Practice Makes Progress: the Art of Doing Things Imperfectly

Originally published Friday, 07 June 2013.


After-school afternoons in Mechanicsville were always a faint orange. Like someone, possibly God (quite obviously God), was fiddling with a dimmer in the sky. Those were the days, right after school, that my heart would beat in time with the tick, tick, ticks of my piano teacher's metronome.

We'd sit in a small office space on the second floor of her family's home. She lived in a house at the top of a very sharp and steep V-shaped gravel driveway. My mom would drive us down and up the incline of her driveway very carefully in our red minivan. 

My brother was barely a year old at the time, still in a car seat. His head would roll from side-to-side and my sister and I would make overprotective efforts to hold his head very still. Both of us shouting and crying at her to SLOW DOWN, MOMMY!!! Because she was SHAKING SCOTTY'S BRAIN!

Mom would just laugh, and I thought she was very, very mean for two reasons. One, for rolling down the driveway in such a haphazard manner as to shake her baby boy's brain (and laughing about it when my sister and I would correct her, nonetheless! The monster!) and two, for making me go to piano lessons altogether.

How was I supposed to know that you can't shake a toddler's brain while rolling carefully down a steep driveway? 

How was I supposed to know that those faint orange after-school afternoons spent sitting in front of the piano keys with my little colorful paperback Alfred scale books would become a very large part of who I am?

How was I supposed to know that my piano teacher would be one of the most meaningful mentors of my life?

She always had a Yankee candle burning. And my mom, brother and sister would sit in her living room and wait for the half hour lesson to be over while I sat beside her, making unfamiliar strokes on the black and white keys.

Week after week, I'd be assigned one song to play for my teacher. And every day of the week my mom would set an egg timer for exactly one hour---the amount of time I was expected to practice each day.

But I would goof off, or make my own music each day. Or pull out a book of Broadway show tunes to play instead of what I was actually assigned by my teacher.

Then the day of my lessons would arrive, my little over-achiever heart was full of complete dread. I had failed to practice what I was supposed to, and I knew that hour of lessons would be full of me attempting to play a song I had virtually never played and pass it off as though I had been practicing all week.

But my teacher--my mentor, my older sister--knew my game.

She'd set the tempo of the metronome at an expert-level pace, and before I could even figure out how many sharps or flats I was in the market for in that particular song, she'd be counting me off. 

Each pluck of my fingers, each tap on the key was jagged and unfamiliar. It was rough. My playing was all stop. start. go. flub. blunder. and start again.

And then finally after about 90 seconds of this humorless embarrassment, my teacher would just instruct me to stop all together. 

"Brett, you need to practice these songs," she said one day as she adjusted the metronome to a slower tempo. "After all, practice makes progress." 

"But, I thought that practice makes perfect," I replied.

"You're not going to be perfect," she said. "But if you practice, your technique, and how well you play these songs will progress."

And she was totally right.

Now that I'm older, my afternoons are filled with lessons of other sorts. Mostly stressful things. Things like writing, working, paying bills, maintaining long-distance friendships, maintaining the upkeep of my vehicle, dieting, cleaning my apartment, worshiping and finding time for quiet times with God. 

I do none of it perfectly. 

And I'm caught in these moments of opportunity to practice. Opportunities to do the right things. To be the sister to my girlfriends. To be on top of my finances. To write, to read, to pray, to cook, to work out. 

And I'm brought back to those moments sitting in front of the piano. 

Ah, I think. These strokes are unfamiliar. I'm not doing this quite right. 

Why can't I get this? Why can't I do these things perfectly? I'm still--years later---stop. start. go. flub. blunder and start again. 

But, practice really makes progress. And I'm learning to do things imperfectly. I'm learning the art of doing things progressively.

What are you doing imperfectly these days?
Do you feel like practicing little disciplines makes progress in your life? 
How do you practice?