Monday, January 2, 2012

Learning to do the Slow Work is Slow Work

It’s resolution time, again. It’s the time when people all want to lose weight, tone up and take voice or piano lessons. It’s also a time when people who have not been living authentic lives for years and years, for reasons good and not so good, are looking for an escape. People want to be beautiful. They want to look younger. They want to do glamorous things – like sing onstage. They want to reclaim lost time. And they want to take crash courses so they can reclaim that lost time instantly.

It doesn’t work that way.

Nothing happens instantly, no matter what the ads on TV will tell you. Sure, if you spend every waking moment exercising and watching ever morsel of food you put into your body, you can make significant changes in your appearance. I doubt that you can count on developing that six-pack or those bicep muscles, though, in six months or a year. If that were the case, there would be many more people wandering the streets looking like models and weightlifters. Think about the number of people you know who have resolved to lose it and tone it. Have they? If they did manage to make changes, did it last?

And you can learn to play a few songs on the piano with a down and dirty course where note names are placed inside each notehead, and you have a library of a handful of chords that you can call on to harmonize pop songs (though you might not know that those things you’ve been playing are called chords, or what a chord is if you were to trip over one, for that matter). You can limp along, with no technique, playing stiffly and non-musically and maybe even enjoy the experience. But allow me to be one of the first to raise my hand to tell you that you have NOT learned how to play the piano. You are doing self-limiting, surface-level “busy” work.

The person who succeeds at weight loss usually is one who has made the decision over time, not because January 1 is upon them and, whew, all of those holiday goodies finally have been consumed (until next year). The decision is made based on appearance AND on health, longevity, or because career and overall lifestyle will be enhanced. It might have something to do with a medical condition, or caring what a spouse thinks. It might have to do with a number of factors that all figure into a change of lifestyle and a new mode of operating. When the decision to lose weight is made over time it is, perhaps, a bit easier to deal with the long course of exercising and monitoring of diet that is necessary to make a permanent change.

Personally, I think that calling it weight loss is one of the problems. Who wants to lose anything? We should call it size adjustment, or something more innocuous and less emotionally disturbing or negative sounding.

The point is there is a shift in thinking that precedes the successful shift in acting to effect change.

On the other hand, learning to play the piano is a positive thing. You are adding a skill to your existing inventory of skills. You aren’t losing anything. But the problem with learning to play the piano, or learning to sing when it isn’t something that you’ve considered thoughtfully, over time, is that you likely are resolving to do it, in part, because it seems so removed from your reality, unattainable. This already sets you up for failure. If you make playing the piano (perfectly) or singing (like a superstar) something you must do in order to alter your drab, unsatisfying life, you’ve put in on a pedestal, in an ivory tower on another planet in an undiscovered galaxy, somewhere. Part of you wants to do it because it is something that other people do. It isn’t something YOU do. Great! So, let’s get down to lessons!

I don’t think so. How can you possibly succeed?

The person who does well with piano or voice lessons is the person who has reasonable but less than grandiose expectations. As with learning any new skill or habit, the successful music student recognizes that (as Aesop said and one of my young piano students recently remarked) “Slow and steady wins the race.”

Cut through the buts and make the “onlies” lonely.

Our little demons will try to speed up and shortcut the learning and changing process by throwing “but” and “only” at us. Sometimes I feel like a Ninja, deflecting a barrage of buts and onlies from a student. The mind is quick to try to find another solution when the slow, difficult process taxes our patience. When the first solution is nixed, the mind quickly runs another direction.

Piano student: But I have to move my bottom from one side of the bench to the other in order to play all the high and low notes.

Me: No. You don’t. You need to adjust the distance you sit from the keys and your arm and wrist and finger positions and allow your upper body to move with your arms, in the up or down direction, as your arms and the music requires.

Piano student: I would do that, only my arms aren’t long enough, and my wrists naturally bend this way.

Voice student: My tongue doesn’t want to go there (to the front of the mouth, the tip resting lightly behind the bottom teeth).

Me: First of all, your tongue has no mind of its own. You are in charge. Second, it will go there, if you work to relax the jaw and the tongue. (There is much more to this. But you get the idea.)

Voice student: But, maybe my tongue isn’t long enough.

Me: It is.

Voice student: (upon successfully finding the tongue position, allowing for a resonant tone). Wow! If only I could do that every time.

Me: With time and repetition, you will.

“I’ll try” is another defeating statement that the brain sends to the mouth and the mouth sends back to the brain. Don’t try. Just do.

“One Day at a Time” – Alcoholics Anonymous Slogan

It’s natural for human beings to try to make things easier than they actually are. But a person who really wants to learn something, really make changes that can make a difference in their life, must work hard and slowly and steadily to develop an evolved way of operating and thinking. Changing a habit, developing a new skill; these things are accomplished one step at a time, one day at a time. Complete dedication and regular maintenance are critical components. The person who means well often doesn’t do. The person who does well has moved beyond mere intention, to action.

In case you haven’t already considered this, or discerned it from this posting, learning how to do the slow work is, itself, slow work. Developing the mindset that allows you to jump on the scale, day after day, after having worked out like a fool and dieted as prescribed, only to see the same dumb number – or a HIGHER number – staring you in the face. You just keep plugging away at your workouts, in spite of it.

Developing the mindset that keeps you going to the piano, not minding the clock, and going over and over an exercise in a meaningful way, until you play that particularly important repetition and make that discovery that changes one teensy-tiny part of your technique. Then you applaud yourself and go have a cookie, um, unless you’re also doing the weight loss thing.

Don’t expect an external reward, by the way. In fact, expect others to punish you for your efforts and achievements. Take their laughter, denials, ignoring you altogether… as your rewards. And please ignore the sad truth that people with lesser skills may be rewarded even though you may feel you are more entitled and even though you may, in fact, be more deserving of a reward. That’s life. As my significant other always says, “Those people are put here by the devil just to upset us.” People will be threatened by your success. They may be embarrassed by your talents. They will be jealous of your accomplishments. And, chances are, they won’t even be aware of their thoughts and their behaviors around you and toward you – because they aren’t as evolved as you will have become.

Your work and your progress are your rewards. Get used to it. When you are thinking through your master plan to lose weight, shape up, play the piano or learn to sing, think, “If I were alone with this new physique, or this wonderful skill, on a desert island, would it still make me happy?”

What a great desert island! Hmmm. Now, if only I had a piano. Good thing I’ve lost all this weight and I’m looking so marvelous on the beach. Now, if only I had a mirror… or a really handsome lifeguard.

So much for the desert island.