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When Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect

When Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect

Lesson #1

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?

Frizzy perm. Because… the 80s.

Lesson #2

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.

Don’t let the smile fool ya–I was mostly miserable.

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. 

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