Becoming Better at Practicing Practice

Salieri: The Parton Saint of Mediocrity
Salieri: The Patron Saint of Mediocrity

The link below came across my Facebook newsfeed via one of my favorite college writing professors: 8 Things Top Practicers Do Differently

She mused, “I wonder what connection this might have to teaching writing.”

I clicked, primarily because I try (as much as possible) to think of whatever project I’m currently writing as “only practice.”

It’s a trick I use to psych myself down. If I’m not writing THE BOOK, if I’m only practicing for someday when I’m ready to write THE BOOK, then I can’t really screw anything up.

Or can I?

This study would seem to suggest that, yes, you can screw up practicing.

And more isn’t better if you’re cementing errors into the way you approach something.

Damn it.

The article discusses the behaviors demonstrated by the “top” practicers.

While examining these, I was reminded of my years in theatre.

I was good at memorizing. I could usually learn my lines in one reading, (I was much younger then). Plays that have a rhythm or poetry to them, like Shakespeare, were particularly easy to lock down.

But I also had what I called “link lines”. These were lines that, for some reason, my brain saw as not contributing to the actual content of the speech. In other words, lines I didn’t understand.

I invariably forgot those lines when I was on-script. When I was off-script, I had to work hard to recall the link lines. For every 99 lines that poured out without effort, there would be that one tricky little line that forced me to stop and think.

It turns out, mistakes like these are a departure point between people who practice productively and people who don’t. Top practicers handle these blips differently.

“The researchers note that the most striking difference between the top three pianists and the rest, was how they handled mistakes. It’s not that the top pianists made fewer mistakes in the beginning and simply had an easier time learning the passage.

The top pianists made mistakes too, but they managed to correct their errors in such a way that helped them avoid making the same mistakes over and over, leading to a higher proportion of correct trials overall.”

In other words, they stopped and figured out what those tricky link lines actually meant, instead of rattling right past them.

Playing a new piece of music and memorizing a chunk of text, are probably pretty similar processes.

But add to it the complication of composing a whole new work from scratch (whether music or fiction), and applying the list gets complicated fast.

The article cites 8 findings among the top pianists:

1. Playing was hands-together early in practice.

2. Practice was with inflection early on; the initial conceptualization of the music was with inflection.

3. Practice was thoughtful, as evidenced by silent pauses while looking at the music, singing/humming, making notes on the page, or expressing verbal “ah-ha”s.

4. Errors were preempted by stopping in anticipation of mistakes.

5. Errors were addressed immediately when they appeared.

Of the strategies, there were three that were used by all three top pianists, but rarely utilized by the others. In fact, only two other pianists (ranked #4 and #6) used more than one:

6. The precise location and source of each error was identified accurately, rehearsed, and corrected.

7. Tempo of individual performance trials was varied systematically; logically understandable changes in tempo occurred between trials (e.g. slowed things down to get tricky sections correct).

8. Target passages were repeated until the error was corrected and the passage was stabilized, as evidenced by the error’s absence in subsequent trials.”

To some degree, the concept of “practice” is tied to the concept of “habit”. It’s based on the premise that those things we do habitually will become easier. Then, because they are easier, we can add complications to them, which we are then better able to negotiate.

So my original question remained: How could the findings from this research help me be a better writer – a better practicer of writing?

Therein lies the clickbait.

If we can identify what top practicers do, we can incorporate these habits into our own practice. We can learn from the greats to become great. We want easy answers. Discrete, performable steps.

But the list above is not a list of tricks. This list is symptomatic of a different kind of overall approach to practice: 1. Complete engagement and 2. Setting aside the ego or self. In other words, these pianists approached the process as learning, not practice.

Those who were top practicers exhibit signs of focusing on understanding what the music is doing ( #1, #3, #4, #5 and #6) and how it is doing it (#2, #7, and #8).

For top performers, practice is learning. Not mechanics. Not memorization. Not repetition. Not time invest. Learning.

They weren’t afraid to admit that they didn’t understand a line. They didn’t rattle right past it. Instead, they learned what it was and why it was there.

