Practice does not make perfect, but it does make permanent.
In the course of a week, it’s almost a given that I will tell that maxim to at least one of my piano students; in fact, I said it to a student this morning! And I must admit that I did not invent the phrase, but I picked it up from my choir director, who is often fond of reminding us that perfection does not exist. It is a per-fiction.
There is nothing more frustrating or demoralizing for my students than to discover that they learned their music incorrectly, but that doesn’t happen by mistake. What my students give me in a lesson is a direct result of the kind of practice that they did in that week before, and it doesn’t take long for repeated patterns to become ingrained in their muscle memory. One of my jobs as a music teacher is to identify mistakes before they become habits, because once an error turns a pattern, that habit is incredibly difficult to unlearn.
Fortunately for my students, when I discover a poor musical habit, then I know how to address and correct their playing. It typically involves practicing through the passage as slow as possible, with hands apart, and being mindful to follow a consistent set of fingering. It’s a methodical process that unlearns what the student mis-practiced, and then puts her back on the track to learning the music correctly. And while the mind can learn the correct way (or at least a different way) relatively quickly, the body is slow to forget the poor habits a student learns, so throughout this entire corrective process, the student is constantly fighting against muscle memory.
My many music teachers have impressed upon me the importance of how I practice. It was not enough to blitz through my music cover-to-cover in the minimum 30 minutes a day for five days a week; rather, I needed to be mindful to follow whatever suggestions Mrs. Teska gave me in my lessons. The fingerings she wrote in my scores were designed to help me execute the cleanest performance of Bach or Mozart as possible, so it would behoove me to follow them to the letter. To learn the music correctly, I would need to set the metronome and practice the music at a steady, slow tempo. I would need to keep a pencil handy to make notes in my score. I would need to isolate problematic phrases and measures so that I could dedicate more time to finessing them. Practicing music is not a glamorous process that plays out in a 1980s style five-minute montage; practicing music is laborious, frustrating, agitating, and sometimes even boring. In my own practice these days, I have been known to spend 30 minutes on an eight-measure phrase…30 minutes on 32 beats. Why? Because the music commands that kind of respect.
Perfection may be a per-fiction, but my music director Bill Skoog is quick to add, we can pursue excellent. So how do I pursue excellence in music?
I take my time. When it comes to learning music — I mean deeply learning and mastering and internalizing the music — I cannot rush the process, so I practice five days days a week, 90 minutes a day to get it in my hands and fingers. I listen to recordings of the music so it can sink into my ears. Learning music is a lot like getting to know a friend or romantic partner; it takes a lot of hard work, patience, and time to truly understand what the composer put down on the printed page.
I work strategically. My time is limited, so I don’t waste it on music I already know well; if I tackle the critical projects first, then everything else will fall into place When I open the music to practice, I’ll play through the piece from beginning to end, and I am paying attention to those passages that are still troublesome. Then I go back and spend the majority of my practice time on those phrases that need the most work. I perform the same process with my students. This morning, I instructed to play an entire Bach prelude that she’s working on, and I identified a problematic measure for her that we worked on for 20 minutes of her lesson. Up till this morning, the student hadn’t even thought of her fingering, so she was doing something different every time. No wonder she couldn’t learn Bach’s thorny counterpoint! We came up with a fingering that she would use every time, and I told her to practice that measure with her new fingering ten times every day. Now she knows exactly how to practice and perform that measure, and I trust that her performance of the music will be markedly improved by her next lesson.
I hold myself accountable. Sometimes, I’ll record myself practicing music and play it back. When I can see or hear myself playing, I can often pick up on nuances and shortcomings that I cannot notice in the moment. I’ll also use a metronome to make sure that my tempo isn’t rushed or inconsistent, and believe me, my metronome reveals many mistakes in my playing.
I seek outside help. Yes, I’ve been a professional musician for over a decade, but I still need another set of ears to point out the mistakes that I cannot pick up by myself. About once a month, I sit down with my old college piano professor to get his feedback, and he quickly disabuses me of any notion that I have mastered the music. He’s a gentle teacher, but he has a sharp sense of hearing that, combined with a deep intuition about music, helps me to be a better pianist.
When it becomes overwhelming, I step away from the problem. There comes a point in my practice process where I just need to move on to another piece, or even step away from the piano for the day because I feel so frustrated by the music that I cannot think objectively anymore. I’ll tell my friends, “I know it’s time to take a break when I start issuing death threats to Mozart;” I can’t make any progress when I’m driven purely by feelings. So I step away to clear my head, and when I return refreshed to the music, I have a right-sized perspective on what was obviously an insurmountable problem.
I learn to say, good enough for today. I’m not going to learn Mozart in one day, or in one week, or even in one month. I cannot give a perfect rendition of a man whose music and whose intelligence was way beyond anything I can ever understand, so I have learned to say, “You know, Jim, that was good enough for today.” I can assure you that this is the hardest discipline to practice, but for my health, it is also the most important one.
Taking my time, working strategically, holding myself accountable while also seeking help are not convenient life hacks to make you the best pianist in 30 days. These are principles that require a humbling of the ego, and they are tools that must be utilized again and again over the long haul. An exceptional professional pianist will take, on average, a year to prepare a concerto for performance with an orchestra; my choir director is already planning for performances of Verdi’s Requiem and Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, which are months away from now. A single 4 minute anthem requires 4–6 weeks of rehearsals for my church choir, and my men’s chorus, BealeCanto, has already begun work on music for our concerts in June. It takes time and hard work to build something worth listening to.
But at the end of day, I know that when I am faithful to the principles my teachers taught me, then I can enjoy my work in a concert and say, “You know, that’s good enough for today.” And in a world of per-fiction and competition, “good enough” is a most excellent gift to receive