When Daily Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect
Around ten years old I got ushered to a piano bench by a concert pianist. She seemed kind, I was cluelessly optimistic, and my parents paid good money for the woman to deal with me for two years.
If you don’t know my family, my father also earned the title of a concert pianist. So it would seem logical for the two of us to meet weekly in the formal living room for 30 minutes so he could enlighten me with everything he knew on our own piano. But my parents were well aware that teaching his [athletic, stubborn, distractable] daughter himself wouldn’t be the best idea.
Instead, every week my mom and I drove 15 minutes to a different baby grand. I wasn’t too intimated at first; growing up with a pianist for a dad taught me everything I needed to know to impress her right off the bat.
- Middle C? Right here.
- An octave? Like this.
- Total keys? Eighty-eight. (Duh)
So we moved on to the harder stuff of scales, which felt like a fun challenge at first. My goal was to perfect them, but approximately twenty-three weeks later the fun turned to boredom and dread, and the perfection never came.
But by the end of year one, I found myself playing real songs! Well, real according to the dumb little piano book with stars and geese and teddy bears on it. When no one recognized anything I played, and each song only lasted approximately 73 seconds, my interest waned.
Besides wanting to go out and play the minute I sat down to practice, I did not progress at the speed I thought I should. A little subconscious math made year two feel like a decade in slow motion.
I gotta practice for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, for two years, and I’m not even guaranteed that I’m gonna know how to play Happy Birthday with both hands. I could be playing softball right now. This is lame.
Every week, after I played the homework, my teacher asked me the same interrogating question: “Did you practice?”
And almost every week I gave the same weak-sauce answer: “Yes, mostly.”
And then she’d get me a kitchen towel to wipe my hands. Every. Single. Week. Do you have any idea how embarrassing it was to see sweat on her fancy ivory keys?
Then we came to recitals. The mere thought of them can whisk me back to palpitations, bubbling guilt, and more sweaty palms. If you ever sat in a living room full of nerdy overachievers prepared and ready to dazzle their peers and parents, you know. I was rarely prepared or ready.
An older boy who glided up and down the keys with ease? Fine—he was older. But the younger girl who started playing the same time I did and already progressed to Book 2? Not fine. How had she already perfected Book 1?
Fast forward a decade. I’m standing on a softball field as the new assistant coach of a high school varsity team. The head coach gives a short, inspirational speech and nonchalantly adds in a phrase, catching me off guard and sending my mind racing.
“Remember… practice makes permanent.”
My brain just about burst. What?! Where did you learn that? Did you make it up? I love that! It’s brilliant! Why doesn’t everyone say that? Wait—do my parents know about this?
However you practice over and over will become your permanent routine. Your permanent swing. Your permanent throw and catch. Your permanent slide. Your permanent muscle memory.
If you grew up like me, being told practice makes perfect, you probably either played an instrument, played a sport, made art, or felt passionate about perfecting whatever you were putting in your Easy Bake Oven.
And of course, most of our teachers, coaches, and parents encouraged us along the way, telling us in those sing-songy voices how we were doing great and oh-so-close to perfection.
- “Great job, Mike. Keep going!”
- “Sounds good, Carrie.” (half-lie) “Try it again.”
- “So close, Debbie. Almost there!”
- “Remember… practice makes perfect!”
Practice, strive, practice, whine, practice, cry, stop.
I’m sorry to break it to all of us… we were accidentally lied to.
Since I’m pretty positive nothing on this earth is perfect, did we all end up striving for something that wasn’t even possible? Something that didn’t exist?
My twelve-year-old self would have said yes. And as we drove away from my last day of piano lessons, I loosened my seatbelt, cranked my window down, stuck my head out, and yelled at the top of my lungs, “I’M FREEEEEEEEEE!”
I still remember the moment clear as day. No more stress, no more guilt, no more sweaty palms, and no more being compared to my talented father.
Of course, well-meaning senior citizens continue to ask (3 decades later) if I play the piano like my dad and I continue to say no with twinges of regret.
Am I glad my parents made me take lessons? Yes. I learned a few valuable lessons and I didn’t die like I thought I might.
Did I make my kids take music lessons? You know I did. But my husband and I agreed on three years each so they could get past the beginner books and play something we recognized. So while they strummed ukuleles, I threw out the same encouragement that got thrown my way, with a minor adjustment.
- “Great job, buddy. Keep going!”
- “Sounds good. Try it again.”
- “So close. Almost there!”
- “Remember… practice makes permanent.
Do I wish I would have continued piano so I could sit down, fly across the keys without looking, and breeze through Canon in D and Waltz of the Flowers? Naturally.
