What’s your motivation to play? What made you start playing, and what makes you continue?
For most of us, the answers were pretty simple to start with. Some people just fall in love with music. I know that I was hooked pretty much from the start, and I knew after the first year that I was going to devote my life to it. I loved to play and wanted to play better. It was all I wanted to do and I wanted to be great at it.
That commitment was my driving force for the next ten years of my life. Music school, long hours in the practice room, and just as many hours of hustle to find places to play. Ten years later I had earned two degrees in guitar performance and was playing steady gigs and learning to write music. The satisfaction was built in, the rewards of momentum and commitment.
There’s a good chance that you might have made a different set of choices but still love to play.
Most people don’t make quite such an intense commitment, but still strive to be better players. Part of the beauty of playing music is that there’s always the possibility for growth. You might find, though, that after a while your progress seems to slow down.
This happens to everyone. You might find that playing is still enjoyable but has become a little frustrating. There are all kinds of resources available to you that can help you get better, but it’s hard to know which will help the most. There’s so much information that it can be overwhelming, and learning to use it even more daunting. All of this can make motivation more of a challenge.
You might think that the biggest difference between you and a professional is the amount of hours dedicated to the instrument.
That’s true, but there’s another factor you might not have considered. A professional musician’s life is generally a series of projects. Sometimes that means one long-term band, sometimes one short-term gig after another. Each of these has its own repertoire and dedicated immediate goals: a rehearsal, a recording date, a performance, a deadline. This ongoing series of short-term goals becomes the pro’s motivation. That doesn’t mean the love of playing diminishes, but it does mean that there’s a constant imperative to learn and refine new music.
The pro has an ongoing imperative to learn and master a specific set of material. The challenge for the amateur or student is that lacking specific short-term goals, most people eventually start to spin their wheels. Only the most devoted (or obsessive, depending on how you look at it) are able to maintain momentum without it. And even then, success in staying motivated does come from personal goal-setting.
The bottom line is that almost everyone needs a reason to keep practicing that goes beyond the simple desire to.
In order to keep from coasting, most of us need an additional boost. This can come in the form of jam sessions with friends, a performance at a local open mic, or recording your own songs. You don’t need professional aspirations, or even a desire to do anything other than have the experience. The act of creation is its own reward, and most of all when you give yourself a reason to create and refine.
By necessity, this means narrowing your focus to a specific set of music. Some practice is broad, in the sense of general skill- or vocabulary-building. That means the information you absorb doesn’t have an immediate, specific application. This is an important part of practicing, but it’s wide knowledge rather than deep. To really play the way you want to, you need to get to know specific songs in detail. That means committing yourself to a repertoire and refining it as far as your abilities allow.
There’s another built-in trap here, but understand what matters most.
You can get tired of playing the same songs after a while. Recognize that when this happens, that particular short-term goal may have been reached and it’s time for a new one. There might be more work that could be done: maybe you still can’t play the songs as well as you’d like to. But when your enthusiasm for the project starts to wane, you need to start the process over again with something else. The spark and motivation matter more than the pursuit of perfection. After all, we know that learning music is an ongoing process, and that there’s always another level to reach.
It can be challenging can find people to play with and places to play. It can be hard to choose a particular area to focus on, or get a group of people to agree on what to do. You might prefer to work alone, and that’s fine. But be aware that the goal-setting process and resulting growth are the most important things. All of the specifics are variable: what you do, who you do it with, and how well you can pull it off. The thing that’s certain is that the process makes you a better player and a stronger musician. Once you recognize this, the pursuit of those short-term goals becomes its own motivation. Best of all, you will certainly see your skills and confidence improve. There’s no greater motivation than that.