Of course, the skill she is acquiring is not so much practicing slowly as it is learning to delay gratification generally. Violin is merely the mechanism for learning this life lesson. I credit much of my childhood piano training with any ability I have to work deliberately and consistently, and any understanding I have of the time and patience needed to achieve virtuosity in any field.
However, I find myself today – in the midst of work and home and family demands and technology that allows me to do anything anywhere – rarely exercising patience, and becoming irritated when I need to. Even a few short years ago, for instance, I had to wait to check my email until I could sit in front of a computer. No more. I had to wait until the Netflix DVD arrived in the mail to watch a movie I wanted. No more. I had to wait until the library got in a copy of the book I wanted to read, and then I had to wait until I could find a time to go pick it up. No more. Patience is no longer something imposed upon us by the limitations of society and technology; it is, rather, something we now need to seek for ourselves because of its inherent good to our characters.
I was therefore deeply moved by an article I read last weekend in the Harvard alumni magazine entitled, “The Power of Patience: Teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention. ” The article is taken from an address history of art and architecture professor Jennifer L. Roberts gave at a conference last May. In the article, Professor Roberts describes how she assigns her students a research paper for which they must observe a single work of art for three hours. Roberts describes the gems of understanding and insight that came from her own lengthy observation of a John Singleton Copley painting, Boy with a Squirrel, things she would never have discovered if visual comprehension were immediate, and she concludes, “Deceleration, then, is a productive process, a form of skilled apprehension that can orient students in critical ways to the contemporary world…. It’s a very old idea that patience leads to skill, of course – but it seems urgent now that we go further than this and think about patience itself as the skill to be learned…. Now that, generally, one need not wait for things, patience becomes an active and positive cognitive state. Where patience once indicated a lack of control, not it is a form of control over the tempo of contemporary life that otherwise controls us.”
Interestingly, in the same issue of the magazine, another article expressed similar sentiments in a very different language and context. Whereas Professor Roberts spoke in high academic style and in the context of the 19th century art world, a book review of a new release, The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World (Yale) by Howard Gardner and Kate Davis, addresses the challenges of our fast-paced contemporary life in the context and language of our era’s most defining technological aid: the app. One of the key findings of the authors’ research is that apps, “by shortcutting discovery, can diminish engagement with the world.” Youth who are heavily dependent on apps are apparently inclined to use them as a substitute for “skill and reflection”. As an example, speaking of GPS apps, Gardner and Davis cite the fact that may of today’s teens have never been lost, and that “many don’t even see the point of a ‘random walk,’ an experience that [Gardner] argues can build independence and resilience.” Gardner and Davis conclude, “Even though a well-demonstrated toy or well-designed app has its virtues, there is also virtue – and even reward – in figuring out things for yourself in your own time, in your own way.”
I often find myself checking my email or social media apps right before I go to sleep at night, and first thing in the morning. I’m aware of the adrenaline that comes from having a rush of ideas and tasks constantly swirling in my brain. I often find it hard to still my mind to fall asleep and thus end up staying up way too late or waking up in the middle of the night unable to fall asleep because my brain’s engines rev up. I feel a deep nostalgia for the process of waiting for a letter from a pen pal in the mail, of dropping off a roll of film at the film processor and watching the clock until I can return to pick it up. Not that those processes themselves were fun or even rewarding, but that because the patience they required demanded that I focus on something outside of myself for even a brief period. I was dependent on someone else – the mailman, the film developer – and thus I wasn’t all-powerful, and, as a result, more humble about my dependence on my community.
Understanding now that I must impose patience on myself if I want to continue to nurture the creativity, resilience and virtue Gardner and Davis see slipping away from future generations, I have imposed a few restrictions on myself. One I have practiced for over a year now, ever since reading Jana Riess’s book Flunking Sainthood: In an effort to prepare my mind to pray and meditate before bed each night, I recite the Lord’s Prayer to myself. Having said the Lord’s Prayer almost every day of my school years, it’s a trigger to me to quiet my thinking and get myself ready to focus my thoughts. I adopted a few other practical work tips after reading 37Signals’ founders’ book Rework, including closing my email (both work and personal) for designated periods during the work day so that I can better focus on long stretches of productive work. Today, I’m taking the plunge that will hurt (but hopefully help) the most: I’m deleting the Gmail and Facebook apps from my phone for seven days. (I’m not committing to a permanent deletion yet!) I’m hoping that by needing to sit at a computer to see personal email and Facebook, I will be able to remain more focused on my kids when I’m home with them in the afternoons, and I will rid myself of that unattractive habit of checking my phone all. the. time. I'll report back next week.
Last night over dinner, I pulled up Boy with a Squirrel on the iPad and asked my girls what they saw. After they felt they had exhausted their own observations, I shared with them some of the details Professor Roberts shared in her article. “I would have seen that too,” they sometimes interjected, “if I had just looked at it longer!” Whether it’s through violin or through art history lessons, I hope my girls can learn the value of slowness even if they can never identify camera film.
What are you doing to nurture patience in your life? Do you have work, smartphone or home practices that manufacture slowness?
What I'm Listening To:
The Met Player went on sale for $99/year, so I bought it. I'm at this very moment listening to a 1996 production of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte with Levine, Bartolli, Vaness, Croft. I heard Bartolli do Don Giovanni at the Met in 1997 in the dress circle with college friends and it is one of my most favorite opera memories.
Paul McCartney's new album. Good for him.
Lots of Vladimir Horowitz playing Mozart. Seem to be in a Mozart mood this week.