But piano wasn’t my path. I finally learned to fly across keys without looking, but mine are on a laptop and my songs come out in stories.
So instead of feeling like a failure on the piano, my dad kept the virtuoso title to himself and I moved on to other pursuits. Like avocados, for example.
Haha—you know I’m workin’ those in any chance I get.
What About You?
Are you in the midst of practicing something tricky? Working on a challenging, frustrating, or seemingly impossible endeavor? Are you subconsciously striving for perfection?
Keep practicing, friend! But let’s aim to drop the perfection part, kay? I’m working on this with my blog posts and new organizing business. (n-o-t easy for me) Where do you see it in your life?
Tell me in the comments; I respond to every one.
It occurs to me that you might have survived more happily after two years if we had provided a padded piano bench. You were too slender to sit comfortably on a hard wooden bench. But you have done so well in so many other endeavors, that we’re very proud of you.
Ha! Unfortunately, I don’t think a seat made of feathers or memory foam could have helped my boredom and hyperactivity. There were just too many fun things to do outside! As I sit here on a padded chair though, I appreciate your kind words.
Dianne Marie Andre
This reminds me of my grandmother. She played beautifully. She taught piano lessons into her 70s, to hundreds of kids including me. I wasn’t fond of practicing either. But I loved playing when no one was home. Whenever I performed well on a piece at my weekly lessons, it delighted Grandma so much that she’d giggle until I finished. Thanks for sharing, and taking me back to this special memory of my grandma.
What sweet memories you have of your grandma! I love how she giggled until you finished playing. So cute! Thanks for reading and chiming in, Dianne.
Oh my gosh, piano practice, ugh. I, though, hated reading music, but I had a good ear. So when the teacher played the piece, I’d remember, pick it out later and then memorize it. I had maybe 5 years of lessons? At my school, we had piano festivals. Talk about nerve wracking! We had to play something classical like Minuet in G from memory. I lasted maybe 3 years of festivals until I got to the grade where I had to read music impromptu. Nope. My friend and I joked at the time, “Guess what? The piano festival is OVER.” haha. I did learn some cool songs like The Entertainer, and Thy Word (Amy Grant). Totally impressed kids in youth group when I’d bust out playing “Just a Small Town Girl” from Journey. Good times. Fast forward… a few years ago my youngest wanted to learn. He maybe got through one book, and quit. God bless the teacher. She found some songs he wanted to learn from movies, which was awesome. I’m secretly glad he didn’t stick with it. He NEVER wanted to practice and we had to go to my mom’s to use my old piano. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. I think I’ll borrow practice makes permanent. I love that your songs are your stories <3 Very cool pictures… I have almost identical ones!
Piano festivals?!?! That is so funny; I’ve never heard of such a thing. Pretty jealous that you could play by ear, AND that you could play Journey songs though!
Yeah, even after 3 years each of ukulele lessons, our boys don’t play. It makes me sad because I love hearing them strum, but maybe someday they’ll pick them up again.
Yes… I’m guessing we have quite a few similar pics! Gotta love the 80s and 90s. Thanks for the fun stories, Brenda!
“Make the practice harder
So that the game becomes easier”
This is something I often say to my now teenage daughter.
I’ve left the perfection piece out of my philosophy. Absolutely love love love your writing my old friend. Loved the pictures.
Ooo… love the quote, Samuel! (Samuel? I can’t call you that.) Love the quote, Sammy! Thanks for your kind words, old amigo.
Oh, I am definitely putting this phrase in my mom aresenal!
Yes–it’s a good one!
My piano lessons were a couple years and I did manage to play the Star-Spangled Banner. I think it was two red books. I graduated to the violin and that lasted 1 lesson. While I don’t play the piano, what it did was instill in me a love of the instrument (which is permanent). When I got married, my wife got me started doing needlework (1st crewel and now counted cross-stitch) which I have been doing for over 40 years.
Another permanence from practice. On another note–I LOVE your line “my songs come out in stories.” Beautiful!
Cool stories, Gil. So jealous that you got up to the Star-Spangled Banner! I know for a fact that you love the piano, and I did remember that you are a super sticher! Thanks for reading, and for your encouragement.
Great insights as usual. Reminds me of Atomic Habits by James Cleary.
