Practice makes permanent, not perfect


I used to play the violin. More importantly, I used to hate the violin. Practising the same thing over and over and over can be wildly boring, especially if you suck.  

As most ex-violinists (and their parents/friends/neighbours) know, it takes many years before you can actually squeak out something that doesn’t incite fantasies of smashing the instrument over a chair*.

*Trust me when I say that this is a VERY bad idea to follow through with. Sorry, Mum.

Throughout those painful hours, I consistently earned my teacher’s ire after “forgetting” to practice, grinding what little progress was made each week to a halt. The music I made was embarrassingly far from perfect; therefore, violin was pretty much the devil.

Only after my teacher refused to place me through the exam one year did I attempt regular practice. Turns out reverse psychology works; for the first time in my life, I desperately wanted to sit an exam. The next year, I passed with a Distinction. The end.

Just kidding. That’s not the end of the story. So many bad habits had accumulated over the years, practising became a double-edged sword. I was so sure that my music would sound better with more time spent on it. Practice makes perfect, right?

Wrong. My music sounded far better, but my technique was sloppy and slowing me down. I chose pieces of music that met exam guidelines whilst requiring minimal technical work as a coping mechanism. Of course, that eventually stopped working. There’s only so much fluff you can use to meet a goal before everything crumbles around you.

practice makes permanent, not perfect

Practice will turn anything you do into a habit, good or bad. It’s true.

Constant repetition will not create a flawless performance; it will create a rut for your incorrect training to sink deeper into. This is not to say you should avoid practice, but that the most basic techniques must be learned thoroughly before anything else. Speaking from experience, you’ll find unlearning bad habits very hard. Get it right the first time.

When beginning to practise something, drill it. It’s a common mistake to look straight into the future. Whilst having foresight is great, it won’t eventuate in the way you imagine unless you’ve got everything sorted out. I’m not suggesting you worry over every small detail instead of looking at the big picture. You’re absolutely allowed to shoot for the stars but it’s so necessary that those small details are worked out before you even begin.

Go back to the absolute basics. Violin? The G Major scale is your new best friend. Chemistry? Welcome to the most obnoxious periodic table song ever. Sport? Bounce the ball off your racket/knee/foot a hundred times over. Focus on getting one simple move right, every time.

There is no point in progressing without getting those basic techniques absolutely concrete. If you think you could do it in your sleep, change the environment. Do it backwards. Close your eyes. Try it in as many unpredictable scenarios as you can.

Why? It’s all about building strong foundations so that one mistake won’t have you falling into the gaps you failed to fill with knowledge. You’re forming the ability to work effortlessly. You’re practising correctly to make permanent.

To avoid solidifying bad habits, think of Mr Miyagi - wax on, wax off.

To avoid solidifying bad habits, think of Mr Miyagi - wax on, wax off.

Only after getting the basics down from the ground up should you move on. Any time you find yourself tripping up on something, dissect it. Find the technique at the core of it. Find the gap where your skills and knowledge are lacking.

It should never just be about the piece you’re playing or the work you’re doing. It should always be about having the technique to play any note, in any order, at any speed/volume/style. At its core, practising is for adapting your abilities to anything you need. Don’t just learn to play one piece of music; learn the ability to play every piece of music.