In creative fields, as in learning, questioning requires you to surrender your ego, to risk appearing stupid, to raise your hand and ask the dumb question no one else will ask.

Ironically, in creative fields, surrendering ego requires a tremendous amount of self-awareness. You have to know what is tripping you up – the places where the piece is flowing against you instead of through you – in order to remove them.

You have to be able to tell when you’re getting in your own way.

In the Oscar-harvesting 1984 movie Amadeus, we’re given a contrast between greatness and mediocrity. What the audience sees that Salieri does not, is that Mozart is great because he does not stand in the way of his music.

Salieri writes to achieve his own greatness. His music is practice: a means to an end. He constantly appraises his self-worth based on how his music is perceived. He listens to his ego.

But Mozart listens only to the music. Mozart’s commitment isn’t to his ego, his wife, his audience, his patrons, or his family. He writes the music as it wishes to be written. He is a student of his music. He learns from it. His arrogance stems from his knowledge, not that HE is great, but that his music is great.

To me, this is the mark of genius: a commitment to the work for its own sake, coupled with the ability to recognize when your pride or arrogance or incompetence is interfering, then searching for ways to remove yourself and let the work flow.

It’s like the cool conundrum: Cool people are people who don’t worry about whether or not they’re cool.

We all have moments of greatness. For most of us, they are few and far between. We practice for them. They are the end we’re trying to achieve. THE BOOK we will someday write.

But for the truly great among us, there is no difference between practice and learning, because learning is an end in itself.

So my new goal is not to practice my craft. My goal is not to go through the motions of setting down another chapter or completing another revision.

My new goal is to surrender my ego and deeply engage, to understand why something I’ve done is not working. To listen to what the work wants to become.

My new goal is to learn.


Becoming Better at Practicing Practice

First Tooth

Mother and Child by Mary Cassatt

First Tooth*


A poem shimmering forward

like the mirage of human form

awakens me from tattered sleep.


Before I’ve reached my pen,

she’s awake again and wailing.


The shard of bone gnawing

through her gum claws

closer to the surface, aching

to erupt. We rise, unrested.


When I lift her, she tries

to scale me like a mountain.


I make coffee while she

worries her toothlessness

like a splinter or a pebble in a shoe.


We maroon ourselves

on the living-room floor,

on an island of brief sunlight.

We won’t leave the house today.


Through steam-stained windows,

the naked trees are vague.

The sidewalks are phlegmy with ice.


Winter grinds its fist into the city.


Naptime – she refuses to sleep unheld.

My shoulders ache from stillness.

I search for the image that woke me.

I struggle to dredge the seed from memory,

urge it to burst its smooth skin,

to declare itself.


Her cheek against my breast is

firm and cool like rising bread.


She wakes again,

and wails her yearning for teeth.


I ease her down so I can

stretch the knots from my shoulders.


Light gathers in the tears on her lashes.

With a orphaned look,

she reaches for me, both arms up.


Her hands panic

like dizzy, breathless butterflies.


This is new, this reaching.





*Originally published in MotherVerse Magazine

First Tooth


Another old poem to appease the blog gods. I’m deep into the tenth revision on the novel, so old poetry shall have to sate. Thanks much to Suzi Ramsey Towsley for use of the smashing pic!


Courtesy SRT Images: All rights reserved.
“True” Courtesy SRT Images:
All rights reserved.




born of sky so sharp it cuts itself

and bleeds pink-green light

on coasts of frosted shoal

on labyrinths of ice and stone

they emerge from fog


air hisses across their skin

keeping breath with the oars

muscles tighten   reach

creak of leather   wood

the ocean’s bearing

shoulders narrow   broaden   narrow

closing in   they slow

slither-slow and cease


they drift


silence holds the sky

above conspiracies of wind

hushing pines along the shore


they wait   oars aloft

the ocean trembles


smoke trickles from the horizon

seeps into a gloaming sky

steel stirs against their thighs


their oars   fin-faithful

sink then surface

fast falling   drum steady

rise gleaming   dripping silver


plunge toward shore





*First published in Cirque, Dec 20 2010