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Non-competitive motivators

Lydia Leong

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With all this talk about seating auditions and so forth, I'd like to know your thoughts on the following:

The rationale given for the heavy competition in music for children, whether it's seating auditions in orchestra, solo competitions, etc., is that competition motivates children, and for the ones who plan to make a career out of it, it prepares them for a profession where competition is routine, especially at the beginning of one's career.

If competition were to be eliminated (or vastly redued) as a motivator, what other motivators would take its place, especially for children who are *not* seeking musical careers?

For instance...

Adults tend to be motivated by the love of music itself. Children frequently haven't discovered that love (part of the goal is keeping them playing long enough for this to happen).

Adults are also often motivated to advance so they can play more complex works, especially favorite works in the repertoire. Children, again, often haven't formed those attachments yet. (Also, as a child, the works you *do* like often seem insurmountably far into the distance.)

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I remember that the anticipation of a performance was always a great motivator (still is) -- I think giving children/teenagers the opportunity to perform in lots of different situations makes playing music more exciting.

I also believe that just like sports teams, musical ensembles give children a sense of comraderie and mutual purpose that is enjoyable as well as important.

I expect for many players the "inner drive" to play kicks in by the early teenage years, and self-motivation becomes the primary drive to improve. But these other things -- the goal of performance and the experience of being a member of a musical group -- make being a young musician more exciting and enjoyable, and frankly I believe they are much more important to musical and general development in the long run than competitions.

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This is a great topic of interest for me, thanks Lydia.

My son is a good example here. At 13 and having played the viola for 5 years, he clearly states that he has no interest in making music a career. He wishes to be a chemist, scientist or something along those lines.

I never asked my son to play an instrument, he came home from school and asked me if he could. I of course, jumped at the opportunity.

Although I used to insist that he practice daily and there was a lot of head butting, I now no longer do (although he knows that I expect that he practice). There are days that he does not.

I think his prime motivator to continue is the fact that he knows that music gives others great pleasure, including me. He also loves that sense of belonging to an orchestra. He tells me he loves performing. He is not at all competitive. I think although it might bother him somewhat if he ended up in last chair, I think he would say, so be it.

I am anxious to hear the other replies.

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My son is eleven and just in his third year.

He doesn't like to practise but I make him.

He's always been obstinate with other issues as well so I know there's not much danger of him wanting to stop playing. I ask him that now and then.

His motivation is his lesson once a week but I don't know why.

He plays there what he practises at home and get's new ones.

I'm always very supportive and a little devious as well. To get him to practise longer I ask him to play me the songs and etudes I like best, but he knows I'm honest.

He likes to play songs from the radio and tv without the score and find parts of one song in others. He would like to play in the street near the shops, which lots of people do as well as children and at fairs. I haven allowed him to do that yet because he needs to play better for that I think and have more songs and he excepts that.

I started playing to motivate him and be able to play together.

This has worked for us uptill now, but I dread the next three years.

Bye, Natasja

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I like the idea of your son playing in the street. For me, music really hit in the 9th grade when I was asked to join a dance band, if I'd learn the bass (cello was first). That was enough to get me interested in the other, non-paying aspects, too. Like it or not, there's no motivator quite like money. Here in Chicago I've seen a number of kids (mostly teenagers) playing (classical violin) on the street or in the subway. For a while there was a little girl about 5 with her grandfather, playing duets. People love it, and it's a great way to desensitize one's self to stage fright, since most people are only half listening and don't expect much.

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If competition were to be removed as an extrinsic motivator, then one would have to either seek other sources of extrinsic motivation, or rely on intrinsic forms of motivation.

I think growing up in a musical environment is one of the factors that helps tremendously to inculcate motivation intrinsically.

The love for music (or a specific discipline)is an element that can be cultivated early on. Of course, this can be a double-edged sword. Your child could end up hating it. My dad is a classical guitarist and I listened to him practice on his guitar all my life. When he tried teaching me the classical guitar I absolutely loathed it.

However, I did grow up listening to all kinds of classical music and, as a child, I remember being able to discern between good and bad performances. The point is that being immersed in the appropriate environment, a child can develop a keen sense of musicality and musicianship. This can be a powerful motivating factor because they understand they have room for improvement.

I think children should get used to 'performing'--for family gatherings, church functions, parties...etc, and receive a lot of praise from doing so. It is important for them to feel confident and comfortable with their abilities because that, in turn, positively reinforces practicing and improving.


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I, too, am a great believer in listening to lots of great music as a motivation to playing great music. The more a child is exposed to at an early age, the greater the likelihood that she/he will want to be able to produce those sounds. Whenever possible, children should also attend live performances. There are so many free recitals and concerts, as well as low cost conservatory, university, and community orchestral concerts. It is not necessary to subscribe to a costly professional concert series to introduce a child to first-rate music.

