"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
October 10, 2012
Everything I Need To Know I Learned in Piano Lessons, Part 2: Practice Makes Permanent
by Emily S. Jorgensen

I suppose there are situations in which the old adage, “practice makes perfect” is appropriate — perhaps in science where great learning comes from trial and error. However, this is not appropriate for preparing a piano piece for performance. And, I would argue, it is not the way to salvation.

If a student uses the “just keep trying until you get it right” approach to learning a new piece, he will take much more time to learn it and the end product will be full of problems. How can it reach a state of relative perfection if each previous time it was played was wrong? I tell my students that only perfect practice makes perfect.

In other words, repetition of the same notes, rhythms, dynamics, and other details is what breeds the habit. If those elements are learned correctly, and the vast majority of times are practiced in the same way, then playing this piece correctly becomes easy — it becomes a solid memory in the mind, easy to call upon in the stressful moment of performance.

However, if a student has practiced a piece 100 times and only the last 15 times were done with all of these details correct, what are the chances really that he will be able to replicate the perfect product come performance time? His track record is only getting it right 15% of the time!

The solution is to go so slowly, bit by bit, at the beginning of learning a new piece that he can, in fact, get all those details correct from the beginning. Then, it is simply a matter of stringing all the parts together and increasing the speed. There are no mistakes to expunge; there is no time wasted. Then, perhaps 90 times out of those 100 it will be played correctly. The performance that comes on the heels of such preparation is much more likely to be a positive one.

And yet, there are still students who hope that some magic will happen and they won’t actually have to face the tediousness of building the good habit slowly and steadily. They dive right into the piece, playing fast and ignoring half of the ink on the page. They somehow expect that type of practice to produce the same results as the methodical, progressive work I ask them to do.

This reminds me of people who think that all they need for salvation is the grace of God. Indeed, Ephesians 2:8 states, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” But, Christ never said that was all that was required. He doesn’t swoop in and wave a magic wand and make all our weaknesses and sins go away with no effort of our own.

Rather, central to our doctrine is the notion that work is required on our part as well. Elder M. Russell Ballard likens grace and works to a pair of scissors that requires two blades to work (Building Bridges of Understanding, June 1998). Of course, we cannot accomplish salvation by ourselves. We must depend on the atonement, the grace, of Christ to save us. But, we also have to do the legwork.

And, just like slogging through a dense measure of Brahms, the legwork required for salvation is the daily grind. In search of salvation, that is daily choosing righteousness. Scripture study, meaningful prayer, Sabbath day church worship, Family Home Evening — it can be rather monotonous. Too bad we can’t just do it all once correctly and be done.

In teaching our children how to prepare for their salvation, we parents sometimes hope they will just magically “get it.” I was shocked recently when our family talked about the Plan of Salvation and my children couldn’t get through a decent explanation.

Only last year they could draw the whole explanatory chart by themselves! Like, with the circles and the long vertical rectangles and everything!

One perfect time through is not enough. For the lessons of the gospel to really sink in, they have to be practiced over and over and over and over — and they must be practiced correctly.

Of course, this can feel like an overwhelming burden to parents.

Sometimes, when I explain how Practice Makes Permanent to a student for the first time, he will look at me with watery eyes and exclaim, “you want me to be perfect all the time? I can’t do that!”

Of course not.

Nor are we expected to be perfect all the time. That is what the atonement is for, after all.

Living the gospel ourselves and teaching it to our children means that we strive for perfection in all those daily chores of righteousness. We hold family prayer as often as possible. We keep the Spirit in our home with kind words and an appropriate tone of voice rather than yelling at the slightest provocation. Family Home Evening may be brief, but it is there.

It is not enough to just hope our children will learn the gospel from us, and haphazardly throw out a quick and uneven effort. We must grow our family habits of righteousness slowly, bit by bit, always with the end goal in mind — the salvation of ourselves and our children.


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About Emily S. Jorgensen

Emily Jorgensen received her bachelor's degree in piano performance from Brigham Young University. She earned her master's degree in elementary music education, also at BYU. She holds a Kodaly certificate in choral education, as well as permanent certification in piano from Music Teacher’s National Association.

She has taught piano, solfege, and children’s music classes for 17 years in her own studio. She has also taught group piano classes at BYU.

She is an active adjudicator throughout the Wasatch Front and has served in local, regional, and state positions Utah Music Teachers' Association, as well as the Inspirations arts contest chair at Freedom Academy.

She gets a lot of her inspiration for her column by parenting her own rambunctious four children, aged from “in diapers” to “into Harry Potter.” She is still married to her high school sweetheart and serves in her ward’s Primary.

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