The Pleasure Principle and Learning to Play Piano


by Chris Goslow

You have probably heard of the pleasure principle. It states that we as humans tend to seek out what brings us pleasure and avoid what brings us pain. Anthony Robbins in his book “Awaken the Giant Within” writes that people do more to avoid pain than they do to gain pleasure. In reviewing this book recently, I suddenly saw how this idea relates to the process of learning the piano.

For me, the pleasure of learning piano always outweighted the pain, yet I still struggled at times. When I was in high school, I went to “The School of the Arts,” an arts magnet school in San Francisco called (called “Sota” for short… yes, pronounced like the carbonated beverage). During my three years there, I got exposed to massive amounts of arts and culture. I took piano lessons at the San Francisco Conservatory for two and a half years. I went to plays, symphonies, museums, and art films. I even went to Paris for a week with my fellow students to visit the art museums. I did a composition program and wrote a quartet for violin, cello, flute, and bassoon that was performed by an ensemble at San Francisco State. I played piano in two piano competitions.
Life was extremely stimulating, and I got great pleasure from all that I was learning. I was around artists and talented young musicians like myself, some of whom, at the Conservatory, were nine year olds playing Beethoven Sonatas. I was also a dedicated student and enjoyed excelling academically. Life was highly intense, and highly rewarding on many levels.
It was also HIGHLY stressful. Often, I was overwhelmed by the demands of school work, expecting of myself perfection at all costs. I was intimidated by all the other people around me, because I constantly compared myself to other people. I constantly gave myself negative self-talk about how undeserving I was. Worst of all, I did not know how to communicate my thoughts to anyone else who might give me some perspective. Despite the enormous joy I got from all the creative inspiration, as well as from my successes as a student, the pain I put myself through was tremendous.
When my high school ended, I chose to go to a college that, artistically speaking, was nearly the opposite of all this. Instead of being around artists twenty-four seven, I was around future lawyers, doctors, and academics. And though I was not intimidated by these people, the joy of being in a creative environment was gone. I was relieved in certain ways, but I was very unhappy, because it felt as if I had turned my back on my artistic dreams. I longed to continue to be creatively stimulated and inspired, yet on some level it was like I was giving myself a break from all the pain and stress (though highly stimulating) I had put myself through in high school. But this just left me unsatisfied. I did not know that it was possible to have both the creative stimulation and not be stressed out to that degree. I did not look to see what would give me the most pleasure in the long run. This made my college experience quite bumpy, and ultimately I took a year off and changed schools before graduating.
Looking back now, I see how I avoided pain in the short-term but experienced greater pain in the long-run. I was happier, though stressed, when I was at a school that I really wanted to be at. Yet the short-term pain was enough for me to choose not to repeat that experience in college, and though I chose a high quality school, I did not choose one that really fulfilled me. The pleasure of my continued growth as an artist was actually of the utmost importance to me. I simply did not realize how the pleasure principle was at work. If I had, perhaps I would have made different choices, and gone to a school that had been more in alignment with what I most wanted.
Is any of this sort of experience familiar to you? I certainly think it applies to many piano students. Many people have fantasies of learning to play. At first, the idea brings them pleasure. Yet while it is nice to dream of playing, once they get going, the idea of practicing at the expense of doing other things, and the idea of how hard it seems to become “really good,” eventually can seem more painful than pleasurable, at least in the short-run. And so what do they do? They quit.
It does not have to be this way. Those who stick out their lessons may experience the enormous pleasures that are possible: the satisfaction of realizing a dream to play piano; the personal achievement and self-discipline gained; the increased understanding of music; and most importantly, the ability to play. What is more, these people also avoid one particular pain that is all too common: the pain of looking back later and wishing they had learned, and the regret that they did not.

Ready to start achieving your piano-playing dreams?



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