Private Practice

‘We talkin’ ‘bout practice’ – Allen Iverson, 2002.

I’m not sure I’ve ever understood the grammar of the phrase ‘practice makes perfect’. Although I have said and heard the phrase so many times through my life that I feel I’ve gradually improved my understanding of it enough to perfect the phrasing. ‘Practice makes perfection’ is more sensical. And it’s something I wholeheartedly believe.
Unfortunately, practice itself is unglamorous. A skill is impressive only after it has been honed, once all of the imperfections and hints of incompetence have been buffed away in private, unspoken torment. If the destination is Disneyland, the journey is just a necessary evil of monotony and pained anticipation; a car ride where you clench your fists and shut your eyes until you’ve tolerated enough progress to arrive.
A magic trick, for example, can look cool to watch, but dreadfully uncool are the endless hours of fumbling and dropping playing cards trying to conceal a move that lasts less than a second. This was something that I tried my sleight of hand at as a pre-teen, even then realising how embarrassing it was. Luckily I would keep a set of my sister’s underwear nearby to rapidly change into as a less controversial past-time for me to be caught in the midst of if one of my parents walked in. At least that didn’t involve the indignity of trying to better myself. I’m joking of course, I don’t even have a sister. To be honest I don’t know whose underwear it was.
Similarly, we all like to see a heart shape poured into our cappuccino foam, but we certainly don’t want to see the mad coffee-drills that baristas of a certain coffee chain have to endure every morning to get those heart shapes so lovingly uniform, as part of the ‘Zero to Nero’ scheme. Apparently for every one that’s not up to code, they have to snort a coffee bean whole, as some sort of sick perversion of the idea of waking up to the smell of coffee. It’s barbaric frankly, and as far as I know, entirely true.
Actually, if you consider masturbation a sort of ‘practice’ for sex, and there’s really no reason why you should, then it makes more sense that when someone walks in on you having sex, they feel embarrassed, but if someone catches you masturbating, you’re the one who gets asked to take your sister’s underwear off. Or whoever’s it is.

But for whatever reason, there seems to be something deeply shameful about practice, about the idea of actually working on a skill that you plan to display or utilise in the future. Does it maybe seem almost narcissistic, in that you’re spending your time on yourself, putting man hours into your own betterment? The practice of certain skills can definitely be seen as more worthy of one’s time, such as improving your ability to play a musical instrument, or getting really good at life-saving surgery, or learning which of your friends would most appreciate incessantly being tagged in dog videos on Facebook. These things are fine to be good at, and to be seen to be trying hard at; practicing a musical instrument has a generally accepted artistic merit, proficiency in which is enviable, but the aforementioned boring hard work that needs to be put in to reach that level is something that a lot of people aren’t prepared to face. Or indeed, they see the end product of someone banging out some heart-rending Chopin on one of those random pianos that get scattered around cities (ostensibly as a way to bring art and expression into a more public forum, but mostly it’s toddlers running up and smushing the keys with their palms, like a chimpanzee who’s just discovered mashed potato), and feel inspired to take up a instrument themselves. But then they become daunted by the apparent chasm between the first dipping of the toe into the musical pool, and the submerged depths of even a semi-decent amateur pianist.

It’s this mythologisation of natural born talent that feeds wrong-headed ideas of child prodigies, overnight successes and savantism, which in turn discourages extended periods of hard-work and practice, unless met with an unreasonably quick manifestation of proficiency and success. Ask any leader in their field how hard they worked to become good at something, and they won’t hesitate to expound on the hours and years spent grinding away in obscurity. Steve Martin, considered one of the greatest comedians of all time, believes he was born with no natural comedic talent, but worked tirelessly to develop his skill. If he had the viewpoint of most people, that you’re born to do something, or your career chooses you, then he would have simply decided that it wasn’t going to happen, and there’d be no ‘Steve Martin’ as we know him now. If someone had shown him a video of some Chinese 5-year-old beating a computer at chess, which I assume exists, then maybe, and god forbid, the movie Cheaper By The Dozen simply wouldn’t exist. Or they would have just got Robert De Niro or some shit.

To use a more up front example, this is my thirty-fourth blog post, and I’ve been writing it on and off for almost two years. That is a tangible way in which I have continued to practice a particular skill, however useless. Feel free to go back and read my first blog, see whether it’s shit, see whether I’ve even got better. You could at least assume that by now I would have worked out how to consistently end a blog post in a satisfying way, perhaps with a summarising statement about the chosen topic. Maybe something like ‘the obscuring of effort behind displays of aptitude is something that continues to feed an expectation of quick results and short-term dedication, before losing interest and logging on to Facebook to share a meme about how the only time you felt really alive was when you demonstrated a card trick to some classmates in year 5, but for some reason, despite having never put any effort into anything since, nothing else has ever quite measured up to that feeling of pride and acceptance. Must be because you weren’t born special.’

