Practice Makes Perfect?

The melodies produced by the keys of any baby grand can be quite beautiful indeed. But since my youngest years, the mere sites of metronomes and piano benches have always caused unbearable amounts of inner angst to rise quickly inside of me. Don’t get me wrong, I love the piano. I enjoy all music in general, but for some odd reason, I’ve just never really enjoyed playing any musical instruments (I never had the swift and steady hands for it either).

d159a3aeaf8f2e09f82fb9ce7279ba25This was a huge disappointment for my dear mother– a classical music enthusiast– who had, since my inception, hoped to foster in her child the same passion she had for the piano (and the cello). Hence, most of my evenings consisted not only of finishing up homework but a couple of hours daily on both the piano and the cello as well.

Weekends were as similarly structured as school days. Saturday mornings were scheduled with private piano lessons at USC’s Colburn School of Music, followed then by an hour and a half of cello instruction at a young artists’ conservatory based in Orange County (take good note of the driving distance between Downtown LA and the OC. Let’s just say my Saturday mornings never began with pajama bottoms, pancakes, or silly cartoons). After almost two hours of putting bow to string, I then shuffled quickly to the nearby ice rink for figure skating practice. This, however, was an activity I wholeheartedly enjoyed (and was surprisingly good at). It was, according to Mama Chan, a well-earned reward for persisting so diligently with my instrumental music.

I’m telling you this awfully long (and boring) childhood tale in light of a recent article by The New York Times. My eight year-old self practically screamed “I told you so!” after reading it. Does practice actually make perfect? Does it truly make a difference in the development of elite performance, especially in the performing arts? Well in 1993, a landmark study led by K. Anders Ericson found that “practice time explained almost all the difference (about 80 percent) between elite performers and committed amateurs.” More recent research, however, has proved this to be wrong.

A new paper concludes that while practice is important in contributing to accumulated expertise, it is not as “important as has been argued.” It’s also not as important, according to Frederick Oswald (one of the co-authors of the paper), as inborn gifts and innate talent. Scott Barry Kaufman, the scientific director of the Imagination Institute, which funds research in creativity, adds that though practice time is critical, personality and desire are enormous variables as well. “Things like grit, motivation, and inspiration — that ability to imagine achieving this high level, to fantasize about it,” says Kaufman.

559f683b33fd8b08ec86642f26fac76aWell said, Dr. Kaufman, well said… You’ve got to want it, you’ve got to love it.

Yes, talent is important. Practice is important. But passion is key. The NYT article concludes by saying that in the end, “the most important factor over which people have control — whether juggling, jogging or memorizing a script — may be not how much they practice, but how effectively they use that time.” To properly excel in any creative endeavor, to manifest one’s full artistic potential, one must carry a deep desire to do so. It’s the desire (as well as that ‘inborn gift’) that keeps a pouty child (like myself) from dreading the sight of loose sheet music or the awful smell of rosin in the mornings. It is passion that keeps one from getting bored and irritated with all that practice. It’s also probably why about twenty or so years later, my greatest level of music-playing ability still sits somewhere at ‘proficient.’

Unlike acting, singing, skating, or some of the other performing arts, I just never loved ‘playing’ enough. So does practice make perfect? Are you good at doing something because you love it? Or, do you love something because you are good at it? It’s a chicken and egg question– but it really is something very interesting to think about.

-PC

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