Sharpen your tools every day
My folks used to make me practice piano everyday. Three songs, six times each (and eventually ten) during regular season. Then, when I was rounding exam season, I’d practice each song five times perfectly. If I played even one wrong note incorrectly, or I messed up the tempo of it, I’d have to start all over. It was really frustrating, especially as I got to more advanced songs.
Every time I protested, my parents would chide me, “You’ll appreciate this when you grow up.” (i.e., “It builds character.”)
I hated it. But in the back of my mind, they convinced me — why else would I spend half an hour each day playing?
I remember them telling me those lessons cost $25/half hour. I don’t think they knew this, but I was determined not to let that money go to waste. Even as a kid, I loved money (errr, put nicely, I knew the value of it). But also remember, as a kid, 30 minutes would feel like 3 hours. Especially because I needed to concentrate and be there in person, I couldn’t just zone out and let the time pass.
Where most pianists have boatloads of talent I had maybe two drops of talent in me, and it took years of playing to even get to that. I feel bad for my teachers. I also feel bad for my folks in hindsight, because they had to listen to it. And I hated almost every moment of it.
Each day when I woke up, I would immediately think about the 30 minutes of piano I needed to endure before truly being able to enjoy my day. Some days I’d sneak out of it, but most days my parents would get on my case. I wasn’t really ever left home alone so I couldn’t lie about it, even if I wanted to.
One thing I could really appreciate about this rigour though, in hindsight, was that it instilled the concept of daily practice in me. Don’t get it twisted, I don’t appreciate learning piano itself. As my cousin ungraciously pointed out after one of my piano lessons, I could have easily developed this rigour while mastering a way more useful skill.
But since quitting piano, I’ve had no illusions about how hard I was working. Even if people thought I turned my work ethic up too much, I never thought it came close to the bar that daily piano practice had set.
My practice paid off, and I would ace my piano exams. That sounds easy enough, but I really wasn’t particularly good to start with. My teachers and folks got so gased after my exams they’d enter me into talent shows, but I wouldn’t even come close to winning. It was funny. There was no way in hell I was going to win one of those, but even knowing that, just throwing my hat in the ring got everyone’s hopes up.
One of my best friends told me years later that he never practiced (*gasp*). He would lie to his folks when they got back, saying he did it while they were out. And, funny enough, his teacher eventually started wondering how he managed to get worse with each week. He couldn’t even stay afloat. I laughed my ass off when he told me that part.
I don’t think I’ve gotten to that level of practice for anything in recent history. I remember one summer in college I tried learning to code by building a website, and I didn’t come close to making that shit happen. I would get home after dinner, drink an espresso, open up a w3c window, and then go on Facebook until I got bored and watched TV. I never took that shit seriously enough.
With piano, I improved painfully and slowly. I hated damn near every minute of it. But I still improved. My folks and my teachers forced me. Note by note, measure by measure, song by song, I would be able to play it by memory and near perfection. It was the daily practice that got me going. If I ever got away with avoiding piano for a couple of days, I would feel it when I got back to practice.
This is inherently true in everything:
Rust builds quickly. You have to practice every day to stay your best.
The most obvious example of this takes place if you go to the gym consistently. Then you get sick for two weeks. Once you hit the gym again, you’ve lost a huge portion of your gains. It’s fucking brutal. Your muscles feel stiffer the next morning, even though you lifted maybe 60-80% of what you usually do.
But you’ll see it everywhere. If you don’t play video games for a couple of weeks it takes a while to break back in. If you haven’t shot a basketball in weeks you’re probably gonna throw some airs.
I remember watching a J. Cole doc on HBO, where he laughs at how he just spent 40 minutes making a beat that he probably wasn’t going to do anything with. But then, he gets serious, and explains that it’s because he needs to stay sharp so that when the inspiration strikes, he’s rehearsed enough to actually express it properly.
I love that observation, and I’ve found it to be so true. These days I read, I freewrite as much as I can, and I write some focused stuff as well with the content canvas. All in all, I try to do write about 2,500 words per day.
It’s funny that half the battle with improving with time, is actually just not getting worse. If you’re a lead a team, you know that you’re not nearly half as good as you used to be with your discipline of choice (e.g., you used to be a great engineer, now you can barely remember fundamentals but you run an engineering team or you close engineering sales deals). Of course, you’ve spent the time mastering another skillset — so it makes sense. But my point still stands, which is because you didn’t practice the original skillset, you got worse chronically. Little by little, day by day.
Fortunately, rust can also be very easy to clear off. If it’s years of rust, then it’ll be a bit harder and at first it’ll seem damn near impossible. But you just have to move, no matter how unready or idiotic you feel. Move to clear the rust and practice through the pain. Throw numbers at it and you’ll naturally get better.
I’m writing a lot more every day now, but I’m still not sure whether this post will get more page views or not.
Doesn’t really matter though.
I’m pleased with it, which is more than I can say for some of my other posts (won’t tell you which ones). And in the end, that’s what matters most to me — to create something that’s better than what I made before. I have no delusions about it, I’m still very far away from my own expectations of myself. But I’m finally taking a step forward each week, rather than just trying to hang on.
Oh, and as for piano, the only thing I got out of it is probably my ability to type really really really fast. (I kill at All the Right Type!)
If you’re interested, check out another one of my favorite essays that I wrote.