This article is a response to a GPFS "Letters to the Editor" column in which a student from Alberta, Canada asked how to deal with motivational blocks. To me, motivation is one of the primary issues of learning for any musician: The editor gave a typical response, recommending the student follow their teacher's instructions. That, by continuing to work hard, they would overcome their difficulties and would become more motivated as their playing improved. That response puts the burden of motivation on the student. I would like to suggest some other possibilities. It is true that, ultimately, when we become mature adults we must take our lives in our hands and move through our own difficulties, our own depressions, our own bad habits, etc. But, we must somehow discover how to do this. It is not an easy skill even for adults, and certainly more difficult as teenagers. A flute teacher can teach much more than technically how to play the instrument, we can find aspects of the essence of each student and show them how to discover their own motivation, how to see when they stand in their own way and devise techniques to move around their blocks.
First, we must remember that each human being is unique. No two students learn the same way nor do they find the same information pertinent, nor desire the same tone, or like the same styles of performance…etc. If a teacher believes that their own style and tone are “the only right ones” for the student, they need to “woo” the student into appreciating it. They need to cultivate a taste in the student for their concepts and approaches. To do that, they need find a way to reach that student.
One typical misunderstanding that many people have about practicing is the hard and fast rule that long, daily practice is the only successful approach to meaningful development. That criteria, alone, can cause friction between the student and teacher and lead the student to withdraw from self improvement and motivation. Although for many, a daily practice, whether it be meditation or practicing or developing in another field, sets the ambiance to quiet the mental confusion and allow a moment of consciousness to take place. This, however, is not true for everyone. We all learn at different moments of internal inspiration. Setting the intention to practice daily allows for an opportunity to capture those moments of inspiration, but it certainly does not guarantee it. I believe that the primary time that learning takes place is during those isolated moments that our consciousness is present. What is most necessary in practicing, is to find a way to move into active, conscious concentration. Without this state of mind, the time spent can be irrelevant or even detrimental.
My concern with the concept of habitual practice is that, for the most part, that is all that it is, habitual. When someone habituates themselves into a pattern, they can put their mind to sleep. From the moment a student sits down until they leave the practice room, they can drift into a disconnected attitude and reality. In some situations, they may learn more from 2 minutes while changing channels watching TV than from an hour of locked up drudgery and resentment. Sometimes, productive time comes in waves. Sometimes, a nagging thought distracts a person’s attention. If that occurs, I recommend having a piece of paper on hand to write down the thought so the mind can be free to focus on practicing. Sometimes it is even necessary to stop, make a telephone call, or do a chore, and then return when the mind is fresh and unencumbered.
In directing a student into productive practicing, the teacher must try to understand more about the student. What makes her inspired about listening to music? Where does he find internal joy in the act of participating in the creation process? For all of us, these answers differ at different times in our life and our musical growth. The things that challenge us now may bore us at other times. Repertoire that interests us at one time can alienate us at other times. Each moment we are changing and growing. What we do must speak to who we are at this moment or we will be out of synch with ourselves. When we are out of synch, we generally feel bored or irritated. Learning takes place when what is being taught is relevant to our interest and our level of receptivity.
Since there are many reasons for motivational issues, rather than focusing on responding specifically to the girl from Canada, in which case I don’t know her particular issues, I’d like to focus on some general thoughts regarding a student’s motivation. The following are some questions to ask yourself when you find yourself having difficulty being motivated: Do you feel the teacher honors your uniqueness? Is the issue one of being appreciated, recognized or understood? Do you love certain things about the flute and/or music that you can request to focus on? Are there other flute teachers or teachers of other instruments in your area that would be willing to help you musically to tide you over to a point where you can gain your interest again? What are the things that make you the most uncomfortable to focus on when practicing, and why? Is there something that inspires you about your teacher, such as their tone, technique, or phrasing?
Can you make a compromise with your present teacher and agree to work for a few minutes every day on the things that frustrate you providing you are allowed to do the things you enjoy during the rest of your practice time? Is there someone in your family that is putting pressure or guilt on you that causes you to rebel? Is there a school friend or colleague that can offer inspiration, challenge and support?
The questions could go on and on. Playing and studying a musical instrument, as in all things in life, requires a sense of joy and accomplishment. There are many factors in each person’s life that keeps them from allowing pleasure to come through. What is the point of studying an instrument if not ultimately to experience one’s vitality and enthusiasm? Any task can be either work or fun, depending on how we approach it. We need to begin to find ways to let pleasure into our activities. It is there for us, if we begin to discover where to look. Even professionals run into phases in their careers in which they still need to reach out for support to reconnect with their inner motivation. Some conductors encourage by smiling and compliments, others "motivate" by humiliation or by instilling fear. In addition there is often family and peer support and/or pressure. Fortunately, some motivation comes from the beauty of the music and various unique musical challenges. Sometimes it is hard to believe that playing this one passage better may make a person’s life seem more complete. It seems that the bottom line is how to be truly involved in what a person is doing. But, there are other dimensions to motivational blocks.
