Everyone knows the phrase “practice makes perfect,” but what does that even mean these days?
When I was a kid taking weekly half-hour piano lessons, Mrs. Belsky would write the following in the top right margin of my John W. Schaum color-coded course book: “X20.” That meant that I had to practice each assignment—be it an E major scale, Fingerpower® exercise, or adapted excerpt from Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”—twenty times daily.
And twenty times daily meant Mrs. Belsky expected me to practice every scale, exercise, and song assigned seven days a week, no matter what else was going on that day. It was part of my responsibility as the piano student to carve out a productive practice time within my daily and weekend schedule, a slot during which I could focus solely and completely on practicing each piece assigned twenty times…
Now, I was a willing student. I loved to play the piano, and I recall occasions when my mom pulled me away from the keyboard with an “Enough! Go outside and play now.” But I also recall instances, usually around a holiday, that I really didn’t feel like practicing at all. On those days dragging my feet to the piano felt like the long slow walk (I only ever watched other students take, of course!) to the principal’s office.
Nonetheless, what got me through those practice sessions—because once I began playing I usually forgot my reluctance—was force of carefully established habit and a dawning understanding that my strict practice routine was indeed making me a more skillful piano player.
And at the risk of being labeled a nerd—I can hear my youngest sister and guest blogger Fran Ciotoli‘s childhood “Felicia’s a geek!” ringing in my ears—I will admit that at the end of my practice sessions I typically turned to pages much further along in my lesson and recital books (never the scale or exercise books!) and attempted to sight-read random pieces. It was challenging and exciting to discover that I could play many of the pieces, or parts of them anyway, using my developing skills.
These sight-reading sessions were immediate proof that my efforts were paying off and the rewards, in the form, say, of a treasured book of Christmas carols—or later Scott Joplin rags or secreted away popular sheet music of Billy Joel songs—were within my grasp.
Self-determined rewards, true, but developing this type of self-discipline proved beneficial in many other areas of my life in addition to playing the piano. In school I never fought doing the kind of repetitive exercises that honed the skill of memorization, and to this day I can memorize and rattle off facts, deadlines, lines of verse, phone numbers, you name it, with relative ease.
Now, Mrs. Belsky was not a warm and fuzzy figure in my life. She never hugged me or gave me a sticker for doing a good job, kid! I wasn’t afraid of her, nor do I remember her swathed in a honey glow of fondness. In fact, she was rather stiff in bearing and only distantly friendly. These are the only personal things I remember about her: she occasionally sipped tea during lessons, she had two whiny daughters slightly younger than I was who always had runny noses, and she eventually left being a piano teacher to study and become a Protestant minister.
What I remember most about Mrs. Belsky, however, was that she was an excellent instructor, firm but encouraging, a stickler but patient with a hint of kindness. Her persona as the teacher always remained formally intact. When she nodded in affirmation of any proficiency in my performance of an assignment it was incredibly satisfying. And I thank her, truly thank her, sometimes daily, for the benefits I continue to reap as an amateur pianist and as a student in school and of life, for the time I spent studying at her bench.
After a number of years Mrs. Belsky said to my mother, “I’ve taught her everything I can. She now needs to move to an advanced instructor.” I did leave with a bit of a tear in my eye, but I was excited—and a little scared—to move on to study with the concert pianist from whom I took several truly terrifying years of lessons. I learned a tremendous amount from her as well, and in a shorter amount of time, but it was a far, far less pleasant experience, and by that point I was a teenager and my attention was beginning to turn in other directions, including toward boys and poetry.
Believe it or not, what prompted this post—and I have further thoughts on some of the topics covered here that I’ll save for several follow-up posts—was my son’s recent football practice. Watching the qualities of self-discipline and perseverance being instilled in these young boys in full football gear sweating out the hard and boring exercises in the August humidity reminded me of my countless hours at the piano…
In this case, it’s “football practice makes perfect.”
But it’s rather amazing to me and an irony of contemporary society that we now tiptoe around the many, many benefits of practice, practice, practice, and rote memorization apart from when it involves training for sports.
Hearing the coaches BELLOW at the kids—and watching their parents nod in vigorous agreement with the relentless charge to dig deeper, stop whining, try harder—reminded me that the desire to excel, thereby conquering flaccid boredom and the apathetic absence of standards, as well as the understanding that this means that self-discipline necessarily involves self-denial (no fair! no fun!) still exists.
So maybe we need to take “perfect” out of the maxim “practice makes perfect” as an impossible standard. No one, in fact, is perfect. In today’s environment kids are not always taught the subtleties of aspiration—shoot for the moon, land among the stars. But surely we can show them and remind ourselves, in word and by example, that practice makes competent, even skillful.
And that the ability to do something well on your own inevitably leads to improved self-esteem and a desire to see what might happen if you try a little harder. The results can inspire delight, even joy.
Surely this applies to many interests and endeavors besides pressing the right keys on the pianoforte or spinning a football.
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