The piano can be an incredibly isolating instrument. Whereas my formative years of flute playing were spent in bands and chamber ensembles, I practiced piano in solitude. This sometimes led to the development of sloppy habits and misconceptions that my teacher would gently correct at each weekly lesson.
My college band director Mr. Parks always used to tell us that the old adage “practice makes perfect” was a fallacy. “Practice makes permanent,” he told us. “Only perfect practice makes perfect.” He had it so right. Flawed practice habits, I learned, are worse than not practicing at all, because they only serve to reinforce mistakes.
I explained to my student that she was finding it difficult to distinguish between correct and incorrect patterns because she had practiced the incorrect rhythm so diligently. I told her that her it’s perfectly normal to get hung up on tricky rhythms like this one, and that this is precisely why musicians take lessons. When we rely too heavily on our own powers of self-assessment, we tend to get stuck in our ways. We simply do not recognize our own errors.
Recently my local NPR station ran a story about Americans’ increasing disability to empathize with the perspectives of others. In an interview with Here and Now host Robin Young, psychologist Jonathan Haidt spoke of our deepening social divisions:
We’ve moved into gated moral communities in which many people on the left never meet or socialize with people on the right, or vice versa …
I once dated someone for about a month whose passionately held political convictions were diametrically opposed to mine. He belonged to a movement that, at the time, was the butt of many late-night talk show jokes. The relationship was short-lived. I tried – I really did. I wanted to look past his politics. I told myself that his values were more closely aligned with the men in my family than my own, and if I love them, maybe I could love someone like him.
The ultimate deal breaker was that when we went out, he never let me pick the restaurant. I thought it spoke volumes about his character. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
I like my moral community. I respect my fellow residents. They tend to have good ideas that make sense to me. So I don’t think I’ll be leaving any time soon. But I am willing to leave the gate open on occasion.
Both my student and the NPR story offer a valuable reminder of the importance of seeking other perspectives. The cultivation of musical skill and human understanding takes practice – practice that cannot be executed in a vacuum, lest our habits and perspectives become permanent.