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A Ghost Ship of the Self: A Reflection on (Music) Education and the New American Dream

Late last night, I recalled a piano student I had last year– a woman in her mid 40s. Due to some differences in our perspectives, she would end up deciding to stop studying with me. This is that story.

Katie (not her real name) once asked me about whether I worked with students "as old" as she was. I told her I was currently working with a student nearly twice her age, at 87 years old. Greg (not his real name) was a retired dentist, and had been a hobby musician for much of his adult life– playing the cello and the guitar. He'd become interested in playing the piano because of his wife, who had been playing violin for many years herself. Greg wanted to learn to play the piano so he and his wife could play more music together.

Katie was interested in Greg's story and his progress, and would occasionally ask me how he was doing. At one point she asked me if he was doing well with his lessons, and deciding to be forthright I told her that he was actually having a fairly hard time. Greg had some rather pronounced arthritis in his hands and wrists, which made playing the piano for anything over 30mins at a time difficult and even painful. He also struggled with a theoretical-technical difference between the piano and his other two instruments– whereas the guitar and cello are written on one staff each, the piano is given two. Instead of one line, the pianist needs to engage with, process, and interpret two lines. Each of these posed considerable challenges to his rate of progress, and at that time (about 9 months into his lessons) Greg had begun to consider stepping back from piano.

Katie was alarmed by this. She demanded to know whether I was attempting to convince him to keep going. I said that as long as he wanted to keep working at it I would work with him at whatever pace he felt he could manage, but if he ended up choosing to stop I would respect that.

Katie was furious with this idea. How could I let him consider quitting? I told her that the obstacles Greg faced were very challenging for him, and that frankly his progress had been stuck in one place for several months now. Despite practicing every day, he had been unable to overcome these issues. I added that even if he remained in this place for the rest of his time with the piano, I would still be happy to work with him if it was what he wanted. But he had a right to decide that the obstacles he faced might be more than he wanted to continue to wrestle with, and to further decide that he wanted to use his time elsewhere.

Again, Katie was furious. "I believe," she said, "that anyone can do anything, as long as they want it badly enough and work hard enough for it." I answered that Greg's challenges may say otherwise. Katie argued, "Maybe he won't be the next Mozart, but he could still get good enough to play a bunch of songs or something–– he can get past this if he wants to." I answered that while this is a lovely idea, it just may be untrue. When we refuse to acknowledge our own limits, we place expectations upon ourselves we have no hope of meeting. This puts us in a very difficult position, psychologically speaking. We hurt ourselves in this way.

"So you're just going to tell him to quit?" she accused. Far from it, I told her. I had already been working with Greg for several months on the idea of examining and adjusting one's expectations. Examining and adjusting, not quitting entirely. But I was also attempting to help Greg recognize and make peace with limits that may make realizing certain expectations impractical or impossible. Ultimately the choice would be his, and I would respect it either way.

"I can't believe you think that," Katie huffed. "I can't believe you think he can't do it. What's the matter with you? Did someone drop you on your head as a baby?" I didn't know what to say to this. "Never mind, I don't want to talk about this anymore." So we finished that lesson, and Katie went home. I never saw her again.

Katie's insistence on the idea that anyone could do anything, provided they want it badly enough and work hard enough, reminded me of ideas that were plastered on the walls at my schools and that were presented to me in children's films. I've come to think of it as a new American dream, and it's something I think many millennials and Gen-Z'ers are familiar with. It's the idea I believe to be at the heart of that singular question we heard for the first twenty years of our lives: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

I recall reading an article once, though the details escape me, that considered the way children played. Children play at being doctors and firemen and nurses and astronauts and soldiers and all the others not because they've developed an interest in the work, but because they are more or less "trying on" these various social roles. It would seem to be a developmental procedure, a process by which children begin to habituate themselves to a place in the larger society and even to the very idea that they will one day occupy such a place. (I ought to go find this article again, or any research to this effect).

The famous question above and the "be anything" idea at its core seem to me to be ways in which the larger society, we adults, engage with that developmental process in children. "I see your interest in joining us; let me encourage it." Or at least that's the intent. But what happens when a child dreams of being an astronaut, or a famous musician or actor, or even the President of the U.S., and one day finds themselves holding down a more common nine-to-five at thirty years old?

We spent years being told we could do, be anything. All we had to do was dream it. More than this we spent years being sold this idea, being convinced to invest in it, to put all of our eggs into that basket. What becomes of that campaign, where does all that investment go? Does it just dissipate with our steady acclimation to an office or a weekly timesheet? Do we just wake up one day to find it gone? I really don't think so.

I think instead it remains with us, that it becomes a pressurized sort of potential psychokinetic energy that never achieves the release we've been told to expect. We bury it within us, or forget it's there in the first place– a black hole from which no light can escape. It can spend years as little more than a lingering frustration, a kind of residue with only passing salience despite its very real power. And we live with our psyche's straddling the dividing line between the belief we've been taught to uphold and the lived experience that refutes it, a sustained state of psychic tension.

Over time, though, I think this residue can go on to experience a kind of metamorphosis by which more and more of our person is pulled in, is trained to and warped by that pressurized center of gravity. Like a mold or a rot that consumes more and more of the flesh until the material of the whole is converted to that of the residue. A psychic ship of Theseus, if you will, a ghost ship of the self.

Of course, I don't think it has to be that way. I think we need to reckon with this "be anything" belief, and learn better how to examine and adjust our expectations of life and of ourselves. We have to learn how to dream, to find a more balanced kind of dreaming. And as an educator, I find this plays a major role in the journey of my students. Many of my students– espeically those with more professional aspirations– have seemed to be carrying an incredible burden of pressure, a near debilitating fear of failure and need to prove themselves.

I've watched as students strained and stumbled under the weight of near impossible loads in the name of getting ahead, or proving they could handle it. They had to get it right, get it perfect, if not the very first time than very quickly thereafter. Failure isn't just frustrating, its humiliating. The posture of a learner is foreign, alien, a kind of psychic contortion that seems as if it would break bones and tear muscle. They cannot learn, because they are too afraid of what being a learner might mean for that "be anything" dream.

This led me to develop a little hallmark-like mantra for myself as an educator. "You can't grow if you're too ashamed that you still have growing to do". I hope to help my students embrace being learners, to be unashamed of obstacles, to be able to examine and adjust expectations.

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