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What We Talk About When We Talk About Motivation

This title is taken from Raymond Carver's story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love". In that story Carver describes two couples, sitting and talking about love. One lady tells the other people how her former husband tried to kill her and then she claims that he loved her in his own way.

This reminds me of Fletcher, the harsh teacher in the film Whiplash. Did he love his students as well? In my many years as a teacher I have seen different ways to instill motivation. Some were almost violent, employing fear and punishment. Although I strongly resent these methods, I realize that some students (and parents) choose them in the belief that enduring this regime would prepare the student for real life. Others use methods of rewarding. Rewards might be as small as a candy or a sticker, or a vague promise such as "if you practice you will play on the concert, then you may be accepted to the regional orchestra and at the end of the long road you will be as rich and famous as Perlman or Yo Yo Ma". (Strangely, they never say "you will play as meaningfully and as musically as Yo Yo Ma or Perlman").

In his fascinating book Drive, Daniel H. Pink brings a lot of research based data demonstrating that intrinsic motivation is much stronger and much more long lasting than either carrots or sticks. People look for meaning and for freedom and they want to feel responsibility or at least feel they are an important part of the process.

When we started the Conservatory Orchestra almost seven years ago, we said: 'no carrots, no sticks'. I know that the things I enjoy the most are those I do not have to do. Along this line of thought, I wanted to focus on creative learning, on various games that clarify technical and musical principles and on many other notions which would enrich our playing. We discussed the value of giving and played more than ten concerts every year for underprivileged communities, patients in hospitals, at-risk youth and more. In addition, we eliminated auditions and attendance logs (we only asked the young musicians to tell us when they were not coming just so as not to worry about them).

This was the philosophy that guided us, yet today, seven years later, I cannot say for certain that we were right. True, some people got the message and part of it will surely remain with them. Others will probably join the violent race to become rich and famous.

These days I find myself reflecting on that initial philosophy and its encounter with reality: is this what often happens to well-intentioned ideas as they confront human nature? Were we wrong to believe that all the students we educated would respond to our line of thought and enjoy learning for the sake of learning, remaining impermeable to other drives? I must now decide if I wish to remain faithful to that philosophy or adapt it to reality.

To be continued

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