The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) has received a barrage of criticism in response to a recent ill-judged tweet in which it stated that “Musical achievement is about how well you can do, how good you can get. That sense of attainment is tested by assessment which gives us intrinsic motivation to make us want to get better. That’s the virtuous circle of motivation.” (via Twitter, 24 September 2021)

The first and most glaring problem with this, amidst a host of other issues, is that the word “intrinsic” is used incorrectly here. “Intrinsic motivation” comes from within. Exams, testing and assessment of the kind ABRSM promotes are “extrinsic” or external motivators.

With regard to learning music, in addition to taking a music exam, extrinsic motivators include participating in a festival or competition, receiving a favourable written report, receiving praise from others for a performance (teachers, friends, parents), receiving a certificate, trophy or reward.

We all have intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in our lives – we are all a mixture of both. If you play the piano for no other reason than because it gives you pleasure and a sense of personal fulfilment, that is an intrinsic motivation. If your parents and/or teacher are pressuring you to play the piano and pass grade exams, or you have to make a living from your playing, that’s extrinsic motivation.

The trouble with extrinsic motivation is the more we are driven by extrinsic values, the more we starve our intrinsic motivation, which can lead to lack of motivation, feelings of failure, anxiety and even depression. Unfortunately, outward displays of achievements or material gain are all too common in our Insta-driven world – signals which say “look at me, look at my achievements, envy me” (just think for a moment about how Instagram really makes you feel…).

The graded music exam system is primarily built upon extrinsic motivation. Marks and certificates (“rewards”) are awarded to successful candidates, and this reward system makes the prospect of progressing to the next grade and the next smart certificate very appealing to students, and their parents and teachers. But it’s actually a superficial form of learning, based on “if/then” rewards (“if you do this, then you’ll get that“), which simply reinforces extrinsic motivation and is only effective in the short-term. We’ve all had students who rarely or never practice and then all of a sudden do the work for an exam, only to revert to not practicing once the exam is over. And putting students on an “exam treadmill” is unlikely to encourage a real love of music. Thus, exam success is not the “virtuous circle of motivation” as the ABRSM tweet suggests, but rather a vicious circle of superficial values founded on a desire for external endorsement.

Exams are a great short term motivator, but they generally don’t encourage students in finding sustained motivation, success and joy. Sadly, for some – students, teachers, parents – certification of musical achievement is regarded as the ultimate goal of instrumental learning and confirmation of musical competence, an attitude which I find profoundly unmusical.

Exams are also a form of “credentialisation” (that Grade 5 with Merit, a Grade 8 with Distinction), the popularly-held belief that credentials will open the door to further success, advancement, recognition and enhanced status. In their tweet, the ABRSM are, in my opinion, guilty of credentialising music – it’s all about being judged (by others), gaining status, “how well you can do, how good you can get”. Unfortunately, it’s an attitude that pervades musical childhood and adolescence, and beyond, reinforced by grade exams, diplomas, end of year assessments, festivals and competitions, which risks turning music performance into some kind of competitive points-based activity, and which amplifies the fear of doing something wrong and being marked down for it – again, profoundly unmusical. Credentialisation also encourages feelings of superiority and inferiority or envy (think again how Instagram really makes you feel…..). In practice, it doesn’t really encourage students to become motivated, self-determined, and, above all, happy, self-fulfilled learners.

I accept that graded music exams and assessments can be useful in benchmarking progress, or to show that the student has reached a certain level of competency, and the preparation for an exam (and the prospect of a good mark) can foster commitment, motivation to practice, and focus. When I taught privately in south-west London many of my students (and their parents) were keen to take exams (this may have had something to do with the affluent, aspirational demographic where I lived). Grade exams also help non-musical parents understand where their children are in their progress – but they can also impact directly on the attitudes and behaviour of students, teachers and parents for the reasons outlined above. The implication in the ABRSM’s tweet is that music exams demonstrate competence as a musician; most musicians, music teachers or those who play an instrument for personal fulfilment and pleasure would disagree with that assertion.

Instead, we should be encouraging intrinsic motivation – motivations and values without external rewards, which come from within, and which encourage self-determination, task persistence, self-evaluation, autonomy, purpose/intent. These values are associated with the kind of in-depth learning which emphasises achievable goals and mastery, and they can set students on a path to both long-term success and personal fulfilment. Learning music is a life-long endeavour and therefore it’s important to consider how the learning environment and the way in which students are taught and supported can help promote long-term intrinsic motivation.

