One of my favourite “self-help” authors is Gretchen Rubin. Gretchen’s original project was a one year mission to be happier, and since then she’s written a number of books on the subject.

While writing a book on building habits (Better than Before, a book I cannot recommend highly enough!), Gretchen noticed that people seem to fall into four groups when it comes to managing expectations (and thus, getting stuff done). She called this the Four Tendencies, which is a matrix of how we respond to outer expectations (from others) and inner expectations (from ourselves).

The four groups are:

  • Upholders – meet both inner and outer expectations easily
  • Questioners – meet inner expectations easily, reject outer expectations
  • Obligers – meet outer expectations, reject inner expectations
  • Rebels – reject all expectations

As I was reading about these groups of people, it was a revelation to me! I suddenly understood why not all music learners respond to the tickbox in the practice book, and what it is about an exam date that motivates some, but is like a bucket of cold water to others. It’s definitely changed how I practice, and how I help my students to improve their practice patterns.

Perhaps you recognise yourself here?


  • Sets a schedule so they can practice everyday, without too much struggle. They’re probably a 7am sharp practicer!
  • Actually does the boring bits like scales
  • Happily sets up a practice structure that allows them to easily meets expectations each week
  • Works steadily on what the teacher has set, and trusts the plan without needing reasons
  • Perhaps doesn’t always think to ask why they should do something, so might miss out on deeper understanding or wider exploration
  • Knows when to give themselves a break and doesn’t feel guilty about it
  • Exams and concerts are taken in their stride


  • What should I practice? And why? And how? This musician will do well with a list of ideas, or more creative ways to practice rather than fixed tasks
  • Only practices the things they like or see value in. Probably hates scales, and wobetide the poor teacher who sets music they don’t like. They might show up having mastered a piece that wasn’t set, and nothing else.
  • Wants to see they’re getting better, and will struggle a lot with a plateau
  • Finds it difficult to set regular practice times without the motivation of seeing the benefit
  • Practices loads more when an exam or concert is looming – they won’t seem ready without a date in the calendar
  • Likes to find their own ways of working, and will happily question (or just outright ignore) the teacher’s ideas
  • Less likely to practice if their mum nags them!
  • Brings really interesting titbits to lessons that they’ve picked up in the week and wants to understand their pieces


  • Practices when their mum makes them (but finds that helpful!)
  • Likes a star chart, checklist or habit app streak!
  • Does best with a checklist of specific things to do, and a clear understanding of what their teacher wants to see next week
  • Doesn’t always find it easy to customise their practice habits or work on things just for their own enjoyment
  • Responds well to being asked if they practised each week
  • Can burn out and stop practising when they get overwhelmed so keep tasks manageable and allow them a bit of “obliger rebellion”


  • Practices either for hours or not at all
  • Pays little attention to tasks from teacher – does what they want
  • More likely to practice if music is part of their self-identity: they need to see themselves as a musician
  • The more you focus on practice, the less they practice!
  • Practice might drop off before exams or concerts, rather than increase, due to the pressure
  • Practice needs to be an active choice, not a general expectation
  • Give them information, the consequences, and a choice (this actually works well for nearly everyone!)
  • Probably develops good aural, improvisation or sight reading skills!
  • Makes a point of playing by ear over music reading

Something that I’m learning more and more as a teacher is that the ways I was taught were a bit “one size fits all”, and one that assumed that I would find meeting the teacher’s expectations easy. I’m a questioner, so that was definitely not the case! I remember one teacher who refused to put me in for an exam until I was ready to pass it. He couldn’t understand that I needed the exam deadline to get the work done!

Now I know that I need my own internal expectation and motivation, it’s much easier to engage with music. I know I need to set myself goals and targets that I enjoy – like playing for church services, entering a competition or working towards an exam. If you’re an obliger, you might need to find yourself a practice buddy who keeps you accountable.

If none of these are jumping out to you, you can try the Four Tendencies quiz on Gretchen Rubin’s site.

Whatever tendency you are, one of the most important things in learning an instrument is to build a healthy practice habit. One key aspect of finding a good teacher is seeking out someone who can provide you with the right kind of accountability for you. If you are interested in online lessons, or lessons in the Edinburgh area, get in touch.


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