Dec 082004

Resistance to Doing Our Best Work

When we practice, and I include myself in this, we rarely do our very best work. We tend to play pieces over and over repeating many of our mistakes. We don’t do the things that help us really learn the pieces well because there seems to be something stopping us most of the time. It’s as though we don’t want to work too hard.

It has nothing to do with the amount of time. If we are going to practice for 45 minutes why shouldn’t we work our best? To do so would save time in the long run. We all know this, yet we don’t do it. I’m not sure why but I have some ideas.
Cognitive Arrogance

A quality I find in students and, alas, myself is “cognitive arrogance”. (Maybe “cognitive defense” is a better term.) It’s the resistance that keeps us from doing what teachers suggest. In children it’s called laziness or rebelliousness but it’s deeper than that and not as negative. It may feel like self-protection. It’s the feeling that responds to teachers’ directives and advice like this:

“This might be good for other people but I don’t need to do it;” or,
“I know how I learn things and this won’t be necessary for me;” or,
“This makes me uncomfortable and I really don’t need to do it anyway,” or,
“This really isn’t so hard to learn that I need to do all that.”

One day I was teaching a student who carried a lot of this kind of cognitive arrogance. He was playing with the same problems we’d been working on for years. Perhaps because it was late Friday afternoon that I couldn’t resist saying, “George, you’ve paid me about $10,000 for lessons since we’ve worked together. When do you suppose you’re going to start doing what I say?”

The effect was well worth the risk. He looked stunned and acknowledged that I was right. He had taken lessons for 10 years and had paid a lot of money. George has an up-front innocence about him that enabled him to respond: “You know, I have a Ph.D., I’m on television sometimes, I get calls from world famous experts asking me for information, why should I listen to you? You’re just a piano teacher.”

Far from being offended, I enjoyed his candor. Many other students might feel the same way but few would say it. After I finished laughing, George and I started talking. He knew that I knew how to play and how to teach but he never acknowledged this resistance in himself. After admitting all this, a different work pattern emerged that was more successful. There were no miracles but our work together became more successful.

One doesn’t have to have a Ph.D. or be on TV to have this arrogance. We all do. Being aware of this, I watch as it unfolds in myself. It rarely fails. Every time I receive instruction it’s there. Knowing about it makes it easier to put the resistance aside but it doesn’t go totally away. If I think the teaching is bad my resistance is very strong; but even if I think the instruction is good, I still set up these barriers.

What’s the origin of this feeling? It may be the same feeling of childhood that goes, “Let me alone. I can do it myself.” Or, “I don’t need you and I don’t want you. Go away.”

Few teachers respect this in their students and usually rely on the assumption that teachers know best. As I mentioned in What I learned about Teaching Children from Teaching Adults our learning process was usurped when we were children. We weren’t taught what we wanted to learn or at our own pace. What we’d learned about life and ourselves was deemed useless. As children we retreated into a protective fortress to hold on to and respect our own sense of a competent learning self.

Teachers are always trying to tear down this fortress to get students involved in their learning. Most teachers are so involved in their own ideas they don’t even realize students may have some of their own. But students frequently do and to give in to the teacher feels like capitulation and self-betrayal.

As adults we know that teachers can be helpful. Good teachers save students vast amounts of time and effort in their learning endeavor. They also can provide a reasonable structure in which learning can take place. Without this guidance students may find out much of what teachers already know but it’s like re-inventing the wheel.

Adult students are left in conflict between of these two perceptions. They seek lessons but are at a loss to explain their resistance to following the instructions of the teacher. They frequently feel guilty about not doing what is asked of them yet they also feel as if they are “giving in ” if they do follow the teachers’ instructions.

There is no easy solution. One needs to be aware of the resistance within oneself, to acknowledge it, to respect it, and note that it may be a pattern that was useful at one point in life but not the present one.
Feel this resistance and experiment with letting it go. Learn what it feels like to go beyond the resistance. See if it feels like giving in and then what happens inside if it does. The fear may be worse then the actuality.

On the other hand, one must remember that some teachers are invasive and keeping up one’s guard up may not be a bad idea. Also, no teacher’s instructions are valid for everyone all the time. Give the instructions the fullest chance to see if they are useful in the current situation. If not, discard them. It’s possible they may be useful in another circumstance.

“It can’t be This Hard!”

Another aspect of resistance is students’ expectation that teachers can make playing the piano easier than it really is. They expect teachers to provide some magic that will make them play easily and quickly.

The most extreme case I ever encountered was a man who wanted a few lessons before entering music school to get a graduate degree. He had never studied music or piano in his life and assumed there was nothing to it. He was deeply offended by my inept teaching for it didn’t give him his desired goal in the few weeks he expected.

Less extreme variations exist. Students sometimes feel teachers are keeping information from them on purpose. They feel that if so many kids can play so well, it can’t be too difficult. They don’t appreciate how hard these people work and don’t appreciate how hard it is to play well.

Students feeling this way don’t do what teachers ask because they’re waiting for the secret. Either the teacher (who’s withholding it) or they themselves will get hold of some special element that will make everything easy. As they wait, they don’t work too hard. Why should they?

On the other hand, some students work very hard hoping to earn the secret by being good students but, alas, there is no secret.

There is work–consistent and involved. If there is anything like a secret, it’s taking joy in the work itself. It’s joy in the process of learning.

If Our Best Fails

What if students try their very best and can’t do it? What if they try and try and try and then fail? If they don’t try their hardest they won’t have to face this problem so maybe it’s best not to try that hard in the first place.

My fantasy was to play like Rubenstein and receive all the adulation that was his. It was not my fantasy to be one of thousands of very good pianists. Yet, that’s where I am. To try my hardest and fully accept myself for what I am is what growing up is all about. It takes maturity to try hard knowing one will be less than great. I’m reminded of Soliari in the movie Amadeus.

To face this issue of failure or, more likely, limited success is daunting. To come face to face with our illusions of grandeur and find we don’t measure up is humiliating. Of course, the higher our hopes and fantasies the more likely this possibility is.
Adult amateurs know they are not going to be Rubenstein but then again there’s always Grandma Moses. We can (and do) always hope for the miracle.

When we can try our hardest and do our best with no promise of the reward of greatness, we will be in a position to enjoy the best music we are capable of making. Importantly, we will also be free to take the risks that will allow us to be our greatest.

If Our Best Succeeds

There is a wonderful quote from the 1994 Inaugural Speech given by Nelson Mandela and written by Marianne Williamson:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually who are you NOT to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us. It is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. And as we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Could it be that we are frightened by our best? More than one student has mentioned this to me. I know a very telling story about how frightening our musical best can be.

There was a man in the field of medical statistics taking viola lessons. He played correctly but without passion. Once he was working with an accompanist on one of the Brahms Sonatas and the accompanist became very emotional in her playing. Her emotion drew in the student and he played with a passion he had not experienced in his music before. After several minutes of playing he packed up his viola and left saying he was frightened. He never returned for another lesson.Time and time again I see students reach new heights in lessons only to return the next week with little trace of what they experienced the week before.

Marianne Williamson is right. We are afraid of our best. It takes courage and energy and a willingness to be responsible for what we can be. It’s easier to just slog along.

Practicing, Part 1: Getting There, Chronic Practice Problems, & Leaving a Teacher
Practicing, Part 2: Concentration, Mindfulness & Awareness, & Staying Focused
Practicing, Part 4 — Emotional Self-Management

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