Thus, instead of reminding students that they must practice in order to pass the next grade exam, we should help them understand the reasons for doing what they’re doing. That it’s not about the next grade and certificate, but rather cultivating a deeper understanding, enjoyment and appreciation of the music. When my students told me they wished they “played better” on the day on the day of the exam, or achieved a higher mark in their piano exams, I would remind them that the exam is a one-off, a fleeting moment in time, which may be disrupted by any number of personal or external forces which can tip the balance one way or another. Far better to reflect on and appreciate the huge amount of learning and accumulated knowledge which come from regular thoughtful practising and knowing how to apply that knowledge to learning new repertoire and improving one’s technique, musicality and artistry. All that good, important work can never be taken away nor undermined by any examiner, adjudicator or critic. Knowing this can give students better insight, control and investment in their learning, rather than tempting them with transitory “if/when” rewards, and fosters a better type of motivation than simply practicing for the next exam, festival or competition. At the most basic level, this is about encouraging students to enjoy playing the piano, to find greater personal satisfaction and creativity through the joy of music and a sense of accomplishment from having played a piece or even a section of a piece well, regardless of the level at which the student plays. By fully engaging students in the learning process, giving them the opportunity to play the kind of music they want to play, and encouraging their confidence and self-reliance, we can help them become independent, self-motivated learners – skills which they will carry forward not just in their musical development but also as important life skills.

Further reading

A Passionate Pursuit: the pianist’s mastery


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For those of us who engage in music, as performers and teachers, the classical canon offers an endless source of excitement, thrilling stories and fantasies, portrayed in myriad colours, moods and styles. The desire to play this music and revel in its wonders is very potent and is what motivates us to practise, play, perform, and teach. Sharing the music with others is a special joy all of its own.

Alongside this, the musician’s daily life can be tough, restrictive and lonely: the routine of practising, trying to make a living in an uncertain, highly competitive profession, seeking out performance opportunities, travelling, teaching, and the quotidian admin of managing a career. When the creative pursuit of music feels more like a task than a passion, it can lead to a loss of joy.

There are added pressures too: the rigours of the musician’s training can affect one’s attitude to the music. It stops being a source of excitement and exploration and instead becomes a sequence of technical exercises to be practised with clinical precision to the point of perfection.  The need always to be at the top of one’s game, the knowledge that, as a performer, one is only as good as one’s last performance, the precarious nature of the profession – all these can impact on one’s attitude to the music.

How do we preserve the joy when so many pressures can conspire to remove it from our music making?

As a teacher, I think it should start in the earliest lessons. Too often children are encouraged not to make a mistake, to aim for perfection – an unrealistic artificial construct – and in doing so become fixated on avoiding errors rather than revelling in the pleasure of the music, relishing and cherishing the sounds they are making.

…too much emphasis is placed on how they [music students] perform, and too little on what they experience.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of FLOW

 

Embrace the experience

As we mature and develop as musicians, whether or not we choose the path of formal training in conservatoire, our focus should remain on “the experience”. Of course we must practise deeply and intelligently, with due care and attention, but not to the exclusion of everything else. Life experience, from the mundane to the extraordinary, all feeds the artistic temperament and brings vitality and imagination to our music making.

Make the music for you and remain curious

Intrinsic motivation – whereby one undertakes a task or activity for its own sake rather than in the hope of gaining some sort of external reward or praise – leads to better focus and concentration, and far more fulfilling outcomes. So make the music for you – and don’t continually seek praise or endorsement from others; nor compare yourself to others.

Thirst for knowledge is a form of intrinsic motivation and this thirst can be fulfilled by learning new music and enjoying the process of learning. Personal fulfilment can be derived from knowing one is getting better, while the physical and mental satisfaction of actually playing music is a pleasure in itself and can lead to a state of flow, where one enjoys the activity for its own sake.

Regular reminders of why we have chosen to devote ourselves to music, which focus on the intrinsic motivations, rather than career advancement or external endorsement, and recalling our love for and pleasure in the art form, are very important too.

Give yourself permission for downtime

Taking regular breaks from practising and the other minutiae of managing one’s career allows time to refocus and reset. Regular exercise, plenty of sleep, having someone help with the mundane tasks, and getting away from it all by doing something else – reading a book, visiting an exhibition or simply chilling with a TV programme.

Acceptance

Know and accept that feelings of frustration and disgruntlement with one’s working life as normal and common to everyone.

 

And some helpful advice from musicians themselves:

Finding a few minutes amongst the (often huge) stresses of deadlines to engage in ‘play’/procrastination…and lots of listening to all kinds of music.

Thomas Hewitt Jones, composer

 

Reflect regularly on the transience of stress and anxiety and the permanence of art. Treat it as your friend, not your enemy. Even if things get much worse and they always can, know that art will always be with you and will continue long after you’re gone. A thirst for life and creation when willed into being tends to overwhelm the desire for death (of one form or another).

