Playing and Living • Beyond the Notes
Written by ANDREW EALES
A few years back I purchased an app called Calm, which has subsequently become one of the most popular mindfulness apps available on iOS and other digital platforms. With its range of guided meditations, ambient music, soundscapes, breathwork exercises and ‘sleep stories’, Calm has grown to become a superb lifestyle resource, and a deserved success.
Interestingly though, Calm also delivers user stats after each session, with a badge showing one’s ‘streaks’ of consecutive days of practice. I’ve regarded this feature with vague amusement; it seems to owe more to the culture of the gambling arcade than to the ethos of the meditation traditions.
There’s even the opportunity to share your official streaks on social media platforms, something I recently did myself having reached the modest achievement of 100 consecutive days, and curious to see whether it would generate much discussion with friends.
But then an odd, and instructive thing happened: it must have been less than a week later that I ‘missed’ a day…
One busy weekend I found myself beginning an evening meditation a few minutes after midnight. As far as I was concerned, it was still Saturday. In Calm’s view however, Sunday had dawned and my ‘streak’ had come to an abrupt and unexpected end.
As with most things electronic, there is a workaround for this situation. Calm helpful includes an option to make a manual journal entry, and I could easily and subtly have thus backdated my Saturday night exercise to maintain my mildly interesting official ‘run of success’.
I wonder where the line is between agile thinking and cheating? I was very briefly tempted to alter Calm’s score card to better suit “my truth”, if only as a playful proof of concept.
It can be motivational, even impressive, to measure our progress in any area (mindfulness, piano playing, or whatever) using over-simplistic stats, criteria and benchmarks. But doing so is not always helpful, realistic, or even honest.
The Way of Honesty
Psychologists have long debated the potential link between reward-based motivation and cheating. It certainly seems likely that our hungry hankering for a particular outcome can sometimes prompt us to take shortcuts and “game the system”.
In education, this could involve skipping skills, understanding and content that aren’t assessed, focussing just on that which is rewarded by certification or acclaim. We may vocally insist that ‘teaching to the test’ is the less commendable path, but still succumb to the magnetic pull of the demonstrable ‘quick win’.
And how easy it is to convince ourselves that this approach is ‘okay’ when nobody is challenging us otherwise, and when the system seems to allow, even provide for it.
But how disheartening, in any context, to discover that our shortcuts have led us to a dead end. So many who took piano lessons as children seem now to lament their inability to improvise, explore, compose, play by ear, memorise, recognise chords or play from lead sheets. No prizes for spotting the overlap between this list and the skills and understanding that don’t generally contribute to a winning score-card in the exam room.
It is not my view that teachers are solely responsible to introduce each and all of these with every student, nor that they should necessarily be assessed. However, it seems to me that we should perhaps be more careful to foster a foundation of rounded musicianship, skill and understanding that encourages and enables our students to explore and pursue all of their musical interests and aspirations, both now and as they develop in the future.
The Way of Honesty can seem a steeper track, punctuated by fewer bursts of applause, but can ultimately prove to be a far more relevant, authentic and deeply rewarding pathway.
A Calm Reflection
The older I get, the more aware I am that life is short, a too-brief window of opportunity between our birth and death. How important it is, then, to devote ourselves to that which we truly love, and which brings genuine meaning and intrinsic joy to our lives.
I aspire for mindfulness to be as natural a part of my life as breathing, eating, drinking, and hygiene. A doctor may be interested to hear about my diet and metabolism; my friends on social media aren’t.
I certainly love using the Calm app, but fundamentally I enjoy and value these practises because they truly and positively enrich my inner life.
Which, by the way, is also why I love playing the piano.
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