The Practice of Practice

or the joy of an old dog learning new tricks

One of the pleasures of adulthood — if I can say I’ve reached that stage — is the freedom to learn anything that tickles my fancy. At this point, some of you may be saying “But you have a job, you have responsibilities, you have no time to learn new things. Surely as a student or child you had more freedom to learn.” To this I say hooey. Time is and always will be a constraint. Learning requires resources, discipline, perspective, and openness that I am only now beginning to acquire in any useful measure. And it is thanks to these that I finally know how to practice.

Practice has been a constant companion for most of my life. I have enjoyed it, detested it, accepted it, and avoided it. While I have never stopped practicing, my approach to practice has changed incrementally over time. Let me illustrate with a musical example.

My first exposure to the world of music was through the piano. Memories of the time are scarce, but I believe I was first struck by the piano bug around the first grade. This was not an interest that came out of left field; we had a piano in the house, we owned a large collection of piano music, and I was a frequent bystander at the lessons of my mom and older brother. Like any recent convert, I expressed periods of intense zeal and could joyfully play for hours. Far more frequently, I hammered out the world’s shortest half-hour of sloppy scales and inelegant etudes as a prerequisite to playing outside, visiting a friend, or using the computer.

In the fourth grade I began to play the trombone. At first, my practice habits reflected those I had built learning the piano: a strictly timed half-hour, badly rushed warm ups, and multiple loud renditions of my favorite pieces. This changed as I got closer to high school, for I began to establish goals. Big, fat, juicy goals that I could reach out and grab if I only practiced enough. First chair, honor band, All-State, a superior mark at contests. My practice became methodical and focused, consistently lasting for hours. As I knocked down one goal after another, my fervor increased. An addiction for sure.

With the start of college, I stopped playing trombone almost completely. I was not a music major, and I didn’t have the time or energy to find a group. For all but the very committed, playing solo trombone is merely a lonely way to annoy your roommates. Housing and financial limitations also restricted my access to a piano, so for almost three years I played little music at all. It was under these circumstances I decided I must learn the guitar.

This desire was not born of ambition. I had no contests to win, no seat for which to fight, and nothing to prove. I simply had to become familiar with this form of expression, no matter how inconvenient. I bought my guitar in the critical two weeks before finals, completely draining my bank account. It couldn’t be helped; from that moment on my guitar became a part of who I was.

For the first time in my life I began to practice properly. The first two weeks with my guitar I spent slowly transitioning from one chord to another — C, D, C, D, C, D — for hours on end. I practiced chords while watching movies, while listening to music, while talking with friends. I made very few attempts at playing songs, as I found joy in marching my fingers through the basic drills. I was playing guitar, and that was enough.

To the relief of those around me, I eventually learned full songs; even these I learned slowly and carefully. Each measure of each song was given special treatment. I had no reason to rush! My practice was a pleasure, and it soon became my default action. I practiced at home, at parties, on the roof, on the porch, at the lake, and on stage. No goals other than the constant drive to improve, and by doing so become more fully myself.

Children are capable of astonishing feats of learning, but my true learning began as an adult. Only as an adult have I been able to consciously apply the discipline of practice to the expansion and discovery of myself. As a child, my self-evaluation was dominated by the opinions of parents and teachers, coaches and peers. As I gained independence in life and mind, my inner score card still counted tangible targets: high grades, a strong resume, proper interview technique, and a good job. Specific goals with specific measures of success.

It is worth me taking a second to discuss my thoughts on goals. I recognize goals as necessary landmarks towards which I choose to orient my drive, but for many years I have rejected anything smelling of a five-year plan. My most passionate dreams and best laid plans have been beautifully changed too many times for me to wish or think I could ever know who or where I will be that far in the future. I create flurries of small goals, enticing enough to encourage growth while not specific enough to restrain, goals that move me closer to myself.

This is where I find a need to practice as an adult; it is only as an adult that all my practice becomes an exercise in being me. It is as an adult that I can avoid the things I do for vanity, for the opinion of others. It is as an adult that I learn anything and everything to make me a better, fuller version of myself, because I know there are people who need me — the complete me.

And that’s my freedom.

“Free is not your right to choose
It’s answering what’s asked of you
To give the love you find until it’s gone”

The Avett Brothers, Ill With Want

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