Living the Life Artistic: Practice Makes Perfect, or Does It?

It is a well-known fact that the bane of any music teacher’s existence is getting students to practice. Practicing is a necessary part of developing any artistic skill, and yet, so many students of the arts don’t want to do it. They just want to be Good. But, anyone who’s spent any length of time doing anything creative knows that it’s the process of creation that’s important, not the end-product. Sure, it’s a wonderful feeling to write “The End” and then see a novel appear on a bookstore shelf, but for a lot of us, that’s icing on the cake. It’s living our art, practicing it on a daily basis, that’s the cake itself (IMO, of course – others may have other thoughts on this).

Anyhow, practicing is a fundamental part of a musician’s life. At some point, any musician just accepts that he or she will spend hours locked away in a practice room, by oneself, playing scales, developing their technique, going over bars of music until he or she reaches whatever results he or she is striving for. Because of that, we also spend a lot of time talking about practicing – how to be more efficient, how to be more productive, how to hone, all that sort of stuff, and in fact, we often talk about “performance practice”, “period practice”, “practice technique”, “practice theory”, etc. It’s one of the things that musicians talk about most, and because of that, we tend to have some pretty good ideas about it. Here are a few thoughts to chew on:

When it comes to practicing itself, there aren’t many rules. There are things that work better for where a person is at in their development, and things that don’t work as well. But, the one rule that applies, no matter where one is in their development, is that at any given time, you are either training yourself, or untraining yourself.

Here’s the thing: a few years back, a group of Japanese scientists did a study on practicing, and discovered it took about 10,000 repetitions of any activity for that activity to become habit.

That’s a lot of repetitions.

Here’s the next thing: whenever one of my students is having trouble with a piece of music or with some technical aspect of singing, I’ll ask, “So how are you practicing this?” and almost without exception, the answer is, “Well, I just sing the piece over and over”, which results in me hanging my head and sighing.

Why?

Because this is one of the most inefficient ways of practicing anything. It’s like those monkeys, stuck in that room with all those typewriters. If they just keep hammering away, sooner or later, one of them will write Hamlet. So it is with just playing something over and over again, except, the thing is, by doing that, one becomes just as adept as making mistakes as playing the right notes, and this is something I think applies to writing. So many people just say “Go!” and write whatever, and then have to do draft after draft to hone that first rough draft into something readable. That’s one way to do things, and for many people, that works. But, in doing that, a person isn’t just reinforcing what they’re doing well; they’re also reinforcing what they’re not doing well, which really isn’t efficient, because as any music teacher will tell you, it takes ten times as long to unlearn a wrong note as it does to learn it correctly the first time. If it takes 10,000 times to establish the habit to begin with, and ten times that to unlearn it…well, you do the math.

Here’s what I get my students to do instead: rather than just singing something over and over again and hoping that whatever the issue is will miraculously get better, we isolate the issue, work it over, and then reinsert it in the piece of music. Sometimes that means going over a single bar of music for the duration of an entire lesson, which can be maddening, but the flip side is, by working on that bar until it functions the way the student needs it to, they’ve actually cut down on a huge amount of work AND informed the rest of their singing, because if one thing is going “wrong”, it translates into just about everything else, and conversely, if something is going right, that’ll translate into everything else the singer sings.

So, to apply this to writing: say, for example, a writer continuously spells a common word wrong. They write an entire manuscript spelling that word wrong, which means they get really good at spelling that word incorrectly. Then, when that person comes to revise, they don’t see that incorrect word because to his/her frame of reference, that word is correct. Or, take for example a larger issue – say, a point-of-view issue where the writer head-hops. It’s the same thing. If you practice head-hopping, you get really good at it, and it then becomes hard to break that habit.

The trouble is, when a writer gets further into a career, there isn’t time for that anymore, and because fundamental issues, (like a frequent spelling error or point-of-view stuff, or pacing, or what-have-you inform everything else), can cause a whole whack of other issues – particularly if you can’t see the issue to begin with because, by practice, it’s become the norm.

Now, someone reading this might think I’m bashing Nano. I’m not. There is a lot to be said for getting words down, but if a person is writing gobblygook just to get a word count, then, well, that person is getting awfully good at writing gobblygook. But, it’s also possible to get so hung up on getting things “right” that no writing gets accomplished at all, so, like all things in life, balance is good. So, if you’re a Nanoer, something I might suggest: think before writing. Think about what you want. Think about what you need to do. Have a plan for your daily writing session. Use that plan as a guideline, not as law, and always, always go for quality over quantity. You’re creating art, not a Big Mac! If you go into every writing session with the intention to write your best, this will become your new norm, and how can that be a bad thing?

Next on deck: Technique versus Repertoire…

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