The End of Will Power

Superman lifts carWhen my adult piano class disbanded for the summer last June, we promised to return in the fall with a new piece to play for each other. Still giddy from not embarrassing myself at the end-of-year recital, I carried home from that final class a heap of optimism and a bundle of new sheet music.

As it turned out, our class did not reconvene until January—seven months after we had last met. Which translates to approximately 200 practice days.

By which point, I had practiced maybe five times. Maybe.

As you may know, I love practicing the piano. I love the concentration, the sense of being alone and at peace amidst domestic chaos, the infinitesimal but inexorable improvement that comes from doing something over and over. It thrills me that given enough time, even my slow-witted fingers can learn.

But it does not, apparently, thrill me enough. No matter how much I love to practice when I’m doing it, no matter how amazing I feel when I master a piece, what actually makes me sit down at the bench and dig my book out from under everyone else’s music is the threat of playing for my classmates and my teacher.

I knew that about myself, which is why I signed up for an actual class with an actual teacher, rather than relying on teach-yourself-to-play books, YouTube, and my kids. And yet, every year, on the cusp of a class break, I am convinced I can go it alone.

And then, again and again my will power fails me. My will power! The stuff I have proudly used for years to finish books I didn’t love, eschew food that I did, and engage in activities that require a jog bra (including putting on a jog bra). Realizing that my will power isn’t powerful enough has been a terrible, horrible . . .

Relief.

It began in September, when (not practicing), I was on Facebook (not practicing), and I came across an article reprinted in the Washington Post under the headline, “Why a Leading Professor of New Media Just Banned Technology Use in Class.” In it, Clay Shirky, a professor at NYU, explains that for years he let his students use whatever laptops, tablets, or phones they wanted whenever they wanted, reasoning that

It’s my job to be more interesting than the possible distractions, so a ban felt like cheating. And finally, there’s not wanting to infantilize my students, who are adults, even if young ones. Time management is their job, not mine.

But this year, he finally decided not to. He had concluded that the technology was not just more powerful than he was, it was also more powerful than they were.

Both the form and the content of a Facebook update are almost irresistibly distracting, especially compared with the hard slog of coursework . . .

Add to that truth the fact that, scientifically speaking, “Humans are incapable of ignoring surprising new information in our visual field,” and students can’t help themselves.

The form and content of a Facebook update may be almost irresistible, but when combined with a visual alert in your immediate peripheral vision, it is—really, actually, biologically—impossible to resist.

Eureka! In other words, it wasn’t my fault that Facebook and email constantly pulled me from my work. I wasn’t bad or lazy; I was just weak, and it was impossible for me to be strong enough. I wouldn’t feel ashamed or guilty about being too weak to lift a car, would I? I wouldn’t waste time trying to find a good handhold, or build up my shoulder muscles. I would go find a damned jack.

I thanked the friend who had shared the article and told him I was closing my Facebook page for the rest of the work day. It was that simple. I gave up the idea that I could check it once in a while, as a break from thinking, and accepted that as long as Facebook was there, it would break my thinking.

And something else happened: The next time I made a reluctant child practice the piano, I felt different about it. I’ve always been strict about my children’s piano practice. But I have sometimes felt secretly sheepish about my own hypocrisy, since, when my class wasn’t meeting, I couldn’t make myself practice. If it’s so good for them, isn’t it good for me, too?

Now I feel like my children are lucky to have someone make them do things. Someone whose power is greater than the power of the various distractions in their lives—or at least someone who has power over those distractions. Lena would rather watch YouTube clips about dorm decorating than practice the piano; I sympathize, and I help her by not giving her a choice.

This perspective makes me feel better about my parenting, and it also makes me feel better about my children. Noah can’t resist looking at his phone when he hears the ping of a text; I don’t blame him. Why should he be stronger than most humans? So without thinking less of him and without getting angry, I simply help him, when he needs it, by taking his phone away.

Isn’t Noah lucky? He still lives with a power greater than himself—someone who can figuratively lift a car for him. As an adult, I, on the other hand, have to find a jack. You see, acknowledging my own limits relieves me of guilt, but not of responsibility; it doesn’t let me off the hook in any way other than emotionally. I should still practice the piano every day. And when I don’t, I should forgive myself—right before signing up for the next class.

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3 thoughts on “The End of Will Power

  1. Norman says:

    Hi Kate. You have hit on one of the most important issues that people face when they make decisions about how to spend their limited time on earth. Most people opt for the easiest course of action. This is human nature, and is the downfall of the race. Let me suggest an easy way to get yourself to practice. Make a deal with yourself that, come hell or high water, you will practice for one minute every day. This is not negotiable unless you are in the ER or deceased. As you said, once you start you want to continue because it’s fun. So you won’t stop once you start. It’s the getting started that’s hardest about anything. My problem with guitar practice is tearing myself away from the instrument so that I can do other essential things. A similar thing is exercise. When I was working and went to the gym at my lunch breaks, even if I was sick I went and took a shower. Just to keep the routine.

    I de-activated Face Book and have never been happier. Truth be told, I don’t consider the mundane everyday things people post to be of enough importance to waste a minute on them. If people want to tell me something and they are really friends, they will. But a lot of FB is junk food for the mind and an excuse to waste time and slack off. So the best way to keep yourself from being sucked in is to treat yourself like you treat Noah and just make it unavailable most of the time, or all the time. You’ll be very happy and not miss it after a while. One more thing concerning music. The learning curve for mastering a musical instrument is very steep, so it’s easy to get discouraged. We have to continue on as an act of faith for many years. At some point we will be aware that we are able to actually play decently. Getting to that point is hard, but if you yearn to be a musician, you will look back with regret if you don’t force yourself to give it your best shot.

  2. Norman says:

    Kate, please forgive my wordiness, but there’s one more thing about music practice. As adults we have preconceived notion of what we should be playing and it is way above the level we are able to achieve if we have average aptitude. So we get discouraged. And give up. One other thing you need to do is to accept your current level of playing even if you are not satisfied with it. Be aware that great musicians are never satisfied. It’s the nature of the beast. I always remind myself that if, 20 years ago I could have traveled through time and heard how I play now, I’d have been very happy with that. But now, I feel like I suck. Just the way it is. Keep at it.

    • Kate Cohen says:

      Don’t worry, Norman, I pick music I can handle–my teacher makes sure of that! And I HAVE figured out a way to make myself practice: I take a class. That does the trick. Also, I don’t want to be a musician; I want to be a well-rounded human being. Plus, there’s just something about the piano . . . but more on that in another post.

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