The Nature of Practice

I grew up practicing. Piano, mostly — from a very young age. I have a distinct memory of someone’s basement with big glass sliding doors and trees outside, and a green chalkboard with white staff lines painted on it. I was at a music lesson, with my mom, and the teacher was showing me notes; perfect, smooth white magnets, like moveable pieces of slightly oval giant candy that stuck to the green board.

Practicing was a part of my life, in the way that things are when you’re a kid. They are just there. You just do them. I must have not resisted practicing. I remember the Clementi book of short sonatas. My first grown-up looking music. And the famous Hanon finger exercises.

I remember breaking the more difficult piano pieces down, bit by bit. At first, I had to learn the music by looking at the notation on the page, a language I had learned to read and understand (thanks to the magnets!). I would also listen to a recording of a piece — especially as I got older and the music got more complex — which would help my ear guide my fingers, and inform me about possible tempo and expression.

I would practice about one to two hours a day, almost every day for many years. (A professional concert pianist will practice 6-ish hours a day!) I remember practicing a piece, measure by measure, then adding measures together in phrases, and practicing the transitions between phrases of measures, until my body learned the music. Who knows how many times I would play a piece over and over?

When I was a senior in high school, I was one of the students chosen to perform in my high school’s Concerto Night. I was the last one on the program. My teacher had selected a semi-contemporary concerto that I loved. I remember rehearsing with the orchestra, wishing it were a professional symphony orchestra.

The night of the performance, I felt nervous but confident. I sat down to do the impressive opening run . . . and missed some notes. Soldiering onward, I did not miss a beat, and the orchestra soon joined in on cue. I went on to play the rest of the piece flawlessly. I remember the feeling — I was one with the music; it was playing me. That night was the highlight of my musical career. 

I quit taking piano lessons after my freshman year of college. I decided I wanted to be a graphic designer, not a music teacher. After that, my piano practicing dropped off and then stopped completely as new adventures occupied my time and I no longer had access to pianos. 

Now, thirty years later, I have a funny little digital piano and have started to revive my fingers. It’s a fascinating exercise, to go back to something that was so familiar three and four decades ago.

From this perspective, I am seeing a few things about the nature of practice.

• It’s difficult to practice more than one thing seriously. It takes a lot of time and energy. Having a job, a relationship, bills to pay, responsibilities to take care of, for example, can get in the way of serious practice.

• You have to really want mastery of whatever it is you’re practicing. Otherwise, it is super easy to quit or just faff around while practicing.

• The progression is not always linear. These days I’ll practice a few measures over and over and over and make the same mistake, even after slowing it down, getting it right and trying again. It can click in suddenly in a later practice session (I remember that from my old practicing days!).

Consistency is KEY.

• It’s easy to practice making the same old mistake, drilling into your brain the incorrect way. You have to be anal retentive about going over things slowly, with attention, to change how you play that one part.

• Getting the practice into the body takes longer that perhaps you’d like. These days it seems like it takes longer than when I was younger. But I might have had less expectations then. Or more likely, my brain does not work as well as it used to.

• It feels awesome to do what you’ve practiced, once you have learned a piece well. A flow can take over, and the music does begin to play you. As I remember . . .

• There is always more to practice. The levels of mastery are endless. But it can be very fun to be wherever you are.

• A good teacher makes a huge difference.

Yesterday (about a week after writing the first draft of this blog, up to the bulleted list above), I happened to meet a neighbor who is a piano teacher. I was thrilled. We spoke about how learning to practice well is applicable to success life. We shared our enthusiasm for giving, and to and helping others in their practice.

Then the piano teacher gave me the gift of this story: Some years ago, she had had chemo treatment for cancer and had stopped playing and teaching. After the ordeal was over, she noticed her brain was ‘fried.’ Words would not come like they used to, neurons would not fire, connections were lost. So she got out her Hanon finger exercises and began practicing with a metronome, 15 to 20 minutes a day. After a time, she said she could FEEL her brain beginning to work again. “Get out that Hannon and practice!” she told me, as I bemoaned the loss of my own brain recall and processing speed.

Practice — in whatever discipline — has its own life, its own nature. It is a process that deepens and reveals to us, albeit it slowly, the greatness in us.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to practice some Hanon.