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Originally posted by Michael Darnton:

I like the idea of your son playing in the street. For me, music really hit in the 9th grade when I was asked to join a dance band, if I'd learn the bass (cello was first). That was enough to get me interested in the other, non-paying aspects, too. Like it or not, there's no motivator quite like money. Here in Chicago I've seen a number of kids (mostly teenagers) playing (classical violin) on the street or in the subway. For a while there was a little girl about 5 with her grandfather, playing duets. People love it, and it's a great way to desensitize one's self to stage fright, since most people are only half listening and don't expect much.

I don't doubt the money helped motivate, but there's nothing quite like being indispensible to a group enterprise-- especially if it's one that your parents didn't set up or otherwise authorize.

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I know Galamian's method of motivation (he thought of everything!) was carried out in his own idiom: "scare you to death" (in Perlman's words).

I wonder how Dorothy DeLay approaches the issue.

A psychological approach by a conscientious (which also means "rare") teacher could work, but I think a heavy workload for the next lesson helps: I've got 5 etudes, a concerto movement, and a Bach fugue plus whatever scales I do of my own free will (one key M/m 3-8ve scale/arp; 3rds, 6th, 8ves, fingered 8ves, 10ths, some harmonics, should do some chromatic...), and then there's my bow arm and posture to fix. Some of the motivation also comes from the thrill of improvement: practicing became fun starting a few months ago when I could stand to listen to my own sound (and it's getting even better).

I can't think of any one long-term motivator (something that never ceases to motivate me no matter what my mood or situation). Maybe some snake oil...


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For me, the prime motivator is being able to continue into a career in something that I know I will love.

Sure, individual competitions and auditions motivate me (as is shown by my most recent thread) but those are all steps on the path to a musical career. I already know I'm good at it. I already know I love it. I know that I won't let myself stop playing until I can learn the Tchaik concerto (along the lines of Lydia's repertoire theory). And all I need is the discipline, or motivation, to be able to accomplish that and whatever else I wish to in music.

Now...I have to go practice....I have an audition tomorrow smile.gif


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I remember clearly what motivated me as a child, and it's pretty much the same that motivates me now. (Although, there was one extra motivation as a child that I don't really have any more).

I started in 4th grade, so maybe that's too late. But, as early as they'd let me in, I sang in choirs. And about then, also, I played and had lessons with piano.

I liked playing piano. I liked the immediate gratification of it. My older brother played, and they started me when they noticed that I would push my way onto the bench to play along with him. I just wanted to do it, too, and playing duets with him was immensely fun.

I hated rigid, disciplined practicing, though, and the insistence of practicing when I could have been out playing with my friends was what did me in after only a few years. (I could also have practiced when my family was sitting around before bed, watching TV - apparently mom's way of teaching me discipline was also to teach me sacrifice.) (I didn't mind practicing really - I just minded being forced to do it. Later through my life, I have still off & on played piano on my own, and even once accompanied my high school choir.)

I loved choir. The sound the whole choir made was, again, that immediate gratification. I may not have had specific pieces to look forward to when I was very young, but loving to hear the music and be part of it was always there. The motivation of performance was, too.

When stringed instruments were offered in school (4th grade), I jumped at the chance to play cello. And from day one, I loved playing cello.

There was never even a consideration of competing for anything more than orchestra chairs (I didn't even take lessons). Certainly not a carreer. (I didn't even realize that there WAS a solo cello repertoire!) I just loved the cello. Any practicing I did outside of orchestra class was purely because a) I loved the challenge and feeling of accomplishment from managing to play (and improve on) the instrument (let's face it - stringed instruments are complicated), and :) in reward, getting this most beautiful sound - more beautiful than any other instrument I knew. And, c) I was one of 3 cellists in a school of about 500. I always did have to be different. smile.gif (that's the one that's gone now. I already am different now - I don't try anymore. wink.gif) And d) I also thoroughly enjoyed the sound a group (orchestra) managed to produce together. It's a truly amazing thing.

The key thing, though, that's been constant through all of my musical background, was that I enjoyed listening to, and being part of producing music. I don't remember ever not feeling that way. I don't think I was ever too young for that.

And, judging from my niece who has been completely enthralled with my cello since she was 1 and a half and first heard me play (and started "helping" me play), I don't think kids who love music are ever too young to feel that love.

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Okay, here goes a thought.

I don't like competitions..They tend to cloud the point and purpose for learning. So to motivate deals with knowing your student and working with that.

We have a musical home environment, so the motivation comes from within...we like to play together (I only listen now.) It's my enjoyment to hear them play. When it comes to learning, each one of my children have different aspirations and inspirations. One desires to make her life at this..It's not a competitive thing though. It is a need to her. Why she works so hard at learning violin..She has a sound in her heart and can't stop until she feels she's accomplished that goal.

I agree with alot of what everyone contributed here, though. A real motivator is the performances! And it is a thrill for a young person.


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