Saturday, March 30, 2013

Practice Makes Perfect?

There's an old saying, "Practice makes perfect."

It's a phrase that is, as a professor at Berklee would would write in the margin after reading a particularly bad answer to a test question, "not even wrong."

In his class, a "not even wrong" answer earned you negative points (versus zero points awarded a "just plain wrong" answer) and I think that's the case here.

It's not that practice can't lead to perfection; it's that there's no direct correlation between practice and perfection. Practicing simply reinforces and more deeply embeds whatever it is you practice. Practice perfectly, and yeah, you move towards perfection; practice sloppily and you move towards slop. Practice rigidly... practice thoughtlessly... practice anxiously... practice clearly... practice precisely...

Regular practice is a power tool that speeds you towards whatever it is you practice. Like any power tool, if you don't pay attention you can end having moved away from, not toward your goal.

I see it all the time with musicians who seem never to get much better no matter how much they practice. In fact, there are many musicians who would do well not to practice as practice seems to make them worse.

Watching an unskilled musician trying to quickly learn a new selection of music is like watching an unskilled carpenter removing a blemish from a countertop with a belt sander. The latter may indeed manage to remove all traces of the blemish while introducing something new: a hole. The former may learn all the notes while managing to further embed a terrible sense of time or pitch.

A turn of the phrase may be a bit more accurate. Practice perfects whatever you practice. It perfects anxiety. It perfects calm. It perfects precision. It perfects flailing. It perfects intonation. It perfects being out of tune.

The important thing to note is that practice ALWAYS perfects what you practice, whether the practice is deliberate and organized or the casual consequence of daily activity. Embedding and making stronger whatever you practice (casually or deliberately) is unavoidable.

So what?

That's it really, unless there are things in your life you'd like to learn to do better or are actively working on doing better. It there are, then you might want to begin to a) identify all the times and places that you practice (casually or deliberately) and b) start paying closer attention to what it is you're actually practicing.

If you want to become more calm and at ease, then the time you spend meditating is but a small portion of your daily practice. If you want to get better painting detail, then your time in front of an easel represents a fraction of your opportunity to practice. It's amazing how much practice one can accomplish when she becomes aware of all the opportunities.

Once you see the opportunities, the next step is to seize them in a way that moves you toward your goal. The primary requisite for this is being able to discern in which direction you're moving. It doesn't matter how hard you practice a song if you don't hear pitch or timing. It doesn't matter how fine your brush if you can't see the detail. It doesn't how often you practice calculus if you haven't nailed addition and subtraction.

This gets to the tricky part of practice. No matter how advanced you believe yourself to be or think you "should" be, the thing tripping you up may be so basic that you'd never consider practicing it. Yet, unless you address the really basic stuff, it doesn't really matter how hard or long you practice the advanced stuff. Sometimes you have to step way back and work fundamentals, specially if you feel embarrassed or stupid about it (these feelings would be a good clue that you've found the problem.)

Yup, that's about it. Practice perfects what you practice.

So what will you practice today? When will you be practicing? How well will you practice?

Happy Saturday,

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