something we can do to cultivate more passion for the piece, and perhaps grow to love it over time?

A chicken and egg problem…

I’m not sure if there’s research on this phenomenon among musicians, but in the research on entrepreneurial behavior, there is some evidence that passion does have a positive effect on effort.

But some entrepreneurs – as Mark Cuban does here – have suggested that the reverse could also be true. That increasing one’s efforts could lead to an increase in one’s passion.

Hmm…that does sounds backwards, but could that really be something to this?

Measuring effort and passion

An international team of researchers recruited 54 entrepreneurs to explore this idea a little further.

The entrepreneurs were all in the pre-launch phase of business development. Meaning, they were in the process of exploring a business idea, and turning that into a real, functioning business.

Each entrepreneur was asked to complete a survey every week for 8 weeks, in which they answered a series of questions about their effort and how much passion they felt about their business during the previous week. Questions like “In the last week, how much effort did you put into venture tasks beyond what was immediately required?” (i.e. effort) or “In the last week, establishing a new company excited me.” (i.e. passion).

The entrepreneurs’ responses were scored on a 1-5 scale, and the researchers used this data to see if they could predict the entrepreneurs’ passion from one week to the next, based on their effort scores from the previous week.

Does effort increase passion?

As the researchers suspected it might, the entrepreneurs’ effort in any given week did indeed predict how much passion they felt for their business efforts the following week.

Meanwhile, the reverse was not true. Meaning, the amount of passion they felt in one week, did not predict the amount of effort they put in the next week.

So that’s kind of cool, right? Because as Mark Cuban noted in that video (here it is again in case you skipped over it), the one thing we do control is our effort. And here is some real (though preliminary) evidence suggesting that there really might be something to what he and others (like Rich Roll and Mark Manson) have said.

But that still leaves the question of why. Why does effort increase passion?

Searching for answers to the why question

To gain a better understanding of this relationship, the researchers conducted a second study, in which they manipulated two additional variables that they thought might be important.

136 undergraduate business administration majors were asked to develop a business idea by doing some research on five questions. Like, “Who will be your customers?”, “Who are your competitors?”, and “What will be conditions and trends of the market that you will enter?”

Free choice

Some of the participants were given their choice of business ideas (free choice condition), while others were assigned to one specific business idea (no free choice).


Students in the high effort condition were given 60 minutes to work on the task, and told that this was part of a big research project, so it was really important that they work diligently on the questions. They were also told that the top three highest-scoring participants would receive a gift card.

Those in the low effort group, were given just 30 minutes, and told that this was only part of a pilot study to see if the procedure works or not. There were also no gift card incentives for these students.


When their allotted time was up, participants submitted their work, and were given feedback on their materials.

Some were told that they made a lot of progress in their planning, and received “good” or “excellent” grades for each question (significant progress group).

Others were told that they had made no significant progress in their planning, and received grades of only “fair” and “inadequate” for each question (low progress group).


As in the first study, there was a significant relationship between effort and passion, as the group that worked for 60 minutes had higher entrepreneurial passion scores than those that worked for just 30.

And the key factor that seemed to be the glue linking effort to passion?


The causal chain

Those who put in the time, and were informed that they made significant progress on their project, experienced an increase in passion for the work they were doing.

Meanwhile, those who put in the time, but did NOT make any significant progress, experienced a decrease in passion.

And if students did NOT put in the effort, it didn’t matter how much progress they made – there was no increase in passion.

But it’s improtant to note that these findings were true only amongst those who had their choice of business ideas.

In other words, simply working harder seems to be a necessary, but insufficient condition for increasing passion. It appears that there also needs to be a) a sense of progress, and b) some degree of free will or choice involved. The feeling that you are working on something you’ve chosen to spend time on.

So could this research be applied to repertoire we aren’t particularly thrilled to see on our music stand?

Learning to love Nielsen

When I heard the Nielsen violin concerto for the first time, my reaction was pretty much ''meh'' .

I just didn’t get it. The opening seemed a little odd, and I never really got into it. But that was the required concerto in the Nielsen competition (no free will…), and I did want to do the competition, and do well (ok, free will – check!).

So I started by listening to every recording I could find. I researched the composer, and even studied the score – which I almost never did, despite knowing I ought to (effort – check!).

