Why do we play? Part I 7


The motivation behind piano playing (or any musical endeavor) has long occupied my thinking, ever since I realized that one could be motivated by more than just a love of music.

Why is motivation important? I believe that understanding our motivation, in any endeavor, can heighten our enjoyment of both that activity and our life as a whole. This is not a call to be neurotically obsessed with one’s psychology while engaged in a pursuit; obviously one would want to be focused as much as possible on the task at hand. However, taking the time to step back and really ask why we are doing certain things and not others can have a drastic effect on our lives.

I think that this sort of introspection is even more important in the realm of art. To understand why, let me explain what I think are the two most basic kinds of motivation: first-hand motivation and second-hand motivation.

In her epic novel The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand dramatizes the lives of people whose actions are motivated in reference to other people, as opposed to those whose actions are motivated by their own individual judgement. The motivation of second-handers–those whose motivation is based on the judgement of others–can take many forms. It can be a desire for praise, the need for inclusion, the fear of disapproval, or even–paradoxically–the desire to *seem* individualistic by being “contrarian”.

What unites all these motivations is that the person who acts on them is not judging things for himself, but is instead letting other people judge for him. For instance, the “contrarian” is not actually interested in what his opinion is (i.e. what he really thinks about the facts) as long as it’s different from what everyone else thinks. Likewise, the praise-seeker is not actually interested in doing what he judges as quality work, but rather whether other people will approve of his work or not.

In contrast to this, the first-hander is primarily concerned with his own judgment; what he thinks is good or bad. We have all known musicians who live for the audience (praise-seekers), or who are concerned only with shock-value or being “different”. But true art does not allow such thinking. The essence of true are is presenting one’s own deepest world. The artists says “this is my art, take it or leave it”.

I remember reading an interview with a famous pianist (I can’t recall which one) who said that before every performance, he sets his own goals. If he meets these goals, he’s satisfied regardless of any audience reaction. Likewise if he thinks he could have done better–even if the audience erupts with adulation–he’s back to the practice room. All other things the same, this is the psychology of a true artist.

Now some may say: “Sure you can set standards like this, but look at how much stress is caused in the performing world by people expecting too much of themselves.” I certainly agree that there are too many hyper-expectations set in the world of piano performance. But the real question is, why is this the case? I think the truth is that most of these expectations are the result of comparing oneself to others; that is of ignoring the reasonable expectations one would arrive at by considering his own context and abilities.

At its deepest level, these hyper-expectations are generated by a “thou shalt” mentality which has its roots in second-handed motivation. Let me explain. In essence, my goal when I perform or compose, is to externalize my inner world by creating something of beauty and musical value. I consider this the most awesome endeavor possible; I get to spend the bulk of my life trying to create something beautiful. This can take many forms: Through teaching, I try to help my *students* create beauty; Through playing, I  try to understand the composer’s creation (its form and emotional content) and recreate it myself; Through composing, I try to give external life to my own inner world and my deepest emotions through the most beautiful (not always to be confused with “pretty” or “non-jarring”) medium I know.

My own goals may not be the same as every artist’s, but I think they’re not too far off. Regardless, the point is that to the extent one is concerned with the judgement of others, to the extent one is a second-hander, he is unable to focus on goals like this. The reason is that placing the judgement of one’s efforts in the hands of others puts one in the position of being out of control.

As a result of this, the performer is focused not on art, but rather on not doing anything wrong; on not offending anyone; on not being criticized. Because the standard of value becomes what others think, the psychological focus moves from gaining positive values (creating beauty) towards avoiding pain (avoiding criticism). This is analogous to the obsessive compulsive who, out of a feeling of lack of control over his life, turns towards ritualized actions, obsessive cleaning, etc. simply to avoid the feeling of being out of control.