When a person practices with the actual intention of improving, rather than just going through the motions, one has to confront a different level of motivational stress. As a person’s ability changes, their self concept has to change. To acknowledge oneself as more capable or talented can put a person into a state of anxiety. Now the person has the additional burden of having to live up to this new potential. It can change a person’s role from being a victim to being in control of their life. Sometimes a person fears this new role.
Take, for example, a person who was raised to feel somewhat incapable or inferior to other members of their family, particularly in a family where other members are musicians. Becoming a better musician can undermine the family system. The emotional pain and suffering of being torn between personal self actualization and the family balance of power can be intense. For example, I once taught an exceptionally talented student who began winning awards. Her mother, a talented pianist who had not pursued a performance career, became jealous and emotionally unstable enough to have a nervous breakdown. The daughter’s feeling of guilt for her success was so intense that she soon also had a nervous breakdown. She could not continue to pursue her own musical excellence.
On some level, we all deal with self images that affect our motivation, both positively and negatively. A person suffering from fear of success will surely come into self conflict, and one of the possible sign posts might be a sense of boredom. I am not implying that fear of success is the only possible cause of boredom or lack of motivation, but I am asking both the student and the teacher to take a deeper look at the issue at hand. When the underlying cause of the distress is uncovered, progress on the flute can be immediate.
To help the student confront motivational issues, the teacher needs to be willing to see this difficulty in the same light as any other learning block. Rather than becoming defensive toward the student, and feeling unappreciated by the student for his/her apparent lack of interest, the teacher needs to be more philosophical. Sometimes the more desperate the student is to deal with the problem, the more the teacher feels his authority being questioned or doubted. A subtle dynamic can be set up where the two begin to resent each other, causing both to become extremely frustrated and possibly even angry. At this point, it is necessary for the teacher to find a way around the difficulty. If that is not possible, it is best for the student to study with a different teacher.
Most learning blocks can be overcome, to a large degree, with understanding and proper focus. Clearly, some teachers are more gifted in this particular area of teaching. A teacher can be excellent in technique, phrasing, or tone, but not necessarily as successful in the areas of motivation. It seems clear that the student from Alberta, Canada, like the many hundreds of other students suffering from this problem, wants to break through the difficulty, at least on some level. If she was just disinterested, she would not bother thinking about the flute or even consider asking the question. Boredom is not a symptom of disinterest; it is a symptom of conflict, or blocked desire. One analogy is that of a rope being pulled in a tug of war. It may not be moving, but it is not the same as the lack of movement of a rope that is lying on the ground. Occasionally, just a single thought can promote or inhibit motivation. Sometimes a motivational issue can be so pervasive that it can go beyond flute playing, impacting other learning, exploration, creativity and pleasure. When that is the case, the flute teacher can be a catalyst in helping unlock the student’s potential as a human being.
Techniques for breaking through boredom:
Experiment while you practice. Try different atmospheres. Instead of beginning with the most difficult material, try beginning with the easiest, or commit yourself to practice 5 minutes and then re-evaluate at that time, if you are still interested, continue for another few minutes, if not, drop it and come back to it later in the day. Take a walk outside or do stretching or singing. Allow yourself to listen to your moods. Put a flower in the practice room, or find a room with a view, allow yourself to walk around the room. Keep a note pad nearby and, any time you are distracted with a thought or idea, jot down enough information to be able to remember it after the practice session – allow yourself to follow your immediate mental or emotional need to unburden your mind, but set time constraints around it so you don’t loose the practice mode entirely. Visualize yourself enjoying playing the flute, see and feel and hear clearly what that is like. What is different about that picture from what you are doing now? What does the room look like, or smell like? Are there people nearby? Are they paying attention? If you could sound like anyone in the world, who would that be? Can you imitate that sound in anyway? Do you like the sounds of the ocean or birds in the background? If so, try practicing with a nature recording in the background.
The idea is to begin to find your joy in playing. Then, as you play, your own system will take over and your natural, instinctual desire to grow will take over. Don’t push yourself to take on the larger challenges, yet. Start simple. Each day that you experience joy in your practicing will bring greater enthusiasm for the next, each small improvement will give you more strength and ability to confront larger issues. Focus on embracing your love of the flute and the joy of music making. The progress sneaks up on its own.
Sometimes it is helpful to have the flute out and accessible all day so that at any moment the inspiration hits you, you can pick it up. At other times, it feels more complete to clean the flute and put it away ceremonially so you can start the next session with a new frame of mind. The important thing to remember is to honor your own experience and rhythm. Your own being will give you clues how to stay fresh and happy in your music making.