Luke Jones, pianist

 

For me, playing is the release. I mostly compose via improvisations, so as my mind wanders and deals with daily stress, my music is moving around under my fingers looking for a way to ground myself.

Simon Reich, pianist and composer

 

at times when my work is not bringing new repertoire to me, I find there is no cure for fatigue that is better than making a new thing

Sally Whitwell, pianist and composer

 

For me the joy is in the music. I love music.

Joseph Fleetwood, pianist

performers-quotes-15-1377772242-view-1

For those of us who engage in music, as performers and teachers, the classical canon offers an endless source of excitement, thrilling stories and fantasies, portrayed in myriad colours, moods and styles. The desire to play this music and revel in its wonders is very potent and is what motivates us to practise, play, perform, and teach, and sharing the music with others is a special joy all of its own.

But alongside this, the musician’s daily life can be tough, restrictive and lonely: the routine of practising, trying to make a living in an uncertain, highly competitive profession, seeking out performance opportunities, travelling, teaching, and the quotidian admin of managing a career. When the creative pursuit of music feels more like a task than a passion, it can lead to a loss of joy.

There are added pressures too: the rigours of the musician’s training can affect one’s attitude to the music. It stops being a source of excitement and exploration and instead becomes a sequence of technical exercises to be practised with clinical precision to the point of perfection.  The need always to be at the top of one’s game, the knowledge that, as a performer, one is only as good as one’s last performance, the precarious nature of the profession – all these can impact on one’s attitude to the music.

How do we preserve the joy when so many pressures can conspire to remove it from our music making?

As a teacher, I think it should start in the earliest lessons. Too often children are encouraged not to make a mistake, to aim for perfection – an unrealistic artificial construct – and in doing so become fixated on avoiding errors rather than revelling in the pleasure of the music, relishing and cherishing the sounds they are making.

…too much emphasis is placed on how they [music students] perform, and too little on what they experience.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of FLOW

 

Embrace the experience

As we mature and develop as musicians, whether or not we choose the path of formal training in conservatoire, our focus should remain on “the experience”. Of course we must practise deeply and intelligently, with due care and attention, but not to the exclusion of everything else. Life experience, from the mundane to the extraordinary, all feeds the artistic temperament and brings vitality and imagination to our music making.

Make the music for you and remain curious

Intrinsic motivation – whereby one undertakes a task or activity for its own sake rather than in the hope of gaining some sort of external reward or praise – leads to better focus and concentration, and far more fulfilling outcomes. So make the music for you – and don’t continually seek praise or endorsement from others; nor compare yourself to others.

Thirst for knowledge is a form of intrinsic motivation and this thirst can be fulfilled by learning new music and enjoying the process of learning. Personal fulfilment can be derived from knowing one is getting better, while the physical and mental satisfaction of actually playing music is a pleasure in itself and can lead to a state of flow, where one enjoys the activity for its own sake.

Regular reminders of why we have chosen to devote ourselves to music, which focus on the intrinsic motivations, rather than career advancement or external endorsement, and recalling our love for and pleasure in the art form, are very important too.

Give yourself permission for downtime

Taking regular breaks from practising and the other minutiae of managing one’s career allows time to refocus and reset. Regular exercise, plenty of sleep, having someone help with the mundane tasks, and getting away from it all by doing something else – reading a book, visiting an exhibition or simply chilling with a TV programme.

Acceptance

Know and accept that feelings of frustration and disgruntlement with one’s working life as normal and common to everyone.

 

And some helpful advice from musicians themselves:

Finding a few minutes amongst the (often huge) stresses of deadlines to engage in ‘play’/procrastination…and lots of listening to all kinds of music.

Thomas Hewitt Jones, composer

 

Reflect regularly on the transience of stress and anxiety and the permanence of art. Treat it as your friend, not your enemy. Even if things get much worse and they always can, know that art will always be with you and will continue long after you’re gone. A thirst for life and creation when willed into being tends to overwhelm the desire for death (of one form or another).

Luke Jones, pianist

 

For me, playing is the release. I mostly compose via improvisations, so as my mind wanders and deals with daily stress, my music is moving around under my fingers looking for a way to ground myself.

Simon Reich, pianist and composer

 

at times when my work is not bringing new repertoire to me, I find there is no cure for fatigue that is better than making a new thing

Sally Whitwell, pianist and composer

 

For me the joy is in the music. I love music.

Joseph Fleetwood, pianist

performers-quotes-15-1377772242-view-1