To the person who puts judgement in the hands of the audience, there are an infinite number of ways in which he might offend the listener. What is the solution? Well, the real solution is not to put the judgement in the hands of the audience, but the “solution” most people unwittingly adopt is to be “perfect”. But what does it mean to be perfect? If you have already decided that other people are the judge of your artistic merit, who is to say whose whim will dictate a perfect performance? (There is such a thing as “perfect”, but only if that means as good as possible within your own context and judgement; a subject for another time.)

So, since this sort of “perfection” is impossible–since someone, somewhere, is bound to be offended by something in one’s performance– the performer is forced to resort to a list of out of context commandments. That is, a list of standards that merely serve as ways to avoid criticism. This defensive posture results in many “thou shalts” such as “Thou shalt not miss notes”, “Thou shalt not disagree with thine teacher”, “Thou shalt play this piece like the famous performers”, “Thou shalt be different and original”, “Thou shalt memorize thine music no matter what”, etc. etc.

Is it any wonder that people can be paralyzed when trying to create art? Certainly, the true artist will always strive to produce exemplary work. But there is a world of difference between doing the best one can in a given context, and trying to live up to impossible standards set by the unknowable opinions of others. What an awful way to approach art, and for that matter to lead a life!

In the next installment of this article, I will deal with the role traditional piano  education plays in encouraging a certain motivational stance, real life examples of motivational problems and how they might be helped, certain problems that bad motivation can give rise to in piano playing, baggage from childhood piano lessons (!), and general advice on moving towards a more first-handed, and thus more truly artistic, motivation.


Want to learn piano but don't know where to start? I've taught hundreds of happy students! Click here for my free beginner lesson course.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

7 thoughts on “Why do we play? Part I

  • Matthew McLaughlin

    Hi Nathaniel — In my opinion if you enjoy what you’re doing you should feel free to continue doing it without a teacher. Usually people at the artist level these days have had many many years of training and hard work. You have to decide for yourself what level of playing you are happy with!

  • Nathaniel

    Hi, I couldnt find your e-mail so I write it public here. Sorry for my english ;S
    I want to ask u, I come from small village and once I had started playing piano because we have one at home. When I started enjoying it I joined musical school. Soon my teacher found out im a little bit faster and she claimed that she gives me more difficult pieces than to others. But I was unhappy, it spoiled me whole “fun” and artistic feeling playing the piano when I was playing only chords or primitive/tough etudes without feeling only for better fingering.
    So I started self-teaching. I love Etude Revolutionnary, so I said I could try this. This is my first piece after very primitive exercise… It took me about year and Im not still done, but everytime I play it I enjoy it, I feel it, I love it. And here comes the problem and my question. If I want to be the artist, do I need teacher? Do i need perfect fingering, clear music, exact rhytm or I can adjust it by myself and leave only basics of piece? This is my attitude, this is my art, take it or leave it. But I`m afraid of critism, profesionals and without teacher tons of errors I do “for nothing”. Im stuck and I dont know if I should be relaxing player with other “job” or this kind of artist. Whats your opinion?

  • piano teacher

    Thanks for the post. I appreciate your efforts in making our colleagues and fellow music teachers and musicians aware of the latest trends and techniques in teaching music to our dear students. Reaching out to as many music educators as we can around the globe is truly a good sign that we both have the passion and love for music as well as for our dear students. I agree with you when you say that motivation is a good key in piano teaching and in learning music. Your points and ideas are clear enough to make it very useful to many practitioners out there. Again, congrats and keep it up! Just in case, you wish to have more reliable and useful piano teachers resources, feel free to check this page out and see how these tips can take your teaching experience to the next level.

  • Christian

    Hello, I’m an Italian, I have just visited your blog, congratulations! with a few lines I managed to understand that you know a lot of music! I hope that your blog is very successful, indeed!
    Sorry for the ‘English is not correct;)

  • cc

    You are not saying that the opinion of others, especially those whose opinion you may value, is not important? How are your own judgements formed over the years? Is it a combination of what others think, how others have played…certainly if you played a piece you had never heard played before, would you have a good or bad feeling about how it sounded? You might love the sound of it, but is your enjoyment enhanced by how others have played it?