Kaye’s Corner: Practice makes perfect

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Kaye Sullivan

MEEKER | Many people seem to think a genetic or God-given talent is behind a person’s capabilities. For myself, being able to play the piano has little to do with these well intended but incorrect perceptions.

When people comment, “I wish I could play like you,” I think, well, you can if you’re willing to take lessons and practice faithfully. My childhood included weekly piano lessons, assignments, and 30 minutes of practice every day. My mom set a timer! Twelve years of lessons and daily practice in my childhood are the backbone of my skills.

Now that I’m a part time pianist at the Methodist Church, I’m finding I must re-instill the discipline of daily practice. I have forgotten so much. The more I practice, the more my fingers respond and the more comfortable I become. Same song over and over — practice is repetition.

Competence requires mistakes, correction, adjustment, and unrelenting commitment to high standards, whether set by oneself, the public, teachers, or whomever. Even with tons of practice, we probably won’t be perfect, but we can strive for our personal best.

Did you know that Winston Churchill, who delivered extremely powerful speeches, sat up late into the night, correcting, adjusting, rehearsing every phrase? His outstanding oratory skills weren’t a result of genes but unrelenting attention to detail and preparation.

My opinion is that instead of genetics, our abilities are shaped by our environment. I grew up in an era and family where girls were expected to learn to play the piano. My mother and grandmother could play quite well so I was influenced by their examples. As well, my household included a piano and the means to pay for my lessons.

My three siblings had the same background and influences but none of them took up the piano. If abilities are genetic driven, why didn’t all four of us become pianists and why didn’t I master playing tennis as they all did?

Example, influence, accessibility, encouragement, education all contribute to our talents. Competency is not somehow magically bestowed, on any of us.

Practice is also about improving. Sometimes, one small part of a song is difficult and needs to be repeated over and over until it becomes muscle memory or at least provides confidence to endure through a tough part. Practice is not so fun to listen to because it is filled with lots of repetition and mistakes.

Sometimes we grow weary, bored, or frustrated with practice. It is easy to give up, skip, or not truly work up to our capacity. Sure, I can play easy or familiar piano pieces, but the hard ones take concentration and attention to detail.

The payoff may be familiarity or what some call muscle memory. As a youth, I was determined to learn to play “Nocturne in E Flat” a complicated piece. My parents had a record of this, so I would turn it on then race to the piano to play the piano at the same time.

Eventually, I learned the difficult runs and how to play it correctly. Now some 50 years later, my fingers still remember how to play that song! (well at my current capability)

A friend of mine who also plays piano talked with me about performance anxiety. Performing in front of people is different than playing at home where no one hears my mistakes except my patient husband.

She said, if performance is 85% of practice, that is a great accomplishment. Hum! It is an interesting standard. If I perform at the live church service 85% of what I practiced, am I ok with that? I’m still pondering that.

Then there’s the advice of our sons’ taekwondo instructor who lectured that “perfect practice makes perfect performance.” I think this advice means practice as you intend to perform. For example, if I intend to play a hymn at a certain pace, I should practice it at that pace.

Scott Hamilton, the Olympian gold medalist ice skater wrote in his memoirs that if he fell during practice, he was expected to pop up and keep going just as he would need to do during a real performance. The clock is still ticking and you can’t just go to the sidelines to have a good cry if you make a mistake. Practice even includes learning to recover from mistakes.

Whatever your interests — an athlete, a writer, a speaker, horseback rider, target shooter, or other, I remind you that consistent practice will pay off. You will improve and be proud of your accomplishments.

By KAYE SULLIVAN – Special to the Herald Times