How does the phrase “Practice makes perfect,” make you feel? Does it make you wince? It does me.
How about the modified, “ Practice makes better?”
Personally, I can live under the second phrase. The first phrase is painful. It implies that if I follow all the rules, that if I practice enough, I will play perfectly. But it isn’t true. I am not a machine. I am not a robot.
Practice doesn’t make perfect, and it doesn’t even matter how effective my practice is.
Because on a given day:
We can be tired. (It’s tough to play well when you are tired.)
We can be hungry. (Our blood sugar has dropped, and so has our focus.)
Depending on the weather, our fingers can be cold, sweaty, or stiff.
We can feel nervous, and not perform well due to anxiety.
We may be fighting a cold, and our ears are stuffy, or our singing voices are not clear.
We are human after all.
This whole concept that musicians are resilient to playing poorly as long as they have proper preparation is a fallacy.
We must forgive ourselves for being human, for messing up, for making mistakes.
When we give grace to ourselves, then we are able to truly love and support our students. We show them that they can mess up, also. Our message becomes that we are all in a process of learning, and that we don’t expect perfection from them.
Yes, encourage excellent technique and practice habits. Mentor these good things, but allow the imperfect. We will make mistakes often.
Sadly, I have had so many students get really upset in their lessons because they can’t play something well that day. They had practiced, they thought they were ready to play it well. It is in those difficult moments that I have to be all the more vigilant in my care. I remind them that I make mistakes all the time and that it is okay. I tell them I am not a robot. I let them know that if I had to be perfect, I would have found another job a long time ago. I tell them that I make mistakes all the time.
When I let my students (and their parents) know that we can make mistakes. That it is all part of learning new skills, and that each new skill takes time, they breathe a little easier. They want to come back. They are validated in their humanity. It’s okay.
It is in our imperfections that the beauty happens. Because we feel, we play and sing expressively. That is the magic of it all.
As instructors we have to correct our students a good amount of the time. We do have to watch for bad habits that are emerging. But we must balance our reactions to mistakes with a considerable amount of reassurance, and catch them doing many more good things. Otherwise, they will want to quit. Who wants to spend your free time doing an activity that is unreasonable, unrealistic, and makes you feel miserable?
Make it fun, teacher! Smile lots! Give stickers liberally. Have funny contests. We must laugh at ourselves, and laugh together. Practice makes better.