The Art Of Practice
If you’ve ever lived in New York, you might have found yourself looking forward to someone asking you how to get to Carnegie Hall just so you can respond with the age-old punchline, “Practice!”
Funny because it’s true.
In a world of fast food, fast cars, instant coffee, and instant messaging, we’ve grown impatient. We want it all and we want it now, especially that end result, without experiencing all the practice opportunities in-between. I know I have.
When I was in grade school, my friend Britney (not her real name), played the piano. She could read music and play all the popular songs I’d heard on the radio. I remember how effortlessly her fingers hit the keys while she played. She made it look easy. I thought she was so cool.
“I can do that,” I thought. I dreamt of playing the piano like a rockstar in front of friends and family. Yeah, I wanted to be cool.
After several years of hounding my parents, I was rewarded with a piano and lessons from Britney’s piano teacher, Ms. Sparkle (not her real name). Then I promptly learned about the myth of overnight success.
Ms. Sparkle started teaching me how to read music and play scales. SCALES?! How was I supposed to show off with a scale? I mean, C’mon! What about teaching me Journey’s Lights? Ms. Sparkle assured me there would be no songs until I mastered some of the scales. Begrudgingly, I found myself in that in-between space littered with opportunities for practice.
I strategically planned my practices for right after dinner while my dad read the evening paper and my mom washed the dishes. Usually, I helped with dishes, but practicing scales seemed like the lesser of two evils. And scales were NOT easy. Some of them had sharps and flats and my fingers just didn’t move that way. I practiced religiously. Maybe too religiously, as the practicing paid off in the form of a church hymn.
I wasn’t familiar enough with hymns to know if I was even playing it correctly, but I continued to practice.
Next thing I knew, (thanks to my mom’s side convo with the teacher to change up the music selection) I was playing Leonard Cohen’s You’re a Grand Old Flag. Again it wasn’t Lights by Journey, but it was the Leonard Cohen and very catchy and way more upbeat than the hymns I’d been playing.
After a year or so Ms. Sparkle added me to the lineup in her annual student recital. I remember being called to the stage, sitting down at the piano, and beginning to play. Boy, did I play! I could not remember the end of the song. I played it over and over for what seemed like forever until I was able to recall the final notes and bring my concerto to a close.
I may have forgotten the end of the song (and the title), but with my first recital under my belt, I felt encouraged! I also believed I could do better if I learned a song I was familiar with.
Apparently, my family thought so, too. My mom had another word with my teacher and she agreed to let me play more current music. My older brothers were excited to hear this and gifted me with new sheet music at Christmas.
“I’d like to learn this” my 11-year-old self said as I handed Mrs. Sparkle the sheet music for Carry on Wayward Son by Kansas and my brother’s used copy of rock-n-roll songbook meant for guitar players.
Each note, scale, and song required practice. As a young piano player, I spent 100% of my piano playing time just practicing. It made me better which made me (and everyone within earshot) very happy.
Over time, I came to realize that Britney had spent years learning and practicing the piano long before I had even heard her play. Because I hadn’t seen all the time and effort Britney had spent practicing, I just assumed it’d be easy for me to do, too. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Practice is what actors, musicians, comedians, and writers do. Practice is what mechanics, plumbers, and carpenters do. Practice is what lawyers and doctors do. Practice is how we all get better — with everything!
As a coach I help people practice challenging conversations like asking for a raise, quitting a job, sales pitches, networking conversations, dating icebreakers, and marriage proposals. I also support and witness my clients learning and practicing new technology, fitness and health programs, relationship behaviors, and job skills. No matter what our big dream is, there are always new skills we’ll need to master and mastery requires practice.
AND…When someone shares their success on Facebook or Instagram, whether it’s receiving a promotion, booking an acting gig, or having a baby, the odds are good that the journey to achieve it was loaded with practice.
I’m not in New York anymore, but I can count on my clients to ask for direction. The answer is almost always “Practice.”