Thanks, Terry. I’ve never heard of Atomic Habits, but I’m guessing we could all benefit from them. 🙂
“Perfect practice makes perfect” is what I was told. I don’t even know which teacher told me that, but I remember thinking, “Then I will never be perfect!” The most mortifying experience I ever had was when I was in grade school. The orchestra teacher was looking for a pianist. I did not volunteer, but when I was summoned to the orchestra class, made to sit at the piano and told to “tune the violins”, I sat dumbfounded. Apparently a “friend” had volunteered me. The teacher looked over her glasses and down her nose at me and repeated her command. I said I did not know how and that I had only been taking lessons for less than a year. Under her intense gaze, my body heat increased until I disintegrated on the spot. I went back to regular class and don’t remember how long I continued taking piano lessons or if I did. When I was in college, as a music minor, I had to take a piano class. I apparently had learned enough in my childhood that I was put in an intermediate class. I learned more in that one semester than I ever thought possible! But even today, I only play for me and God; I don’t usually play if Jim is home. I can get through a hymn with 10 or fewer mistakes. 🙂
Thanks for sharing your stories, Sherry. I’m sorry that teacher fed you such a line of perfection. I’m sorry you got put on the spot. I would have felt humiliated and probably never returned to music. Glad you did so you have a great outlet for worship. I bet Jim would like it if you played the piano in his presence though!
Such a grrrreeeeeeaaaattt reminder! Practice makes permanent!…Permission to pass that on my Friend??!! Thank you for putting in to practice words in writing…they are such a blessing to those who read them!!
Thanks, friend. You never need permission to pass on my blog posts. Share away! 🙂 Thanks for your kind words; I appreciate you!
I took piano lessons as a child, too. I would go a couple of years, then decide I wanted to stop, only to start up again a couple of years later. I loved being able to play, but I didn’t enjoy practicing that much. No one else was doing it among my family or friends, and I’m the oldest kid, so I already had the most homework and responsibilities. Still, I kept being drawn back in. I was also the only person in my family who knew a thing about music! In college, I majored in Music Composition – all the music learning, none of the practice. Then I realized I wanted to be a teacher. I have been one for 36 years. ????????♀️
What a cool path you took, Beth! Interesting how you kept being drawn back to music. And how awesome that you’ve been teaching the younger generations. Music is so important! Thanks for sharing your story.
Permanent. Going to use it. Great insight! Love seeing the photos; looking just the way I remember. Thanks for sharing!
Oh, and avocados are yucky!
Cool! Oh gosh… those photos. Haha!
Okay, wait. Did you say yucky and avocados in the same sentence?
I’m going to change that saying in our household. Starting today. 🙂 No more practice makes perfect, because there is no perfect. I think growth or achievement is like a ship turning rather than making a fast turn with a car. Practice moves the coordinates on a map. A ship can change course one coordinate at a time and steer toward the intended destination.
Love your analogy, HC! I hadn’t thought of it like that. Yes, slow, steady progress might not feel like much is happening at first, but six months or a year down the road… watch out! Thanks for reading and chiming in.
Yikes! I love the piano. God gave me a natural talent and passion for that. But language learning? NOT. So. Much. Been in Thailand 5 years. I can say fluently where is the bathroom, and my favorite food is curry noodle soup, but to have a conversation about emotional things, I still feel like a big failure. And I keep practicing. Hoping it will become permanent. ????
How awesome that you play the piano, Megan! I hear ya on the language learning. We were in Mexico for 12 years and pretty much the whole time I felt like I should have been better than I was. I didn’t put a ton of effort into it while running an English-speaking ministry and raising two little ones, but still. Good job for continuing to practice though! Do you ever watch movies or TV in Thai?
Toni Talbott Young
I didn’t know this about you Carrie. As you know, my Dad (your Uncle George) was a Classical Concert Pianist. I inherited the talent, but much to my chagrin, the standard way of teaching was not to be a success for me. For one thing, I heard the music, sat down and played it (by ear) I too was given lessons, which I detested. I was also told by the very few teachers I stuck with for any amount of time, that practice makes perfect. Well meaning teachers to be sure. When I began to understand there was no “perfection”, but perhaps something more unique, I stopped being discouraged altogether. Someone told me “to find my own voice” on the piano. That was something I instinctively knew deep down, but hadn’t been able to pin the thought down until I heard it said out loud – in great wisdom and kindness. What a joy it has been to have found my voice at an early age, to have had absolutely no case of nerves or stage fright when performing for one or two, or hundreds. God has created each of us as completely unique persons. One size doesn’t fit all. What used to look like chicken scratch on a page, gradually began to make more sense, although I still play by ear to this day. I “see” the music in my head, memorize very quickly, play each piece as I feel it (from my toes to the top of my head). God is so Amazingly Good to us. ???? ♥️ ????
Thanks for your comments, Toni! Actually, I forgot Uncle George was a classical concert pianist. So cool how you got that gene; it definitely skipped me. Haha. And how impressive that you play by ear! My sister has some of that ability, but not I. Have you ever heard of Cody Lee?