Illusory Standards

I’ve lost count of how many times recently that I’ve stumbled back into my apartment past 2 am, dazed, tired, hungry, and with sore hands after a three- or five-hour session at the piano. For the last six months I’ve been playing nothing but Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, which makes it, by far, the biggest musical project of my life. Now, I can play it front-to-back from memory, but still I’m so vexed and worn down by this damned piece that frequently I think to myself: “I wish I had a different hobby.”

In its 22-minute expanse, I have an interminable list of details to refine: the smoothness of the cascading double-stops in Ondine, the constancy of the bell in Le gibet, the snappiness of chord pairs in Scarbo, so on. I’m resigned to the fact that I will never play Gaspard precisely no matter how much I practice — it’s just that hard — but now I start to wonder: with these diminishing returns, when should I stop?

Well, my most played track on Spotify for 2017 was Ondine played by Martha Argerich, one of the best pianists of our time, whose fluttery fingers were perfect for Ravel. And studio recordings are multiple best takes spliced together. In my brain, I know it’s an unrealistic illusion, an unachievable standard. And yet… I wish I could, and I’m sad that I can’t.

When I started photography in 2012, I drew inspiration from photos I saw online in publications like National Geographic. At a certain point (pretty quickly, honestly), those incredible photos transformed from creative encouragement into a target I needed to achieve.  It’s  a subtle shift, going from “I want to learn how they did that” to “I want to do that too.”

That’s also how I feel these days about Instagram, where seemingly ordinary people live stunningly picture-perfect lives. I’m also jealous when I see the one-handed Rubik’s Cube record is now 10 seconds and when I savor a polished food blog. There has always been someone out there who does what you do but better. However, the danger of the digital age is this: now they’re just a click away.

So I listen to Argerich play piano. Every kid who plays basketball witnesses the freakish talents of LeBron or Curry. We search YouTube for advice on skincare or for covers of pop songs, then we feel lousy that our skin sucks and our voice blows. Even if you try to watch as a pure spectator, I’d bet that sometimes envy creeps up and grinds away at your self esteem.

Thanks to our world of dense connectivity, constant comparison, and glorification of intellectual and personal qualities, our culture of identity-crafting has spiraled out of control.  Often I hear people mutter to me “I should take more photos” or “I should practice more piano” or “I should cook more for myself.” I hear it more than most do because I’m guilty of having subscribed completely to a life of public aspirationalism, so they might think I have some advice to offer. Unfortunately, often my response is to challenge that phrasing. “Should” you, now? If your livelihood doesn’t depend on it, are you really obligated to? Or is it because of pressure to live up to societal standards (which you know are blatant misrepresentations)? If you really want it purely for yourself, then why not drop the “should” and just do it?

Related: I’ve been watching Mike Boyd on YouTube as he films himself systematically learning random new skills quickly, like wheelie in 7 hours, spin a basketball in 5 hours, and draw chalk dotted lines in 6 minutes. His channel is exhilarating to watch because he has so much fun always being in the beginning stages of learning. When you’re just starting anything, discoveries are everywhere, improvement is immediate and drastic, and that feeling is so addicting that it powers your motivation.

But when I (a violinist/violist) watched Mike Boyd “learn the violin” in 14 hours I was like “whaaaaa?!” He started as a capable guitarist, but the sound he elicited from a violin was barely palatable to me. Yet, his final montage was clever and probably sounded okay to most people, so it counts… right?

That made me recall Max Deutsch, the “obsessive learner” who challenged Magnus Carlsen to chess after a month of half-assed training and subsequently lost spectacularly. Obviously. What a fool. Some of his month-long projects (30ish hours of effort) are kinda cool, like freestyle rapping, Rubik’s Cubing, or training perfect pitch, but — yet again — what he accomplished… does it count?

They’re not nearly good enough at their skills for them to be primarily useful (in capitalist terms: provide value to others and earn monetary return). That is, I wouldn’t buy Deutsch’s rap record. His rudimentary perfect pitch is a non-functional parlor trick. I hated Mike Boyd’s violin cover. Granted, their documented learning processes have value in building their fame, which is sponsored (Boyd’s channel) or their entire business (Deutsch’s speed-learning startup).

In the end, I hope they truly enjoyed their projects, that it makes their lives meaningful, or sparks joy, or fulfills some other philosophical cliche. That way, it’d be worthwhile, I guess?

Unlike what I’ve done… In the 200ish hours I’ve wasted learning Gaspard, I might’ve been able to accomplish many mini-projects. Or done another year-long project (my model of learn-fast). Or worked on my career as a radiologist like a responsible future doctor. But, like, I wanted to play Gaspard, so I spent 200 hours to get from being a decent pianist to being a decent pianist who plays a hard piece badly; and sometimes — when I elicit that beautiful music from a piano — it all feels worthwhile.

I don’t know, man. I don’t know what qualifies as clean motivation. I don’t know how to deal with external motivators (e.g. bucket lists, your Snapchat story, internet fame) other than to use them with caution. I don’t know what counts as completing a project, nor where along the line of diminishing returns is a good stopping point. What I do know is this: improving is hard, often excruciatingly so, but it happens when you care.