Playing Music Is The (An) Answer

If you haven’t noticed people are obsessed with their smart phones, you are probably obsessed with your smart phone. Better check my phone. I wonder if she has texted me and I didn’t hear it? Maybe my ringer is shut off. Better check. Oh good, ringer’s still on. {30 seconds later} Oh! Who liked my status on Facebook? I wonder if I have any new emails. Why are these birds so angry? I bet if I catapult them into a pyramid of pigs, they won’t be so angry. People can’t concentrate. We check in, check up and check out. I sat next to a guy frantically play Tetris on his phone for three hours on a flight from Denver to D.C. He never looked up. I had an overwhelming urge to take his phone from him and smash it with the heel of my boot and then do the same to my phone. But I can’t do it. I can’t get rid of it because of work. People NEED me. They need me to respond to emails even if I’m grocery shopping or laying in bed at midnight. I use Facebook to organize. How would I organize an event without it? Naomi Klein retweets MY tweets. I have almost 1,000 followers. That’s good right? That means people think I have important things to say right? How can just get rid of Twitter? People NEED to hear from me. I have to have my iPhone. It’s necessary for my job. I don’t have a choice. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll tell you the truth. I love my iPhone. I don’t get rid of it because I miss it when it’s gone. My ass knows what it feels like in my back jean pocket.

What’s the question?

The question is, how do we reverse what I can only describe as the brain damage that we are actively participating in with our smart phones? We have decreased attention spans. We waste countless hours checking and rechecking social media sites. We mindlessly surf the web. What is a person to do? Get rid of your phone and social media accounts? Become a goat rancher in the wilds of Montana? No, you should play music. And I don’t mean download a new album. You should go to a pawn shop, grab a $20 guitar and a 30 cent pick and start learning something new. Let me tell you why. As a kid, I spent more time trying to avoid playing the piano than playing it.  If I had actually used that energy and put it into learning the piano I would be a goddamn virtuoso right now. The weekly piano lessons were torture. I don’t want to overstate things but I had fantasies of minor car accidents that would prevent us arriving on time and therefore would shorten the lesson. My grandmother's piano. Photo by Alexis Bonogofsky. My sister played first. I waited. This was the 80’s. There were no smart phones to distract me and so I sat on the couch and sometimes fell asleep listening to, what I could only imagine, was the audible manifestation of an overachieving personality. When it was my turn, my teacher would examine my long fingers and sigh. “You could be so good Alexis.” And then one day, when I was a teenager, my mom let me quit. And quit I did.  I’m certain that I never sat back down at the piano after that until one day, probably a decade after I quit,  I walked by the piano that was gathering dust in my house and played a couple notes. Then the next day, I sat down and played a couple of songs that I had memorized as a kid. Unfortunately, it’s the Christmas music that really got lodged in the recesses of my brain.  No one can play Deck the Halls like I can. My fingers still knew the keyboard and my brain still understood how to read music. I dug out the old piano books from the cellar and started from the beginning, making the same mistakes in the same places that I did when I was a kid. And then one day, fairly recently, I grabbed my pawn shop guitar, tuned it and found a chord sheet online. I struggled to translate what I was seeing on the paper to my fingers. How in god’s name do they expect your ring finger to move like that?  How do they expect your fingers to move between chords so quickly? Who are they? Why am I so bad at this? But you know what? I love it. Thanks Mom.

What I’m Not Doing

And in these moments that I’m playing the piano, there are lots of things I’m not doing. I’m not multitasking. I’m not checking a text message, voice mail, Facebook or Twitter. I’m not uploading photos or sending emails. I’m not wondering if anyone has RSVP’d to my event. Instead, my brain is attempting, and some times failing, to read a complex language and translate it to my fingers. My hands are moving independently of each other. My left is a bit slower on the uptake but not much anymore. My brain is relearning neural pathways I created as a kid. When I’m playing the piano, I am thinking and not thinking and the same time.  In that moment that I’m playing a particularly difficult piece or learning something new, nothing else exists. Nothing. And all of the things I don’t like about my phone and how I use it; the decreased attention span, the wasting of time on the internet and social media sites, the lack of feeling or critical thinking when your staring at it. All of those things are fading away, slowly but surely. Don’t get me wrong, I still check my phone a lot, still use Facebook and Twitter and everything else. I mean, people NEED me. And I still like it. But I do it less. Way less. I notice more. I can concentrate for extended periods of time. I have something back I lost. Liam. Photo copyright Alexis Bonogofsky. Just the other day, my sister said she was going to start my three-year-old nephew in piano lessons in the fall, 15-minutes at a time, just to get him started. She might have to tie him to the bench but it'll be worth it. He will have a bigger climb than me. He will never know life without smart phones, pads and computers. Everyone knows it is good for kid’s brains to learn an instrument. But what most people forget, or don’t think about it, is that it’s good for adults too. Why do we make kids learn new skills and try new things and then stop ourselves? Maybe we're afraid that we'll be bad. And then I think about Liam and the piano. And I will tell him over and over again until he is sick of hearing it. Play music, even if it’s poorly, it’s your only hope.            Alexis Bonogofsky

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