How Curiosity Keeps Us Happy and Motivated While Practicing an Instrument

This post is part 2 in the Chart Your Quest series, for people wanting to start learning piano (or any instrument!) but don’t know where to start! You can read the first part here.

Last week, we talked about finding our motivation: what is it we actually want to learn to do in piano and why? Usually it’s related to “it makes us happy.”

You made a playlist of songs you enjoy listening to and considered what about them resonates with you. That’s the first action step in this series, so kudos for you for completing that!

The next step is to get curious.

Curiosity is a concept that we tend to treat as something we have no control over. It’s just natural interest in a topic, but it delves a little deeper into our psyches than mere interest. Curiosity drives our interest when the work starts to get hard. It ensures that we’re doing the work for a larger goal (our happiness).

One of the markers of childhood is curiosity about everything. And think about how much learning we all did in the first few years of life. Just basic motor skills involves a lot of determination!

There are three different sets of muscles involved in walking. That’s a lot of muscles to learn how to use! And on top of that, balance involves even more muscles and cognitive processes.

Image of muscles used when walking

Kids also learn how to move their heads, eyes, fingers, and they often add dancing to the mix. AND THEN they also start to learn language in a very short amount of time!

How long did it take you to learn a language in high school? 4 years, and you probably didn’t feel super fluent in it. Admittedly, you probably only practice the language a couple of hours a day if that, but think about how difficult it was to do that.

Then, since we’re aware of how clumsy we sound, we beat up on ourselves about how slowly we’re learning. I actually just saw someone on social media talk about this. We celebrate baby babbles — “ga ga dooo baaaa beee pppppssstththth” — with conversation “Really?” “And then what happened?” “No way!”

But for some reason, we hate feeling childish.

Kids are so curious, though! It pushes them through the hard work and makes it feel more like a series of challenges than actual work.

Person happy at work

So curiosity will keep you on track to learn piano to be happy; it’ll keep it lighthearted and fun. It’ll make it a challenge, not a bunch of work revolving around a list of deadlines and requirements. Releasing your inner child will actually make your learning more efficient and just more enjoyable.

It allows you to start each session wondering, “What skills are needed for this piece? What will I discover outside of my normal expectations through the process learning this piece? Will I feel new emotions? Will I feel more understood than I did yesterday?

A Scientific View of Curiosity

In neuroscience and psychology, curiosity is defined as the motivation behind information-seeking behavior. It can also be considered a trait, as in, there are some people who are more naturally curious than others. They have this need to know how the universe works, and they keep asking questions and looking for answers, sometimes to the point of utter exhaustion!

It’s something we all have and can all develop if we want more of it.

In neuroscience and psychological literature (see References below), there are two proposed models of curiosity: optimal arousal and information-gap.

Optimal Arousal Theory

Optimal arousal theory argues that curiosity comes from a need to maintain a balance of arousal in the mind. Arousal here refers to mental stimulation, which is basically anything that draws your attention.

Brain scans

The problem with trying to maintain a certain level of stimulation is that we habituate, or become accustomed to, stimulation after a while. You’ve experienced this once you’ve gotten used to the sounds of your home. You tune it out after a while and probably don’t even think about it. But if you move into a new place, it takes a while before you get used to the sounds.

We tend to pay more attention to new or contrasting things in our worlds. But we can also have too much.

Curiosity seeks out new ideas in order to keep your mind active; it keeps you alert and prevents you from growing bored. This theory doesn’t allow for as much of an active role in making yourself more curious, but that’s why information-gap theory can complement it.

Information-gap Theory

Information-gap theory argues that curiosity is like a hunger. We have this unpleasant feeling when we don’t know the answer to something, so we go searching for the answer (that’s the information seeking) in order to satisfy that hunger.

Hamster eating

Loewenstein, the father of this theory, noted that we have to be primed (we have to smell food) to be hungry. We need to have a minimum amount of knowledge about the topic in order to have a question about it. We have to have questions before we’re able to search for answers.

You may have experienced in school that when you knew almost nothing about a subject, it was hard to ask questions. You just knew that you had no idea what was going on, and it was overwhelming. Once you started to learn more, you became better able to ask questions and be curious about the topic.

Both theories can be diverse or specific. We can be interested in knowing a wide variety of information about a topic, like wanting to be able to play in every style on the piano, or we can be interested in learning deeply about a very specific sub-topic, like wanting to become a master at Chopin’s music.

How do we use curiosity?

As explained above, we use curiosity to keep us striving when it starts to get hard, or you grow frustrated. Learning how to initiate it before you start helps you create a firm foundation, so you’re prepared for any obstacles that come your way.

Start with the playlist I had you make in the past week. Those songs are music that you already have interest in. They are familiar, so you won’t be overwhelmed.

Going from Loewenstein’s theory, you have to know that these songs exist for you to know that you are interested in them. Now think about your answers to why you like those songs.

Did they make you feel a certain way? Are you interested in creating that feeling on your own?

As I mentioned in the last post, Le Tombeau de Couperin by Ravel is one of my absolute favorite musical works of all time. It makes my spirit feel like it can fly, so I often listen to it when I’m feeling down.

I love this performance by Angela Hewitt because I feel connected to her.

Her face and physical gestures make me feel like she feels the same way about the piece. It gives her hope. It’s exciting. It makes her feel like she can fly.

So my curiosity in this is related to how I can do that for someone else. How can a performance I give provide hope for someone else?

I’m a music theorist, so I also love to ask about the music itself. What about the Prelude makes me feel so free?

I can explore answers by studying more of Ravel’s work, studying emotion in music, noticing how each section makes me feel: the beginning of the Prelude feels like the beginning of an adventure. It feels like I’m setting off on my own, and my family and friends are cheering me on as I take the first steps.

Then, the energy seems to build. I’ve taken my first steps, and I’m waiting for the real adventure to come. This tension builds and builds towards the ending of the movement, finishing in a tremolo that just feels sparkly. Actually, most of Ravel’s music just sounds sparkly to me, and that’s probably why I enjoy it so much.

My specific curiosities with this piece are: how can I play it myself and make it sound sparkly and effortless? What about the piece makes it inspiring and “sparkly”? Who else loves this piece and why?

I’ve attributed the sparkliness to a gentle touch but strong touch by the performer and the many ornaments and trills in Ravel’s work. That means, I’m more motivated to practice trills and other speed exercises because I’m curious about the mechanics of these techniques and how to accomplish them myself. It turns my practice session into an act of discovery rather than a list of to do’s.

It’s in human nature to want to understand the way the world works, so reminding yourself of your curiosity not only puts you more in touch with yourself, but it also inspires you to do amazing things.

This week, go through your playlist and ask some specific questions about why you connect so well with each song. Next time, we’ll talk about the importance of being specific at the beginning of your journey. There are many worlds of music out there, and it’s much more enjoyable and efficient to explore them one at a time!

Make sure you subscribe, so you don’t miss the next one!

And be sure to check out the many resources on the site to help you learn and grow as a musician. :)

Happy musicking!

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