Blog: Practicing, Motivation, and Happiness (Mike Sturgis: Head of Education)

Mike Sturgis

Why do we practice?   

 I was recently speaking to a great musician and friend about the fact that I was hoping to get a bit more time in the practice room this year. He jokingly replied; “Practice? You mean that thing that you do in a room, by yourself, for free?” While he didn’t mean it seriously, it actually highlights the fact that we, as musicians, must invest significant amounts of time practicing our instrument for no monetary gain if we want to be good at it. And while our motivations for doing this may sometimes be mixed, the assumption is that you will lock yourself away to practice your instrument primarily because it’s something that you love and find continually fascinating. However, is that always the reason we practice?  This will vary widely from person to person, but it’s possible that your practice time can become more enjoyable and productive if, without being too hard on yourself, you are able to have an honest look why you bother to practice.

Two types of motivation

While our motivations for practice may be complex and multi-faceted, we could break it down into two categories. The first is what we could describe as an intrinsic motivation – this is where we approach the instrument with a deep interest and enthusiasm, becoming completely engrossed in the sound we are making. Our enjoyment is not dependent on the quality of the outcome; in a perfect world, we are completely non-judgemental and entirely present with the process for its own sake. The converse to this (and to be fair, there will be an entire spectrum here) is what we could call extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation doesn’t mean that you don’t love music and your instrument, at least on some level. However, it might mean that your motivation for practice is often based on the prospect of either rewards or punishment. While not without some benefits, extrinsic motivation at its worst can be largely ego-driven, with underlying thoughts of fear, anxiety and the ‘inner critic’ robbing you of real enjoyment. Your thoughts may be competitive, wondering if you will be perceived as ‘good enough’ by your peers. Subsequently, your identity becomes dependent on your success, creating a sense of unease and a lack of enjoyment.

A daily affirmation

 For many of us, our musical ability is linked to professional opportunities in a very competitive industry. Therefore, it is often difficult to avoid at least some elements of an extrinsic motivation for our practicing. There are no simple answers to this, but awareness is an excellent start. Sometimes, just consciously reminding yourself of how music has had such a profound effect on your life can help recalibrate your thinking. For this, you may want to thoughtfully consider the following affirmations written by Ron Miller, a great pianist and composer whom I had the pleasure of studying with at the University of Miami.

Before starting your daily practice routine, read and seriously consider the following:

Daily affirmations

  • How fortunate I am that in this life I am one who has been allowed to create beauty with music.
  • It is my responsibility to create peace, beauty and love with music.
  1. I will be kind to myself
  • It is only music!
  • No matter the level of my musical development, how good or bad I think I play, it is only music and I am a beautiful person.
  • I will not compare myself with my colleagues; if they play beautifully, I will enjoy it and be thankful and proud that I am a member of their community.
  • There will always be someone with more musical abilities than my own as there will be those with less.
  1. Reasons to play music
  • To contribute to the world’s spiritual growth.
  • To contribute to my own self-discovery and spiritual growth.
  • To pay homage to all great musicians, past and present, who have added beauty to the world.
  1. Rid yourself of the following reasons for being a musician
  • To create self-esteem
  • To be perceived as trendy or cool
  • To manipulate
  • To get rich or famous

 For more thoughts along these lines, I highly recommend reading Effortlessly Mastery by Kenny Werner.

 Practice as a flow activity

 If we have awareness that our motivation for practice has become conflicted, we can take action to bring it back to one that is pure. In his classic book on the subject, author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has described ‘flow’ as being the optimal human experience, one where concentration is so intense that self-consciousness disappears and the sense of the passing of time becomes distorted (Csikszentmihalyi 2002: 354). This sounds a lot like what we as musicians can experience when we are ‘in the zone’ with our craft. It is this sublime and ‘pure’ state of mind that keeps us coming back to our instrument for its own sake, with little concern for what monetary gain or status we might gain from it. In other words, we do it because it makes us happy!

While the potential for flow in instrumental practice is there, there are some conditions that need to exist to ensure that this happens. Experience can be shaped, and flow activities owe much to how they are constructed. The general idea is that we reach a flow state when our bodies and/or minds are stretched to their limits in a voluntary effort to achieve something difficult or worthwhile (ibid., 41). Therefore, we have the capacity to consciously design our practice routine to enable the greater likelihood of operating in a ‘flow channel’. We do this by doing our best to undertake activities that avoid both anxiety and boredom. For example, if the activity is too familiar or easy, we may find ourselves losing interest; conversely, if it is too difficult, we become anxious, frustrated or even lose motivation. However, if the challenges undertaken are pitched at just the right level, this is far more likely to create a flow environment and lead to growth and discovery (ibid., 372). When the challenges are met or mastered, the conditions required for flow will change and will need to be adjusted accordingly. So, while a flow state in practice can happen spontaneously, it is far more likely that a pre-planned structure will facilitate consistent and ongoing success.


 Like athletes who spend hours undertaking rigorous physical activity, we as musicians are likely to spend countless hours mastering the endless challenges of playing our instrument. It is a journey that we willingly place ourselves on, not because it may bring fame or fortune proportionate to the time we spend doing it. We do it because, when the planets align, it brings us fulfilment, meaning and happiness – even better, we can potentially pass some of this on to rest of the world. We have a duty to ourselves and others to do everything in our control to maintain a healthy approach to practicing – I wish you every success as you undertake this journey.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. (1992,2002). Flow. London: Rider. Ebury Publishing.