Monday, June 30, 2014

Practice may not make perfect ...

From Saturday's Briefing:

Mistakes are necessary.
When we are rational, we know this. When we are reflecting on a journey, we can clearly identify the errors that became teachable moments, that propelled us a little farther.
In the moment, though, we’re less likely to embrace the imperfections.
After Katie’s first-ever gymnastics lesson, many years ago, she sobbed, distraught over her inability to perform a cartwheel.
That’s when I realized that I hadn’t prepared my tiny daughter for growth.
She didn’t yet understand that some tasks, indeed most tasks, require instruction followed by practice. Over and over. And even then, perfection may be elusive.
She did not want to practice with the hope of eventually becoming good at cartwheels. She wanted to be excellent at cartwheels right now.
She’s getting better. Not at cartwheels — she stopped practicing that particular skill long ago. But she’s getting better at maintaining control and moving forward when expectations aren’t met immediately.
For her birthday last week, she received Spirograph, the plastic gears drawing set. (It’s remarkably similar to my 1970s version, except putty replaced the thumbtacks, and felt-tip markers replaced the ballpoint pens.)
Katie expected to bust open the box and begin creating perfect spirals in multiple colors, just as advertised.
But as any Spirograph veteran will tell you, those spirals don’t come easy.
After you ensure that the outer gear is stationary, you have to figure out how to move the inner gear with precision at the exact right speed.
Katie experimented Saturday afternoon, changing speed, adjusting hand positions, altering pen pressure, changing pens. She’d get close to a perfect spiral on paper, then her clenched hand would slip. Then she would start over.
Sheets of paper were flying. She exhausted the entire supply in the box.
She was frustrated, yes, but there were no tears — only determination to get it right.
Finally, she presented me a colorful circular badge. The ideal Spirograph spiral, representing dozens of less-than-perfect incarnations.
And then she tried the football-shaped gear. The whole process began again.
A similar scene unfolds daily in our house, during the 20 minutes Katie practices violin.
She’s played for a year and a half, and it’s remarkable how much she’s improved since those super squeaky days, days when I was certain she’d chosen the wrong instrument. Yet we are far, far away from musical transcendence.
At her lesson this week, Katie played a piece that she thought she’d memorized.
Indeed, she had memorized the notes. But the rhythm was off — especially obvious when accompanied on piano.
I sat two rooms away, reading a little and listening a little as Katie’s instructor would stop, point out the timing error and ask Katie to try again. And again. So many times.
Neither Katie nor Tammy was willing to give up. Despite clear directions from Tammy, despite genuine grit from Katie, despite a deep well of patience from both sides, Katie never quite combined the accurate notes with the accurate rhythm.
Not yet.
Neither teacher nor student will be satisfied until the piece has been conquered. And when that mountain has been scaled, there will be an even taller, rockier climb next, an ascension littered with missteps — some of them squeaky — that eventually lead to the top.
No one is born a fully developed athlete or engineer or musician. Indeed, we’re all practicing at whatever matters to us — parenting or marriage, tennis or cycling, cooking or painting.
When we revel in the mess and celebrate what we’ve learned, we’re bound to enjoy the journey — and we’re more likely to complete it.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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