And when all was said and done, I ended up getting to a point where I felt like I knew the Nielsen better than most concertos I’d ever worked on. Where I had all kinds of ideas that I felt really strongly about – from phrasing and vibrato, to the best fingerings and bowings to use, to ideas about bow distribution, etc. (progress – check!).

All of which made me more enthusiastic about playing it for people. Kind of like what happens when you get obsessed with some obscure movie or TV show, and then can’t help but want to tell everyone about it. And now, the Nielsen is probably one of my favorite concertos.

What’s your go-to strategy?

All this to say, even if a piece isn’t love at first listen, maybe, through a little extra effort, we can cultivate more passion for that piece and grow to love it over time?

Because at the very least, effort does tend to lead to tiny wins. And tiny wins do feel pretty good, which could lead to more enthusiasm, motivation, and ultimately, some of that “passion” the researchers observed.

So what’s your go-to strategy for cultivating a deeper appreciation for repertoire that doesn’t immediately excite you, or make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside?

Experimenting with inventive fingerings and bowings? Score study? Listening to every recording you can find? Learning more about the composer, or that period of the composer’s life? Reading program notes about the piece?


Gielnik, M. M., Spitzmuller, M., Schmitt, A., Klemann, D. K., & Frese, M. (2015). “I Put in Effort, Therefore I Am Passionate”: Investigating the Path from Effort to Passion in Entrepreneurship. Academy of Management Journal, 58(4), 1012–1031.

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6 Responses

  1. Great article. This is a really interesting effect. Even without being given any external source of feedback or approval, I have found (with some guitar pieces or songs) that something I don’t have much enthusiasm for becomes so much more satisfying and interesting after I have bothered to research its background and then spend some time grappling with playing and understanding it. I really appreciate much more variety of music than I used to.

  2. Corroborates with my experience as a jazz piano teacher. Often, “recovering” classical pianists sign up with a fair to middlin “I’ll give it a try” level of interest. Some stay that way but those who put the initial effort in are rewarded by hearing their fingers make sounds they’ve only ever heard before but never played. Almost without exception, they are then motivated to go deeper.

  3. Unless it’s Mozart, I tyipcally don’t have problems with specific pieces, but sometimes I start being dissatisfied with piano in general. A couple strategies though: sometimes, reminding myself of the end goal does the trick temporaily. Taking time to find nuances in a piece or even just experiment with different ways I can play a singular note typically helps, and that lasts for a couple days. And if it’s just piano in general that’s the problem, improvisation is quite refreshing.

  4. There are so many reasons why the enthusiasm might not be present at the outset of working, and in my experience they lead to different outcomes.

    As a musician who performs a great deal of contemporary music, including premieres which by definition have no performance history, I frequently find new pieces to be bewildering or forbidding, just through lack of understanding their musical languages or intent, or a resistance to the sounds a composer seems to want. What Nicolas Slonimsky famously wrote about: non-acceptance of the unfamiliar. For those of us who intentionally rub up again the unfamiliar on the regular basis, we expect this, and learn to set that innate resistance aside, and let the music reveal itself. The same process can happen for works that might be more or less in the standard repertoire, but which for whatever reason we haven’t found our way to yet — your Nielsen concerto example above is one of those times when an unfamiliar piece, whose charms you had theretofore resisted, became a familiar piece whose merits were so well-known to you that even subtleties of technique and interpretation became important. So the prescription is to give the music time to seep into your brain, your body, your consciousness, and not to fight that any harder than you can help.

    It’s a little different when the music is familiar, and just not to one’s taste. Maybe even too familiar. Orchestral musicians get this all the time, in performing e.g. pops concerts with music of dubious value, or dozens of yearly Nutcrackers. Even a great masterpiece (and I think Nutcracker is some kind of masterpiece) can become almost torturous when you’ve done 15 performances and have 15 more to go. Finding the enthusiasm to do one’s best work under those circumstances becomes a matter of ethics or professionalism. We owe it to audiences to give them our best, but the energized enthusiasm that informs really high-quality practice can be elusive, or even impossible.

    1. Good points, Tod. Speaking of dozens or hundreds of Nutcrackers, I’ve often wondered how Broadway performers are able to do thousands of performances, day after day, year after year, and make the audiences experience still such a joy.

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