Choosing The Best Motivational Energy When Practicing (And Playing)

Love and Fear. These two emotions (and all their manifestations) are polar opposites in quality. When it comes to playing music, many people are motivated by both of these energies (in varied proportions).

But one is always superior to the other. Love ultimately triumphs over fear. Fear may have great urgency and intensity, but love has endurance and strength. (And yes, it has its fair share of urgency and intensity, too.)

I’ve known this on a cognitive level for many years, but it wasn’t until I began to study (and to teach) the Alexander Technique that I became so acutely aware of this truth. And most recently, the experiences I’ve been having with one student in particular have really brought this truth to the fore. Allow me to elaborate.

Some months back I began to give Alexander lessons to a well-known, highly respected brass instrumentalist here in the Los Angeles area. (Because of the nature of his condition, and his professional reputation, I’m not at liberty to reveal his identity).

This student came to me because he was diagnosed with a neurological condition known as focal dystonia.

In essence, musician-specific focal dystonia is a condition in which the primary muscles involved in playing a particular instrument (in the case of my student, it is his “embouchure” muscles) tense in unpredictable (and hence, uncontrollable) ways only while playing the instrument.

This diagnosis of this condition has been viewed as a career ender for many musicians, as there is no known “cure”.

But that is beginning to change, as more and more musicians are finding their ways back from focal dystonia to performing well again (including me.)

I won’t go here into what these new treatment options are, but I can tell you one thing for certain: Every musician that is able to rid him or herself of focal dystonia (or at the very least, effectively manage it) does so because he or she fundamentally changes the thinking process involved in playing music. (That’s where the Alexander Technique can be helpful.)

Besides working with me, the student I mentioned above is also working with a wonderful brass pedagogy teacher who is an expert in embouchure dystonia (and musician specific focal dystonia in general).

Both she and I ask our student lots of questions, so as to best understand his thinking. (After all, it was his thinking that began to create his problems.)

In the case of my student, there was a period  early in his career when he was playing music primarily from a place of love: Love of the sound of his instrument. Love of sharing his interpretation and expression through music. Love of his musical imagination. Love of the brilliance and beauty of great musical compositions, and the feeling of being a part of helping these compositions come to life.

During this period he practiced diligently, and achieved a good amount of professional success. But he was not quite where he wanted to be in his career, so he decided to go back to music school (graduate program at a highly respected institution) and intensify the study of his instrument.

That’s where things began to change.

In grad school the emphasis began to shift in regard to playing his instrument. It went from the joy, love  and musicality mentioned above to an almost purely athletic (physical) pursuit in order to gain consistency in brass playing.

A major aim of his post graduate training was to be made aware of all the potential “trouble spots” in various repertoire for his instrument, and to learn how to avoid them through specific training and exercises.

On the surface this seems good. It certainly seems reasonable. But something came along with this kind of approach that was not anticipated nor wanted: Fear began to slowly obscure love in his music making process.

He began to develop certain beliefs about what was necessary for success on his instrument (many of them involved creating lots of excess muscular tension and effort). These beliefs put him into a very rigid place with his thinking. In the simplest sense his motivation to play gradually morphed from, “I love to play”, into, “I’m going to do what I need to do to avoid mistakes”. From love based music making to fear based music making.

At first this new training seemed to serve him well. He cultivated a level of consistency that he needed to land him bigger, more challenging and prestigious jobs.

Unfortunately,  things started to change. To make a long story short, this is where the focal dystonia began to rear its ugly head. It was a gradual deterioration that eventually caused serious trouble for him.

But the good new is, things are improving dramatically for him these days. Between the excellent work he is doing with his brass teacher, and learning to inhibit and direct (skills cultivated through studying the Alexander Technique), he is finding a new, constructive way to think about playing his instrument.

His brass teacher and I have one principle in common when dealing with him: shifting the emphasis from fear based playing to love based playing. It is a thrill for me to experience the joy and hear the beautiful expression of his love based playing.

He is rediscovering the very things that motivated him to begin playing music in the first place. He’s also rediscovering how effortless it can be to play music beautifully and expressively.

But the bottom line is that he is reconnecting to the love, and leaving the fear behind. If he stays with the motivation of love, things will continue to get better. No doubt in my mind.

You need muscles to play music, and love speaks to your muscles in a fundamentally different way than fear:

Love is expansive. Fear is contractive.

Love accepts and discerns. Fear rejects and judges.

Love breathes easily. Fear gasps and holds its breath.

Love is curious and playful. Fear is narrow-minded and deadly serious.

Love is thankful. Fear is ungrateful.

Love forgives. Fear holds grudges.

Love looks at the unknown as an adventure. Fear looks at the unknown with dread.

Love is flexible and yielding. Fear is stiff and rigid. 

Love welcomes opportunities to serve. Fear sees service solely as an obligation.

Love asks. Fear demands.

Love reaches out. Fear withdraws.

I could go on….

So what motivates you primarily when you practice and play music? It’s a good idea to remember what thrills you about playing. Stay with that. You have the power to choose. Choose love.


  1. says

    I am reading about mindfulness, and the current chapter talks about a study where students did a pencil maze, and the ones helping a mouse get cheese were more able to do creative tasks afterward than the ones helping a mouse escape a hungry owl. What a heartening vocation to help others choose love.

    • Bill says

      Hi Margaret, thanks for that info about mice and mazes. I’m not surprised by the results. Love is ultimately the most powerful and enduring motivator, and seems to foster a natural creativity. I get deep satisfaction from helping my students (re)discover that.

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