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The Power of Will, The Power of Genius

by Kristine Rominski

The bright white walls do not welcome me into the small space.  I close the door and set my flute on the piano bench, and begin to make myself comfortable for at least the next two hours.  In these pages of my practice journal I review the work I accomplished yesterday so that today’s goals and be established, and write these words…

When we think of creative genius, usually the end result springs to mind and not the labor behind the painting, sonata performance, or novel.  These are the result of talent, some might say, but talent is only a fraction of the answer. The more complete and more correct answer, I believe, is willpower, for it is enormous willpower that compels us to stay on task, work something through to completion, and create the new. In today’s world so many tedious distractions lead us away from the creative work we feel we are born to do.  Yes, despite our sense of purpose, our belief that we must do this work, we still find ourselves checking Facebook every moment possible or burying ourselves nose-deep in our cell phones, never to look up even while crossing the street. In my case, as I review my own practice journal, I find that I fall prey to these tempting diversions, which draw my attention more than my music.

Rominski photoIn my own work as a flutist, I find that willpower can make or break a practice session, rehearsal, or performance.  Sometimes I walk into the practice room with my iPad “to keep the time” I tell myself, “and use that great metronome and tuner app.” Yet 20 minutes later my highest accomplishment consists of performing plodding scales while reading the New York Times online.  Not only did I not play the scales in any sort of steady tempo, neither did I mentally engage in reading the news.  This observation of myself is not good support for the great multitasking generation – we do so much at the same time, but are we really doing anything at all?  As evidenced here, no.

During my scale warmups, the urge to check my email is almost knocking me over.  My fingers stumble over the keys as my brain attempts to direct my thoughts back to consistent airflow and a relaxed upper body. Grabbing my Ipad to use its metronome, I wonder what the weather is supposed to be like this weekend, but resist the urge to squander 20 valuable practice minutes by opening the web browser.

In his book titled Willpower, psychology professor and researcher Roy Baumeister examines the nature of willpower and applies it, or the lack of it, to the usual suspects of dieting, bad habits, and decision-making. As I read the book, I began to connect some of the examples and advice to the creative process and how we make habits that aid rather than hinder our ability to make great art.  Willpower depletion happens even during the most mundane tasks which is why having a list of goals helps us stay focused.  In an interview with NPR, (and in a later follow-up interview) Baumeister’s coauthor, John Tierney, explains that willpower functions like a muscle and fatigues with use.  Luckily for us, it too can be trained and strengthened quite easily – using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth, listening to the professor during lecture even though you definitely heard the beep of an unread message, or better yet, turning the phone on silent for a full 50 minutes, – simple things like these help build willpower for the bigger goals we have in our lives.

Successfully using the Ipad as metronome only, the next forty minutes pass with diligent, repetitive work on orchestral excerpts that will be played for an important audition next weekend.

Often it is easy to postpone the creative process.  “The air is too cold today.” “My lips feel too dry.”  “This key is too sticky to play any fast passages well.”  Any excuse at all to do something that requires significantly less energy than sculpting notes to near perfection in a hot, tiny room.  Procrastination, perhaps a feeling you are experiencing this very moment while reading this article, is an affliction we all encounter in the course of creating.  The most difficult part of a creative life lies in avoiding procrastination and summoning the will to create or, if not create, then at least just practice.  The solution, as suggested in the book, is to organize yourself in such a way that there is no need for procrastination, because you will do everything you are meant to do in its time as long as you have left time for it to be done.  If you are meant to watch that video on youtube, you will do it after you have written three pages of that report that is due on Friday.

Art, though it feels free and liberated to the onlooker, is anything but in its creation.  The act of creating art requires diligent, habitual work, whether or not acceptable progress is made from one day to the next.   Lots of rigorous, intensive labor is involved, and not all work that is made is kept, which is especially true in the visual arts.  I know that when I practice, some days are productive, and other days are not.  But every day, between 3:30 and 6pm, I can be found in a practice room.  It is this, or nothing I have to tell myself, and I have a need to be stricter and not allow that fascinatingly distracting iPad in with me.  I have to play the flute.  There is no reading or positive activity of any kind.  I can play the flute, or I can do nothing.  Make the habit to keep the habit.  There is no other way to create something every day, unless you decide to do it every day, free from distractions – and this takes willpower.

I review my practice and this log of it. Today’s accomplishments in this hot and tiny room: practice. Tomorrow’s goals for this hot and tiny room: practice. Stay on task and honest in my creative work.


Articles of Related Interest from The Muse Dialogue

“Art Creators: The Anxiety of Millenials,” by Annabelle Clippinger

“The Classical Musician’s Paradigm Shift,” by Annie Gordon

“Seeking the Love of Music That I Once Felt,” by Erin Yanacek

Further reading:

New York Times review of Baumeister and Tierney’s Willpower, written by Steven Pinker

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Baumeister’s book is good. Another good book, very practical, is Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit”

    Also, regarding the iPad as metronome: how about turning off the iPad’s Internet connection, so that you can’t read news?


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