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

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).

Effort

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.

Progress

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).

So…why?

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?

Progress!

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?


Reference

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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