Practice, Practice

What is “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” Alex
April 4, 2012

I know it’s an old saw, but it’s as true today as when that joke was first told (probably on some cheesy vaudeville stage). Practice is the time-honoured way of becoming proficient at just about anything. But it seems to be getting a bad rap these days. For some reason, many people expect to jump right into a fresh undertaking without “wasting” their time warming up or practicing.

Note: Before I get into this, please keep in mind that what follows is my opinion alone. I’m not trying to represent it as the be-all-end-all truth. So don’t get upset if I touch a nerve. I’m not trying to lecture. But then again, I am a teacher.

Now, where was I? Oh, yes. Some people consider practice to be a waste of time. I’ve seen it with my engineering students. The skills and methods used by professionals in the fields of technology and engineering can be quite complex, even daunting. To reach that level of proficiency you need to work on smaller, more fundamental skills before you can ever expect to try your hand at the higher-level ones. And that means lots of practice with simpler equations, easier drawings, shorter programs, and more basic concepts.

Yet each semester I handle complaints from students who question the need to practice these easier, more fundamental skills. Why are we doing this? This is boring. This stuff sucks. When do we get to the cool stuff? All too common refrains, unfortunately.

Yet I understand where they’re coming from. I really do. Life is coming at us faster than ever before. And although more is expected of us, we seem to have less time to get up to speed. We want to get right down to it. Now! No delays. There’s no time for practice. Practice is a waste of valuable time. Or so we think.

To address these complaints, I often resort to using sports metaphors. I tell my students to watch any football, hockey or baseball team during a pre-season workout. The players will spend hours running through the same rudimentary, often silly looking, drills over and over. Some that don’t even seem to make sense. Like tromping though tires. How often does a football player, running for a touchdown, ever have to run through a row of tires to do it? Of course it’s for balance, footwork and running dexterity. But it looks silly at practice. And when was the last time you saw a hockey player on a breakaway have to skate around a line of pylons on his or her way down the ice? These practice skills have nothing to do with the game, per se, but everything to do with the skills needed to play it well. They are exercises that hone the skills, build the muscles, tone the reflexes, and sharpen the eye. Boring maybe, but necessary and helpful all the same.

The same could be said of professional musicians. Or actors. Or even jugglers. Without the constant and regular practicing of fundamental skills, scales for pianists, voice and facial exercises for actors, balance and dexterity exercises for jugglers, they could not reach and stay at the top of their respective games.

Still I get arguments. “But we hate word problems,” they say. So I explain that life doesn’t hand you problems in the form of equations. Problems that truly need solving come to us as words, complaints, requests, and puzzles. “Yeah, well, these computer programs you’re getting us to do are lame; they don’t do anything.” Perhaps, but programs that actually do something are long and complicated, yet they’re made up of smaller parts that are just like the programs I’m getting you to write. “Why do we have to do all those questions in the back of the book?” Because they are smaller, more manageable examples of the kinds of enormous and difficult problems you may have to solve as a professional. “Yeah, well I’m gonna win Canada’s Got Talent, so I’m never gonna use any of this stuff anyway.” I confess, I have no come back for that, other than to wish them luck.

Note: Please don’t think I am mocking my students. I have the greatest respect for young minds that are willing to put in the effort required to learn. But the phrasing used here is pretty accurate, even if it does represent a minority. My intent is merely to raise the issue of people who resist practice. Who feel that practice of any kind is pointless.

Practice. It’s what sets the professionals apart from the duffers. So why, if it seems so obvious for mastering a sport, are the benefits of practice so elusive when it comes to other trades and practices? By the way, I think it odd that we often refer to a profession as a practice – the practice of law, the practice of medicine. I wonder what the connection is.

It should be obvious what all this has to do with writing. The practice of avoiding practice (sorry, couldn’t resist) is just as wide spread in the field of writing as anywhere else. I’ll bet there’s many a budding writer who thinks they can just sit down and crank out the next Great American Novel without first practicing the subtle skills needed. It would be like trying to write the next great computer game without first learning how to program.*

I now realize that there are many places where a novice writer can hone their skills. One can practice by writing short stories, or by writing articles for a local paper. Writing snippets of dialog for later discussion at a writers group can be helpful. Contests for new writers are also a great motivator. And how about the writing of well-worded emails and memos instead of those lazy, typo-ridden ones most people send. I try to do this even when time is short. I’ve also gotten into the habit of writing long descriptive letters to my family and friends who, according to them, appreciate receiving them. But my latest, greatest discovery has been this blog. It forces me to be on my game, as it were, because I know there is a discerning audience out there reading my words. That makes quite a difference, you know.

When it comes to practicing one’s writing skills, I suspect the excuses from some novice writers would be pretty similar to what I hear from my students; that there’s no value in wasting time with small, meaningless bits of writing – that only the writing of that big novel counts, as if writing the novel is practice enough. It would be like ditching team practice then saying to the coach on the day of the big game, “Don’t worry, coach, I’ll get lots of practice out on the field.” It must be tough for agents and editors to receive submissions from novice writers whose total previous writing experience consists of little more than sloppy emails and lazily-worded memos.

So, like I said, I’m practicing my writing skills on you even as I create these blog posts. Those of you with years of writing skill can no doubt detect my novice habits. The way I punctuate, or structure my sentences. My phrasing, perhaps. This, despite years of writing college textbooks and handout notes which, of course, is not the same thing. Nevertheless, I am working hard at refining my skills. In fact, yesterday’s submission For the Birds is an excerpt from one of my family emails. And if any of you have taken the time to re-read an earlier posting (I hope some of you have been inspired enough to re-read at least one of my posts), you may have noticed that it was edited since you first read it. That’s because I repeatedly go back and read over my submissions, making improvements, looking for a better turn of phrase here, trimming unnecessary words there, replacing overused words, and clarifying meaning. These blogs are, in a true sense, my practice sessions for the big game – my first novel.

The offshoot of all this is that I hope my writing continues to improve. Which is, after all, the whole point to practicing, right? To get better at what you do. I just wish my students would see it that way.

* Which brings me to an interesting observation about learning. As I’ve said before, I have two adolescent sons. And, having teachers for parents, they’ve been asked many times, usually at dinner, to reflect on how they and their friends do, or don’t, learn. Particularly about whether rote learning and drill & repeat exercises have any relevance in today’s classrooms.

To be honest, they don’t see it as we do. To them, being forced to learn problem-solving skills by slugging through a bunch of pointless practice questions in the back of the book, is a tedious and mind-numbing waste of their time. However, they do offer an alternative.

For example, when I counter with the inevitable question about how students can possibly learn to program without first practicing the necessary coding skills, they suggest that getting them to work on small, but relevantreal-world projects is what stirs their juices. Students will buy into it if they believe it will result in some useable or interesting outcome. They claim that today’s students, if properly motivated with a stimulating problem, will eagerly seek out the information and methods they need on their own. The Internet, they offer, is a font of tried-and-true, as well as tried-and-failed, examples and advice. By seeking out this material they soon learn what does, and doesn’t, work. And after all, learning is learning.

The necessary repetition, they assert, can then be achieved by re-applying some of the same skills learned in earlier tasks to the tasks that follow. It makes sense to us. So much so, that this idea has become the basis of a new and successful project-based delivery program developed by my wife and now offered at Conestoga College where she teaches.

I consider this blog my project-based-learning way of working on my writing skills. With luck and effort it will pay off. Maybe you can write and tell me if you think it’s working.

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