Does practice makes perfect?
'Practice makes perfect'-we've all heard the cliche, and on the face of it, it seems to make perfect sense. If I practice juggling, I'll be the perfect juggler. If I practice guitar, I'll play guitar perfectly. If I practice driving, I'll drive to perfection. But just because every teacher who has ever walked the earth has passed it on to their students, does that make it true?
If, as a 17-year-old with a new license I dream of becoming a Formula One champion, should I practice by entering the Grand Prix over and over again until I win? Should I spend 10 years practicing by doing laps of the Coles carpark (obeying the 5kmp/h speed limit of course) before my Formula One debut? Should I learn to drive, enter local racing derbies, gain some racing experience, try to lure a sponsor, etc? all of these are practice in one form or another, so why is it that with only one of these plans of attack there is even the possibility of success (and I'll give you a hint-it doesn't involve Coles carparks)? The answer is, the cliche is wrong: practice doesn't make perfect, PERFECT practice makes perfect!
Before we look at what perfect practice is, lets look at why the 'Coles carpark' strategy and the 'almost-certain-death-by-Formula-One' strategy are unlikely to take me to glory. Firstly, if I spend all my practice time driving around the same carpark at 5kmp/h, I'm never going to get the skills I need to do anything except become a trolley boy. Secondly, If I practice by entering the Grand Prix over and over again, I'll be in so far over my head the whole time that I'll be too busy trying to stay alive to learn anything useful except that nappies for adults may not be such a ridiculous idea after all.
I especially chose these two scenarios because they are examples of the two most common problems I see in the practice techniques of my students (and myself-in my more honest moments). One is that practicing inside your comfort zone the whole time will get you nowhere, the other is that practicing outside your comfort zone the whole time will get you-well, nowhere.
It may sound like I've left you nowhere to practice at all, but there is a magical and mystical place on the edge of the Comfort-Zone-Shire called Middle-PerfectPractice-Earth, and it's only there that a musician can find the true path to the success. Roughly translated from Nerdish to English, it means that to practice perfectly, you have to play at the absolute limit of what you can do without making any mistakes. If you're making mistakes every time you practice, you're practicing the mistakes as much as the good stuff, so how are they going to miraculously disappear from your playing (I hate to burst your bubble, but wizards aren't real)?
On the other hand, if you never push yourself to your limits, how are you going to ever improve at all? it's a very small world this Middle-PerfectPractice-Earth, but it holds the key. To get there you have to practice as fast, loud, clean or expressively as you can without making any mistakes. Don't relax though-if it's easy, you're going nowhere. Once this becomes comfortable, your comfort zone on your instrument has expanded out a little bit. This is good. This means it's time to go a little faster, louder, etc. Perfect practice is about standing on the edge of your comfort zone and pushing it outward, not about sitting complacently in the middle of it, or diving in far outside it and hoping it somehow follows you. But of course in the end, all this advice means nothing if you don't practice in the first place, so practice, practice PRACTICE (perfectly)!!