On practice (and perfect)

Six months ago, I had my first piano lesson. That’s the easiest way to put it.

The much truer, and, as always with that, more complicated version of the one sentence above is: I’ve been wanting to play the piano for a very long time: at first, mostly because I found the instrument beautiful, in the same way that I still think the cello is beautiful. My best friend as a kid was learning the piano, and I still remember this one afternoon in her parents’ living room, standing behind her on cork flooring, looking over her right should as she played Für Elise. I didn’t listen to much piano music back then; whenever I did, it was on the old radio in the bathroom with the tinny sound, on the station for classical music, and I found the sound of piano music strangely cold. And yet, I was fascinated by it, but it was far outside of my reach. Fast-forward many years, to the 2000s, the rise of digital pianos, and my first job after my apprenticeship. My first piano lesson was in 2009. After this first lesson, I left the country (no causation), but I accidentally kept the piano teacher’s book and lost his phone number (in case you’re reading this: I’m sorry). A while after, I moved again, and became part of a band that had a great piano player, who played so well that it seemed like I could never get to this level. In 2015, I picked up piano lessons again, with a great teacher. After three lessons, I quit my job and couldn’t afford the lessons anymore. In 2016, while standing on a terrace late one night, my band mate (the piano player) and I confessed to each other that we needed to break up the band. In the summer of 2018, I made a digital floor plan of my apartment, moved some furniture around in it, and accidentally dropped a piano on my living room floor plan (I still disagree with the categorisation of a piano as furniture). At the same time, I was working later, and had more time in my mornings that I was looking to fill with things that brought me joy. Before I met my teacher and his piano for the first time, I told him the story above, and he responded: “Well, let’s see what we can do for you to stick with it this time.” And then he told me, “I don’t teach people to become concert pianists.” This is why—

Six months ago, I had my first piano lesson.

Now I have a piano sitting in my living room. It’s a digital piano, with pretty wooden keys and a headphone port, which is one of its most important features for me (and my neighbours). It’s big— as it turns out, that’s what happens when you design an instrument with 88 keys which need to be wide enough that you can hit each of them with an adult-size finger. The room it sits in is not big. In this room with furniture in light colours, it sits there, all black, with a black chair half under it. Nothing one would overlook. I pass it multiple times every day. There are many days when I pass it without sitting down and playing, even once, even briefly. On some of these days, as I walk past it, I think it’s staring at me. With judgement.

Whenever I do sit down and play, I keep thinking practice makes perfect. It’s one of the first English phrases I learned, I don’t even know how I picked it up. We have a similar expression in German, Übung macht den Meisterpractice makes the master (though unnecessarily male-gendered in German). Eventually, lots of practice will make perfect. Lots and lots and lots of practice; that’s the hope, that’s the dream.—And then I sit there, again chewing on this one piece that I’ve already been working on for three months, and it’s still not perfect. Far from it, even. On some days, it even feels like it just gets worse over time. Not enough practice, not even getting close to perfect.

The spirit of practice makes perfect is that, to improve a skill, one must practice—but this also makes the idea behind the phrase quite different from the literal meaning. Perfect is, even as a decidedly aspirational goal, so far out of reach for me. Perfect: as good as it is possible to be, entirely without fault or defect. Wich translates to: humanely impossible. If this was a landscape, perfect wouldn’t even be on my horizon; perfect would be long gone, far gone, behind the horizon, on a tiny pony, riding off into the sunset, with only a dust cloud left behind.

It took me the last months to understand that none of what I’m doing is about perfect. What it is about instead is:

Learning about muscle memory, and how to trust my instincts, my senses, of where to hit which key at what point in time. Reading notes in the base clef like they’re a foreign language; trying to stop translating each and every one of them in my head. It’s about learning how to name chords again, and how to make good guesses (and how to cheat). It’s about grasping that thirty percent of the way to playing well, is knowing which keys not to hit.

This is about learning that some musical styles are very difficult for me to even practice; admitting that I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around them; and taking, embracing them, as learning opportunities. It’s about being humble, and knowing that I can only learn when I understand, admit, and ask about what I don’t know.

It’s about being gentle with myself, and keeping my wish to be good at what I do in check. Often, this means walking past the piano in the morning, awake and ready to work, and once more at night, tired, after a long and good work day, the only keys I touched being those of my keyboard; accepting that that’s where my life is at. It’s about writing down fingering for an entire piece one night, and realising the next morning that I mixed the finger numbers up. Again.

It’s about reminding myself that I always go too fast, and learning to pace myself, even though it’s hard. It’s about sitting down and playing this same piece again that I’ve been working on for months; and about the same three bars in Chilly Gonzales’ version of Shake it off, which I keep stumbling across like pebbles in the street. It’s about taking 37 attempts to play saman by Ólafur Arnalds and make a video recording of it on my phone, one that I’m sufficiently okay with that I share it on Instagram. It’s about 28 attempts at recording a beginner’s version of Ludovico Einaudi’s Primavera, and it’s about this point halfway through the piece where moves through a Crescendo and it gets really intense and loud and I get really excited and emotional and the piano vibrates and it’s about the eight attempts during which the phone crashes onto the floor; always at the exact same bar.

It’s also about the times when my teacher and I decide to start the lesson late and instead sit together outside the small cafe in the sun with black tea and coffee and we don’t talk about music, but about the latest neighbourhood gossip.

It’s also about learning that, when I’m working with this instrument that’s much heavier than I am, the way I conduct myself in relation to it matters: how I arrange the chair and sit on it; whether I pull up or lower my shoulders, how I use my arms and hands. Learning how to play this one bar without feeling like my hand is falling apart; and that the feeling of my hands falling apart will only very slowly fade. All of this is also about, five months in, realising that, all of a sudden, my hand span has increased from 10 to 11 white keys. This is also about breathing: learning that I tend to hold my breath when I’m very focused; and that holding my breath makes my body tense; and that this body tension gives me pain. It’s about learning to relax while focusing.

Now, every time I sit down again, and I still think, practice makes perfect. But then I think of all the above – and I remember what my teacher said about not training concert pianists.

It’s not about practice makes perfect. It’s about sitting down and putting in the time, and none of this is about perfect.

All of it is about practice.