Igniting Internal Drive

Any action can be practiced as an art, as a craft, or as drudgery

– Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art

In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle shares what he discovered while visiting talent hotbeds, small places that produce astonishing numbers of world-class performers in sports, art, music, and academics. Through studying these top performers and the neuroscience of skill acquisition, Coyle distilled three elements of talent development:

  • Deep Practice
  • Ignition
  • Master Coaching

Deep practice and master coaching are no surprise to anyone involved in music education, but we tend to overlook the power of ignition.

Ignition is a blast of motivation, and it can strike us like lightning. In The Talent Code, Coyle tells us:

Growing skill requires deep practice. But deep practice isn’t a piece of cake: it requires energy, passion, commitment, and motivational fuel.

Where deep practice is all about staggering-baby steps, ignition is about the set of signals and subconscious forces that create our identity; the moments that lead us to say that is who I want to be.

Ignition through Identity

The most powerful source of ignition is a vivid model of the person we want to become. These models are most potent when they come from our peer group or culture. Ignition through identity isn’t about competition, it starts with the question, “if she can do it, why can’t I?”

I found my first ignition source in sixth grade. I was playing clarinet in a regional honor band, and another sixth grader named Sam improvised a saxophone solo with the band. I immediately lit up and said to myself, “Wow, I want to do that!” The next school year, I picked up the saxophone and sat next to Sam in jazz band. Being around him inspired me to practice and take lessons from his teacher. I was also listening to jazz masters like Lester Young and John Coltrane, but seeing someone my age perform at a high level was my primary source of ignition.

I see a pattern of ignition with my most talented students. These kids aren’t always the most disciplined, but sources of ignition inspire them to practice regularly over the long haul.

Willpower is Overrated

Psychology professor David DeSteno shows us that willpower is a fragile tool. If people were good at willpower, we would stick with more than 8% of our New Years resolutions, always eat healthy, exercise regularly, save for retirement, avoid smoking and drinking, and practice for hours every day.

Our culture of music education expects students to draw upon willpower and delayed gratification to practice. Well-meaning music teachers rely on external motivators like grades, awards, assessments, and public shaming to motivate students. This can be effective at delivering short-term results, but without ignition, students burn out and often quit playing altogether.

The alternative is tapping into intrinsic motivation, which is rooted in three areas:

  • Autonomy – self-directed work
  • Mastery – constantly improving at something you care about
  • Purpose – contributing to something larger than yourself

Ignition sources are very personal. We can’t design a system that guarantees ignition from a group of students. As teachers, we can build communities where ignition is likely to strike. As students, we can follow our curiosity and seek out vivid models of the musicians we want to become.

Reflect on the sources of ignition that lit up your passion for music. Can you seek out new ignition sources to rejuvenate your desire to deeply practice? Can you help your students ignite their passion?

To dig deeper, read The Talent Code and listen to a great interview with Dan Coyle.