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Why Do We Play Music?

Why do we play music? Music stirs the emotions. It’s beautiful. We love music. We have favorite pieces of music we never tire of. These are all wonderful reasons to play music.

Constructive reasons

Love for a musical instrument, its sound, its expressive possibilities is a similarly constructive reason to practice music. Even if you’re unable to play a piece as well as a master, even if you never perform in a major concert hall, there is unique enjoyment in playing a piece yourself.

Another reason is that you have something to say that can only be expressed through music. Having something to say is really something of a chicken-and-egg matter. We “speak” through our instrument by means of our technique. Technique is what allows us to express music, and the better our technique the more we can express. We need to have plenty of training under our belts to develop the technique to express complex emotions. We only really have something to say once we develop the technique—although having an advanced technique by no means guarantees great artistry.

Music also presents unique opportunities for continual growth through its inexhaustible challenges. In fact, a review of about 280 research papers presented at the Neurosciences and Music Conference at Harvard Medical School in June 2017 revealed that the most powerful way to increase IQ is to practice a musical instrument.

Destructive reasons

Sometimes, however, people play music for reasons that are not constructive or are even destructive.

One destructive reason is to show off. Performing music should be about sharing its beauty, emotions and meaning, not about belittling others or making them feel less worthy. Even highly virtuosic music, if it is good music and even if it is lighter music, is first and foremost music. It deserves to be played as such, always focusing on its musical and emotional content. Audiences will notice if you play something in a way that’s overly showy, and experienced listeners and critics disdain playing that serves the performer rather than the music.

Another destructive reason is to compete. If you play difficult music to show off or compete, you almost certainly will not play it as musically or as beautifully as it is meant to be played.

Horowitz once declared, “Competitions are for horses.” That said, competitions are a necessary evil for aspiring professional musicians. Even gaining admission to a music school is by its nature competitive. For all their virtues and vices (and music competitions are indeed heavily criticized), there is generally a distaste for empty display and a strong preference for mature artistry in professional competitions.

Sometimes parents compete with each other using their children. “How come little Susie is playing a piece in level 4 but my Johnny is still at level 3?!” they might say indignantly to their child’s music teacher. If you’re a parent, try to inspire your child and encourage their love of music. This will help develop your child’s internal motivation.

Once I taught a masterclass and a precocious 10-year-old girl played a piece by Mendelssohn for me. She was a promising talent for sure but I could tell she was overly focused on being mechanically perfect. I taught her how to feel the beat by conducting rather than relying exclusively on the clocklike ticking of a metronome.

Her mother got furious at me. “You have to show her how to play every note so she can go win this competition!”

I told her that such a thing would be totally unprofessional of me. My job was not to teach by rote, it was to help fill in serious gaps in her musical training in order to ensure her long-term success. She should enter competitions when her musical understanding and artistic development warranted this step, not to boost her parents’ ego.

I hope these thoughts on motivation for playing music prove helpful in your own musical endeavors.

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