Performing music at a professional level is probably the most demanding of human accomplishments (Altenmüller, 2007) and requires mastering sophisticated skills, including auditory and motor processing which are acquired over years of practice. Quality practice needs to be deliberate – i.e. be specific and using strategy and goals (Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Römer, 1993), and self-regulated – involving forethought and planning, self-control and self-awareness during playing and reflection and evaluation after playing (McPherson & Zimmermann, 2011). One of the most recent theories on motor learning – the OPTIMAL theory of motor learning – suggests that the best conditions for learning complex movements involve motivation and attention (Wulf & Lewthwaite, 2016).
A musicians’ practice (in the broad sense) is determined by the quality of their motivation and their attention and helped by their ability to self-regulate. Relevant information on motivation, attention and self-regulation are outlined below.
Highly motivated students are more attentive to learning processes & outcomes, progress better and achieve higher levels of mastery, and are likely to persist more (e.g. practice regularly). Also they enjoy more satisfaction (Schunk & Zimmerman, 2012, p. 3). Why do some students seek challenges and persist in the face of difficulty while others (with equal ability and potential) avoid challenges and withdraw when faced with obstacles or difficulties? (Hallam, 2006). There is a great deal of research suggesting that motivation and self-regulation are more important to learning and success than aptitude. An individual who is highly and intrinsically motivated will stick with a task, find ways to achieve their goals and can learn to steer and regulate their own process.
“To be motivated means to be moved to do something” (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Motivation is usually referred to as intrinsic or extrinsic. Someone is intrinsically motivated when they find something interesting and enjoyable, and it involves willingness, volition and choice. Alternatively, extrinsic motivation means doing something because it leads to a certain outcome, e.g. for reward, approval or to avoid punishment. Extrinsic motivation has been found to be less effective than intrinsic motivation. Musicians who are steering their own process are likely to be more alert, engaged, active and invested in comparison to when they are following outside instructions or expectations. However, an individual can decide that something is important for them even if s/he is not intrinsically motivated. This can lead them to internalising the values of it and then experiencing it as their own: e.g. “I understand that ear training can really help my playing, so I will make a real effort to do the exericises”. Thus when extrinsic motivation is internalized and integrated it becomes self-determined and thus effective (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
The conditions that support intrinsic motivation as well as the internalization of extrinsically motivated tasks were outlined by psychologists and researchers Deci and Ryan (1985) in their Self-determination Theory. The theory focused on the quality of motivation and states that there are three basic human needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness. This means that every person has the need to master something, to belong to a community and to be autonomous. There are some important implications of this theory to the teaching of musicians. Music students need to feel competent – that they are able to master tasks (e.g. new repertoire) and develop skills. They also need to experience autonomy – by having choice and agency over their learning process, e.g. by choosing their own repertoire, developing and using their own strategies and creating their own projects. By playing together with and for other people and feeling like they belong to a community they can also experience connection and relatedness.
Quality of attention is a factor that contributes to a musician’s learning process. Knowing what to focus on and being able to stay ‘task focussed’ enhances learning and performance. This means that rather than focusing on the self or on avoiding mistakes, it is better to focus on the desired optimal result – for instance the sound or effect or meaning of the phrase or note that is about to be played. This is referred to as external focus (Wulf & Lewthwaite, 2016). For more information on attentional focus, see FINDING FOCUS exposition
Self- regulation refers to being able to steer one’s own learning process. Barry Zimmerman (2002) developed a model for self-regulation that shows a cyclical process with three phases: forethought, performance and self-reflection. The forethought phase involves formulating goals and strategies, and benefits from high self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation. The performance phase is characterised by the ability for self-control and self-instruction, imagery and attentional focus, as well as metacognitive monitoring. The self-reflection phase involves self-evaluation and self-assessment, and the ability to see what causes outcomes.
For more information on Self-regulation, see: SRL exposition