Well, I could certainly try to summarise the topic in that way, but instead I’ll just say that more than perfection, practice makes realistic expectations of a life lived through a prism of hard work paying off. And Cheaper By The Dozen 2.

Next time on the bandwagon, I found a frog on the pavement outside my house, and instead of kissing it in the hopes of turning it into Prince Charming, should I play the song ‘Kiss’ to it, in the hopes of turning it into Prince?

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Instrumental Illness

“If music be the food of love, you must be terrible in bed.” – Naughty Shakespeare.

What’s the first album you ever bought? Mine was Jamiroquai – A Funk Odyssey. Pretty cool eh? Well it’s not true, that’s just what I tell people was the first album I ever bought. The real, embarrassing answer I’ll save until the end. Brace yourself, it’s bad.

I refuse, however, to concede that I have bad taste in music. I don’t think anyone would admit that about themselves. It’s admitting that we’re not as cool as we think, like a forty-year-old who snaps out of their middle-aged fugue long enough to realise they’re wearing a ‘Bazinga’ t-shirt and crocs.

Naturally I went through the obligatory shared hallucination that groups like S Club 7 were good (no that’s not my first album, it’s worse than that), and came out of the other side realising that popular opinion was only a useful guide if sustained. Aside from that, the only barometer you have is obviously just what you like, whether genre, or artists you admire intellectually. I’ve certainly followed artists that I like up to and beyond the point that I can still enjoy them. One of my favourite musicians, John Frusciante (former guitarist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) had an incredible run of solo albums, but he seemed to be on a mission to alienate every single person that could ever enjoy his output, leading to this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXgKastYDR4

Christ it’s bad.

But we all have artists who we will continue to follow no matter what they do. Just look at Neil Young’s dreadful synth-pop album from the 80s (it’s real), Bowie’s jungle album, or everything Ed Sheeran’s ever done. We latch onto the artists themselves, not just the output. Annoyingly, image and personality seem to have a big impact on our enjoyment of music, which just makes Ed Sheeran’s popularity even more confusing.

To me, the only thing more annoying than the question ‘what sort of music do you like?’ is the response ‘a bit of everything.’ I’ve been guilty of saying both, but if someone really gets the same enjoyment out of Chopin’s nocturnes or John Cage’s 4’33″ that they do from listening to Slayer or DJ Otzi, then their brain must be an entirely smooth blob, meeting all experiences with no emotion, only a blank stare and a bland, monotone murmur that they witnessed an event. Having taste is as much about what you don’t like as what you do. Imagine looking through a friend’s music library to see if you have any common favourites, and seeing the entirety of all music. They may as well have nothing. Those people are eating rice for every meal. Their favourite programme is the test card. Their favourite Pokémon is Ditto.

I definitely think you can tell more about a person by asking what music they don’t like. I’m not big on negativity, but if I meet anyone that tells me they hate Bruno Mars, I’ll pat them on the back and invite them round for dinner and compliments. Conversely, if someone tells me they don’t like The Beatles, I have to question whether they’re being deliberately obtuse in an attempt to feign discernment, or if I’ve accidentally hallucinated a piece of talking furniture.

I mean, each to their own etc.

To get lofty for a moment, there is something incredible to me about music. If we were living back in the days of the classical elements of the Ancient Greeks, who considered everything to be made up of fire, water, earth and air, there’s something elemental about music in my opinion that earns it a place among that bullshit list. It feels essential, all-pervading. Almost as though some songs exist as Platonic ideals that were plucked from another plane. Not created, but discovered alongside mathematical constants and scientific formulae, waiting to be channelled through some willing genius. It hits harder than the written word (this blog aside), and you don’t need any prior knowledge to appreciate it. Certain songs just swell in your chest, and change your thoughts. Perhaps it’s a cliché, but Bridge Over Troubled Water does that for me. As does Jeff Buckley’s version of Hallelujah, Five Years by Bowie, No Children by The Mountain Goats, Today with Your Wife by Jonathan Coulton.

And of course, the song that started it all, Witch Doctor by The Cartoons. That’s right. The first album I ever bought was ‘Toonage’ by the Danish novelty band The Cartoons, who wore weird plastic hairpieces and dressed in sort of colourful zoot suits. Awful.

But I learned my lesson, turned my self around and discovered The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album. No more weird hair and stupid colourful clothes for me thanks.

Next time on the bandwagon, I condemn, at length, anyone who’s ever said the phrase ‘cool beans’.