I began to play the violin when I was seven – but I often say it really started when I was nine. That’s when I switched to a new teacher, who disapproved of my former instructor’s methods and told me and my parents I’d basically have to start from scratch.
She expected me to practice at least an hour every day, and she could tell any time I’d played even a minute less. If I wanted to have any chance at a career as a violinist, she’d tell me, I’d need to start playing a lot more. I wasn’t even sure that’s what I wanted. But disappointing her felt like failure. And that’s how my violin became the object of all my perfectionist frustration.
Musician Jacob Collier had a very different experience as he was growing up. Collier is a Grammy award-winning multi-instrumentalist whose approach to music is deeply creative and exploratory. He’s also seriously skilled, and listening to his music is an immersive sensory experience. But in an interview with Manoush Zomorodi for the TED Radio Hour, he recalls making the deliberate decision, as a young child, not to pursue formal music lessons.
“I do remember being offered piano lessons, which I politely declined. I said, I want to keep exploring this on my own terms, which was actually really well received. My mum had this kind of extraordinary attitude about learning which really came from play, rather than practice. And that’s interesting to think about, because it’s hard to draw the line between those two. Certain things you need to practice in order to be able to do them, and other things I think are better discovered through just the process of sniffing out what feels good. Both sides have existed for me ever since I began in the world of music, however conscious I’ve been of either process. But much to my delight and gratitude, looking back, I was really able to make my own world and design my own learning process.”
Listening to him talk, I must admit that I felt a little jealous. That’s the kind of experience I yearned for with the violin. I’ve always loved music; it’s like I can feel it in my bones, and nothing else can move me to tears quite as easily. I did play (or practice) a lot; in addition to the hours logged at home, I joined youth orchestras and ensembles.
At some point I was the assistant concertmaster of a regional orchestra full of kids on the professional musician track. And I do remember moments of getting lost in the music. But most of the time, that sense of expectation, and that constant fear of failure, killed all enjoyment. And these days, I feel torn in two: not playing makes me feel like I’m missing a part of myself, but playing brings back all those complicated feelings.
You might have heard the saying that “the creative adult is the child who survived.” The the suggestion here is that creativity requires a sense of openness and curiosity – it requires play. We tend to disregard play as inconsequential, because it isn’t ‘productive’, in the capitalist sense of the word. But more and more research points to the important psychological value of play – and not just for kids.
For adults, too, play stimulates and improves the functionality of the brain. It strengthens our problem-solving muscles. It can help improve relationships, and relieve stress. Activist Yana Buhrer Tavanier says that the opposite of play isn’t work; it’s depression. Years ago, she turned to play as a way to heal her burnout – and she ended up developing an approach to activism that is deeply creative, even whimsical.
So how can we adults (and perfectionist kids) bring more ‘play’ into our lives? In Psychology Today, Peter Gray writes that play isn’t about what we do, it’s about the attitude we bring to it. In other words: your mindset is what can turn ‘practice’ into ‘play’. Its defining characteristics have to do with cultivating that sense of openness and curiosity we associate with creativity.
Play is something you do for the sake of doing it, and not with a particular outcome in mind. It’s self-directed and imaginative, separate from the real world of expectation and duty.
For me, the violin is so deeply intertwined with expectation that I’m not sure if it will ever feel like ‘play’. But I’m going to give it a try, and experiment with different ways to rekindle that openness. Anyone interested in ‘playing’ with me?