Instant gratification

A beginning adult student said to me:

“I think the biggest lesson for me is that this is going to take a long time. I like instant gratification, and the ego likes that too, right? But with continued effort, eventually, there will be music.”

Yes, it might take a long time. It might take a long time before you sound good. It might take a long time before you are happy with your playing.

How high are your standards? Of course, the higher they are, the harder it’s going to be to reach them (Why did you set them so high, anyway? Who told you to do that?).

How smart are you? Because you know, the smarter you are, the more you will realize how short you are falling of your standards, and the harder it’s going to be…

I wish there were a quick way to get there, but I haven’t found a shortcut. What I have found are (a) slow ways that work, and (b) ways that will waste your time and make you so frustrated you will eventually quit. So, at best, it’s slow-going. This stuff is just really hard. Why do you think most people can’t do it? But you can do it, you know. It will just be slow. Like a lazy river.

Now, you like instant gratification. You’re certainly not alone. You say the ego likes instant gratification. What I would like to ask is: who is labeling instant gratification as bad? Is it possible there is one part of you who seeks instant gratification, and another who labels it? Which part is the ego, and which part is the one who lives only in the moment, experiencing without evaluating? Actually, I wonder if there is no gratification other than instant (it’s not like oatmeal). What is delayed gratification, apart from a story you are telling yourself about the future, about yourself and the meaning of your actions?

When you were a child, did you have any problems seeking instant gratification? When did you learn it was a problem? Who told you this? Do you believe it 100%, or is there any part of you to whom it’s news, who maybe even feels hurt by it?

If you’re not being gratified, why not? Really, pay attention to this. Is there anything there, in that space between when you try to play (and fail) and when you get frustrated with the whole thing? You’re allowed to be frustrated, you know. You’re allowed to want this to be fun.

What would it look like if you didn’t label it? If you played an exercise, messed it up, got frustrated, and just kept going? Is it even the playing that frustrates you? Is it the lesson? Is it when you’re in the shower thinking about playing? It’s so easy to label the whole thing. But frustration happens at a specific moment in time. What is triggering it?

Can you just make it fun? Just take it. It’s yours, believe it or not. Does your hand hurt? Then stop doing whatever you’re doing that makes it hurt.

“But then I won’t play it right.”

Yeah, you won’t. But your hand won’t hurt anymore either. You decide.

“But if I don’t work hard and make sure it’s right, I’ll never get better.”

 Why do you want to get better, anyway? You’ve already said you want instant gratification, and if working hard is preventing you from getting your gratification, how much do you really want to work hard and get it right, anyway? Why are you telling yourself you do? Look, you’re going to get better if you do the exercises. It’s my job to worry about that, anyway.

So again, can you make it fun? Can you find some pleasure in the physical movement, regardless of the sound? Can you find some satisfaction even in the ugly sounds, knowing that they are the result of your body’s own freedom? Even if you don’t play a note, can you find something right there, in that place where you know that you have the power to move as you see fit, or not, depending on your whim?

If none of that works, can you just stand up and scream? Would that be fun?

Three unconvincing reasons not to use a metronome

I am tempted to say that if you don’t use a metronome regularly in your practicing You’re Doing it Wrong, but I’m sure that would be unfair.

Nonetheless, not everyone agrees with me. So here are the top three arguments against using a metronome, and my responses.

Argument 1: It is only for beginners who can’t keep time.

My response: Literally no one has a problem “keeping time.”

The same beginners who struggle mightily to count to the number 4 in a piano lesson have no problems performing complex dance moves with their friends, or singing along to their favorite songs on the radio. They also have no problems walking, talking, playing video games, or any of the other thousands of tasks that call for highly trained and coordinated senses of rhythm and timing.

This is my beloved Seiko SQ50-V, the only metronome loud enough to hear and melodious enough to make me feel like I don’t need to shoot myself.

The reason they seem to lose all of this in a piano lesson is only because they are distracted. They are trying to do many things at once (play the right notes, read the symbols on the page, please the teacher, prevent themselves from screaming in frustration) and they are caring very much whether they are doing them well. Yes, that messes up your sense of time. The metronome will bring you back into the present.

 

It is not only beginners who get distracted. Maybe you’ve learned to hide it, though. You’ve learned to play reasonably in tempo, despite your distractions, your anxieties, your fears, and your insecurities. Are you paying any price for that?

Argument 2: It is too stressful.

My response: If you think the metronome is stressful, you are probably taking it way too seriously. The metronome can be a calming, soothing force.

Don’t try to follow the metronome. That is where the stress comes from. Instead, let it click in the background. Sometimes you’re with it, sometimes you’re not. It doesn’t really matter, does it? Is the metronome going to yell at you if you deviate from its tempo?

If you feel rushed by the metronome, can you let it go?

Argument 3: It leads to mechanical playing.

My response: On the contrary, I believe the metronome is an incredibly useful tool for developing musicality. The purpose of the metronome is not to learn musicality per se, but rather to learn control and poise. Once you have control, you can express the music however you see fit.

It is musicians who cannot play with a metronome, and instead base all of their movements on escaping their own anxieties, who end up playing inflexibly and mechanically.