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Motivation, emotion, and the questions that keep musicians up at night

When Passion is a Prison

Among the most driven musicians, all passion is not created equal.

Musicians are often highly driven people. Their drive and passion sustains them as they practice long hours, spend evenings and weekends at various performance gigs, and do the many other things required to build and maintain a music career. Being a musician is rarely a nine-to-five job. It’s more like a way of life. Research has shown that musicians, more than those in many other lines of work, tend to wrap up their personal identity within their occupation. And while the rewards can be great, they also require effort and can come at the expense of other things. So while music is an art for everyone, for those who make it their life’s focus, it’s also a discipline.

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Being a passionate musician doesn’t always mean the same thing. Two people who are equally driven may have very different motivations underlying their drive. The key to a rewarding musical life is not just being extremely motivated or dedicated to your music. Some musicians’ passion may be driven by their infatuation with the creative and expressive potential of the art. Others’ passion may be characterized by their being wholly committed to their success as a professional. An emerging line of research is suggesting that the type of passion that musicians have can determine their potential for long-term fulfillment in the field. I believe that even for the most dedicated among us, there’s benefit in examining the motivation that’s at the root of our drive.

To date, the go-to research on musician passion is a study conducted by Bonneville-Roussy, Lavigne, and Vallerand (2011), published in the journal Psychology of Music. Drawing on the prior research of Robert Vallerand and colleagues (2003, 2008), this study of advanced classical musicians provided evidence for a Dualistic Model of Passion. This model indicates two types of passion: (1) harmonious passion, characterized by unpressured choice to engage in an activity, and the experience of positive emotions during and as a result of engaging in it; and (2) obsessive passion, typified by an unmanageable compulsion to carry out an activity, even through negative consequences. Harmonious passion (HP) musicians show a flexible persistence, and are able to balance their music activities with other aspects of life. Obsessive passion (OP) musicians are driven to practice and perform to attain the approval of people in their lives, or to maintain a self-esteem that is contingent upon musical success.

From the descriptions above, it’s probably not surprising to know that in the Bonneville et al. study, as well as others, harmonious passion seemed to facilitate a number of desirable outcomes. HP has been linked to the use of mastery goals (practicing to accomplish something, rather than to avoid failing), more productive practicing behaviors, overall performance level, and psychological well-being (self-reported satisfaction with life). Obsessive passion has been found to be unrelated to these. In contrast, OP is associated with the use of performance-avoidance goals (e.g., practicing to avoid an embarrassing concert) and the experience of guilt feelings when not practicing or improving “enough.”

I first became aware of the research on passion when I was invited to be a part of a “Music and Motivation” session at the International Conference on Motivation a couple years back. Like the research study reviewed above, the presentations there were compelling and led me to think much about this. The drawbacks of an obsessive passion orientation figured heavily into my suggestion in a previous blog post that practicing less might actually foster more musical growth. Fellow Psychology Today blogger Jeanette Bicknell also was moved to write about this line of research when she asked her readers, “Can you be too passionate about music?

As Dr. Bicknell suggests in her post, musicians can be too passionate about their pursuits. Or perhaps they can come to rely on a type of passion that is not optimal for them. But before oversimplifying it as “obsessive passion = bad” and “harmonious passion = good” let me point out some aspects of the OP approach that may at times serve a productive purpose. First, OP musicians often practice to attain the acceptance or approval of their instructors and others. Of course, among children who are beginners on a musical instrument, this kind of extrinsic motivation is very common. Music teachers provide incentives for at-home practicing, and parents add in their own rewards (or punishments) as part of their highly influential support (Creech, 2009). These things are considered by many to be necessities for young musicians to progress through the earliest levels of skill development. Second, it’s been reported that OP musicians experience guilt feelings when they miss practice sessions. Recall, though, that there are two kinds of guilt feelings. One is the proper outcome of your conscience if you actually do something wrong. If young musicians have taken on the responsibility to practice, and they choose to skip it, I’d say guilt feelings are a healthy response.

Note that I’m suggesting these two aspects of obsessive passion—desiring the approval of others, and experiencing guilt feelings—are not so bad if they’re present in young musicians’ lives. As they develop, however, they should depend less on such things for motivation. More and more, they should do music for themselves. They don’t practice because they have to, in order to please others or to avoid guilt feelings—especially if they’re the other kind of guilt feelings, i.e., those stemming from an imagined offense of some kind. Developing musicians ideally learn to practice because it’s become personally meaningful to them. Their musicianship has become an integral part of their identity. They don’t practice and perform out of pressure, or to avoid failure. They do it because they choose to, and because it’s who they are (see my earlier post about Self-Determination Theory). 

Especially once they have outgrown the supervision of parents and teachers, even the most driven musicians should not be operating from a sense of compulsion, avoidance of shame, or fear of failure. Being driven by a harmonious passion may not be second nature for many, but the long-term benefits can be great. As mentioned above, HP musicians experience a sense of choice and feelings of enjoyment in their activities. They apply a flexible persistence to their practicing and performing, and are able to balance it with other things in their lives. Those who find the HP approach elusive may want to take stock of their musical activities, and identify sources of anxiety and guilt. They may also look for positive experiences that are missing from their music making, perhaps some that they once enjoyed. Transitioning to a harmonious passionate orientation may feel strange for some, but it may be the key to receiving the best rewards of a musical life.

 

References

Bonneville-Roussy, A., Lavigne, G. L., & Vallerand, R. J. (2011). When passion leads to excellence: The case of musicians. Psychology of Music, 39(1), 123-138.

Creech, A. (2009). The role of the family in supporting learning. In S. Hallam, I. Cross & M. Thaut (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of music psychology (pp. 295-306). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Vallerand, R.J., Blanchard, C.M., Mageau, G.A., Koestner, R., Ratelle, C., Léonard, M., Gagné, M., & Marsolais, J. (2003). Les passions de l’âme: On obsessive and harmonious passion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 756–767.

Vallerand, R.J., Mageau, G.A., Elliot, A.J., Dumais, A., Demers, M.A., & Rousseau, F. (2008). Passion and performance attainment in sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9, 373–392.

 

Copyright 2014 Robert H. Woody

  

Source of image: Daniel DJL248 on Flickr Creative Commons

Robert H. Woody, Ph.D. is a music professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an author of the book Psychology for Musicians.

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