When I started violin lessons as a kid, my mom began learning violin alongside me. Even as a 4-yr old kid, I could tell she wasn’t very good, but I still remember how much I enjoyed playing duets together.
I also remember how much fun the experience of playing with a pianist always was. Even playing Twinkle Twinkle as a group with the older kids doing some variation in the back row was a real treat.
You know that feeling? Where you feel lifted up somehow on the inside? It’s difficult to describe in words, but I think we’ve all experienced it…just not that often.
Why do we have such few experiences like this? Is this part of the natural progression of going from beginner to advanced to elite performer? Why does it even matter anyway?
In his seminal book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi remarks upon music education, observing that “…too much emphasis is placed on how they perform, and too little on what they experience.”
Noting the example of pianist Lorin Hollander, who used to “get lost in ecstasy” when playing alone, but would “quake in sheer terror” when playing in front of teachers, he explains that “Parents who push their children to excel at the violin are generally not interested in whether the children are actually enjoying the playing; they want the child to perform well enough to attract attention, to win prizes, and to end up on the stage of Carnegie Hall. Parental expectations for musical behavior often create great stress, and sometimes a complete breakdown.”
This doesn’t describe every parent, teacher, or adult figure in a child’s musical development, of course.
And sure, it is essential to develop a discerning ear and strong technical foundation (which makes playing more fun).
But is it naive and idealistic to think that we can become great and still remember how to experience joy in the creation of sound and music?
Finding a balance
There are a couple reasons why I believe it’s worth our while to find a balance.
1) Flow and peak performance
Flow, or being in “the zone” is state of complete engagement and optimal experience, when we are completely immersed in the present moment. Associated with a higher level of performance, we often feel a sense of being completely in control, yet without actively controlling things. Here is how a dancer describes it:
“A strong relaxation and calmness comes over me. I have no worries of failure. What a powerful and warm feeling it is! I want to expand, to hug the world. I feel enormous power to effect something of grace and beauty.”
One of the hallmarks of an optimal experience is that the activity itself is the reward. Where the experience of playing, dancing, shooting, hitting, writing, speaking, or heck, even scrubbing the bathtub is an end in itself.
If we want to be able to achieve flow states, we have to – at least in that moment – let go of our preoccupation with secondary outcomes like impressing/disappointing others, winning/losing, and so on.
In other words, to maximize performance, we have to get better at enjoying the activity for it’s own sake.
We’ve all heard of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. Where you engage in an activity for its own sake as opposed to doing so in hopes of gaining some sort of external reward like a prize or attention.
Intuitively, we would think that intrinsic motivation would lead to better outcomes and results. But is this really the case?
Across a range of studies in sports, intrinsic motivation is more likely to lead to better concentration, effort, sportsmanship, persistence, performance – and less anxiety. (Here’s a good primer on motivation in sport).
The interesting thing is when you look a little closer at how some psychologists have described intrinsic motivation, it starts to seem a little familiar.
One type of intrinsic motivation is the desire for knowledge – as in, working on a piece because it’s fun to learn new pieces. Another type of intrinsic motivation is the pleasure derived from getting better, overcoming technical challenges, and playing better than you did yesterday. And a third type is the satisfaction or thrill of the act of playing itself, and the process of making music.
Doesn’t that sound a lot like Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow?
At the end of the day, it seems that geeking out about the experience of creating and making music, and being able to actually enjoy the act of playing and performing could be just as important a factor in becoming a great player as all the other nitty gritty details we obsess about.
To that end, how do you balance skill development and joy cultivation in your teaching? In your own practicing?
Do you have any favorite exercises or strategies that focus specifically on enhancing the experience and enjoyment of playing as Csikszentmihalyi describes above, so that students can ultimately reach a higher level of playing and performing?
I’d be curious to hear some ideas – share below in the comments!