When I was working in earnest on being a great musician, there was a regular discipline I needed to stay with in order to grow and improve. The simple advice to any musician is “Go practice”, but as I got farther along it wasn’t just the act practicing that mattered. My favorite way of doing things was to crash through the pieces I was working on at the time, hoping the notes would come together and trying to enjoy the music in the meantime. Needless to say, it takes forever to learn something that way, and it isn’t much fun to crash through a piece of music more than once if you don’t know it very well. The most likely thing about trying to crash through music to learn it is that you crash against it more often than not.
So I had to develop a discipline of practice, and tried to teach it when I had students. The goal of a professional musician is like that of many kinds of performers: you learn something beyond getting it right; you learn it until you can’t get it wrong. There’s lots of recipes for effective practice out there, and here’s what I’ve found most helpful.
–Clearing the mind and driving away distractions. As a creative person, that’s not easy for me to do, but when you’re trying to learn something physical in order to repeat it perfectly, mental multitasking makes learning take forever. There’s a discipline to pushing everything aside, but it pays off.
–Having a start up routine. Practicing at a fairly set time during the day helps a lot, but even if that’s not possible, starting the same way, warming up the fingers methodically accomplishes both getting the muscles going and focusing the mind as well.
–Knowing what you’re trying to do that day. I knew what I needed to work on most, and usually it was best to tackle that while I was freshest. After going through the trouble list, and doing my practice techniques to remedy mistakes in particular sections, there was time to look at the whole piece and trying to integrate the former problem areas into the big picture. There are more things to do as I progressed with a work, all the way up to performance day.
–Taking time away. Breaks were important, as was an occasional day off. I wish I could say I only took one day off a week when I was in training, however I knew what the virtue was even though I didn’t practice it well. Stepping away was particularly important when faced with a seemingly insolvable problem: hitting my head against a wall time after time just made my head hurt. Sometimes I’d even have to put it aside for a day (while working on something else) and come back to it fresh.
–Keeping the rest of your life in order. My life didn’t have to be perfect, but if I stayed in training all around, not going to excesses and keeping things in balance, then there were fewer distractions to overcome when I was trying to work. Of course, practicing regularly helped keep life in balance, so there was some cyclical reinforcement going on.
I wasn’t the greatest organist the world has ever known, but I had a respectable career as a working musician. I don’t play very much now but I do write music and make it a point to listen to music with a purpose when I do listen, rather than letting it percolate in the background while I’m going something else.
In thinking about my spiritual life and prayer life, these disciplines work rather well. I’m not saying I’m the world’s greatest at prayer, not by a long shot, however I find prayer is something I need to prepare for, I need to have a routine for going about it, I need to think about what I’m trying to accomplish and who I’m trying to remember, and not to beat myself against obstacles. Every moment of every day is an opportunity for prayer, but it takes mindfulness, at least, a super awareness of God and everything going on around us. It also takes paying attention to where we are and what we need to work on, as well as the big picture and where we are today fits.
It’s called the Practice of Faith, and although practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes things better. It not only works for the act of prayer, but living life as a Christian as well. Being a person of Charity and working at it until you can’t get it wrong sounds like the right kind of goal to me.