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How Going with the Flow Can Leave You Stuck
With inspiration from Grit, Chapter 7: Practice
It was not uncommon in the years following my first stay in Kyrgyzstan that I would engage in nostalgic reverie. These reminisces would even populate my dreams. One especially fond memory was sitting at a backyard table in the town of Ivanovka, home to Nina and Sergei Frantsovy. Their home was typical of the village, made of wood and brick in the Russian dacha style. One thing that was also very Russian about them (despite being, like many in Ivanovka, of German descent), was the bayan that Sergei would play around the table after meals, while the entire family sang festive and playful songs.
Sergei’s deftness on the bayan, or Russian button accordion, mesmerized me. The joy his playing evoked produced a sensation of timelessness, of a connection to an earlier, simpler, and more soulful way of existence. The songs too were from other times, from old Russian folk songs, patriotic tunes from World War II, to more recent pop tunes. Mustachioed Seryozha, as his wife lovingly called him, played them all.
Being so enthralled with Russian culture at the time, those memories evoked a desire to one day learn to play the bayan myself. When I returned to Kyrgyzstan in 2009, it was not long before I began looking to make this dream a reality. After finding a teacher, and a bayan, I started with the requisite major and minor scales, as well as a few simple melodies with very simple bass lines.
My desire to play withstood the disappearance of my first teacher into the bottle (he loved his vodka). My second teacher, Zoya Petrovna, allowed me to pick songs I was keen to learn, foremost among these being “Beer Barrel Polka (Roll Out the Barrel)”, among others. To learn these more complex tunes, she insisted that I spend a certain amount of time in deliberate practice, working on skills and note transitions that were beyond what I was currently able to play.
This deliberate practice, much as the name suggests, entailed dedication to playing two, three, then four notes in succession, again and again... ever so slowly. It required taking something that didn’t seem like music and stitching it together, expanding the tapestry of sound, much like a quilter adds fabric to a quilt. The result after one session, if I was lucky, might be the hint of a recognizable melody.
This painstaking attention to detail was fostered by Zoya Petrovna’s patience and unfailing belief in my ability, even as a thirty-something bayanist wannabe. Our lessons together in her office at the music school featured all four characteristics of deliberate practice. They include:
A clearly defined “stretch goal” that exceeds one’s current skill level;
Focused concentration and effort;
Immediate and informative feedback;
Repetition with reflection and refinement.
Zoya Petrovna instilled these in me during our weekly lessons, and with my enthusiasm and dedication, I began to see progress. “Roll Out the Barrel” and other tunes began to take shape. My dream of playing the bayan was coming true!
However, after reaching a certain level of play, I realized that the most enjoyable moments were had when I was in a state of flow, when my skill set matched the level of music I was playing. During those moments of flow, it was as if the music, the bayan, and I were one. Time seemed to lose its meaning. I would be lost in a feeling best expressed by the Russian word kaif (high). After learning to play a few songs, it became a greater and greater temptation to abandon my deliberate practice of pre-melodic skill building in order to play songs that induced a state of flow. And when time was limited and attention divided, which won out? Flow, of course. It felt better!
The result of this switch was a plateau. I hit a wall. This stagnation, and increasing demands on my time, left me with less enthusiasm for the deliberate practice necessary to build my chops on the bayan. Consequently, practice became more and more of an afterthought. Now my bayan lies in a corner of my closet, and with it, the dust of my former dreams.
It is incredibly tempting to rest on our laurels, regardless of the endeavor. We see it in our work lives as well as our hobbies. The deliberate practice needed in order to raise the bar is often not fun, and often time consuming, but necessary for improvement, as well as sustaining our enthusiasm. Limiting ourselves to activities that only produce a state of flow may feel good in the moment, but will lead us to stasis. In this sense, going with the flow could very well leave us stuck.
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