A Lesson from Ballet Class, Part 2 (Burger Pedagogy)

As the dancers were doing one of their repetitive tendu exercises one day, the instructor said “one of my teachers once told me that every time you repeat a movement, you put a penny in the bank – and in performance, you get to cash it in.”

Now, forget all the clever epithets you’ve heard about practicing.  Practice does not make perfect or permanent, no matter how perfect the practice may be.

Practice is about two things: observation and repetition.  When you’re practicing and you repeat something, you get to do two things – you have an opportunity to discover something, and you put a penny in the bank.

Which brings us, of course, to a story about McDonald’s.

When I was in high school, I worked at McDonald’s.  I flipped burgers.  I didn’t have any aspirations of being a restauranteur, I just wanted the extra money and I had a crush on a girl who worked there.  So I applied and got the job!  At the end of my first month, I was evaluated and the manager said I was slow.  Yikes!  I was moving as fast as I could, but I had a hard time keeping up.  I always showed up to work on time, though, so they kept me.  I ended up working there for two years.

At the end of two years, and I hope you don’t mind me tooting my own horn a bit, I was GOOD.  I was easily one of the fastest employees in the kitchen.  I could keep up a pace of about 18 hamburgers a minute by myself.  What’s interesting about this is that there was no special training, no Burger Pedagogy specialists helping me out, just two years of doing my job for 20 hours a week.  I cared about what I did – I wanted to be fast enough to keep up with my fellow employees and serve decent food, but I wasn’t particularly driven, interested, or inspired.

The moral of that story?  There’s something to be said for repetition.  When we practice for one, two, or six hours a day, it’s impossible to be driven, interested, or inspired for the entire time.  But we can still benefit – our hands get a feel for the keyboard, and if we’re mindful of a few basic technical principles, the motions become second nature and we feel “at home” at the piano, no longer fighting the instrument.

These days, it’s common to find teachers talking about “efficient” practice, saying that the quality of practice is more important than quantity of practice.  I disagree.  Quality is definitely important and necessary for progress, but I think quantity is of equal importance.  Two quick stories:

I once assigned a student one of my favorite pieces, “Both Ways” by Alexandre Tansman.  It was a little bit more difficult than his other pieces, but he really liked it, so I gave it to him.  One week later he comes in for his lesson, immediately goes to the piano and proceeds to play the Tansman piece, every note, at tempo, from memory.  I was astounded!  We worked a bit on polishing things up, but he honestly could’ve played it in a recital that day and been fine.  I asked him how he was able to learn it so well and he said “I practiced only this for an hour every day!”  That’s right, an 8 year old practicing an hour a day on one piece.  He didn’t need my help at all, one week of solid repetition was all it took.

In my student days, I’d frequently practice 6-7 hours a day.  One day I had a bit of a revelation.  I had started practicing one morning and it was going poorly.  I was all thumbs, couldn’t get anything done, and wasn’t making any progress.  I took a break for lunch and thought about calling it quits for the day, but I’m stubborn, so after lunch I went back to work.  No change…just as horrible as before, until another hour went by.  Then, I started making real progress.  Everything clicked, and I had a fantastic two hours.  I still remember those two hours to this day.  (Bach Toccata in c minor and Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze.)

The moral of that story?  Had I called it quits after lunch, those two hours would never have happened.  Sometimes you have to go through three hours of bad practice to get to the two hours of good practice.  I meet a lot of people who subscribe to the idea that if it’s not going well, it’s best to quit, avoid the frustration and start again fresh the next day.  I think that’s the wrong course of action.  The right thing to do is to keep going, and I think the following people would agree with me:

We should be taught not to wait for inspiration to start a thing. Action always generates inspiration. Inspiration seldom generates action. – Frank Tibolt

Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time… The wait is simply too long.  – Leonard Bernstein

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.  – Michael Jordan

If you’re going through hell, keep going.  – Winston Churchill

3 comments to A Lesson from Ballet Class, Part 2 (Burger Pedagogy)

  • Reading this makes me want to go and practice some more! I love the quotes you included at the end.

  • Angela

    I love those quotes above (especially Michael Jordan’s) and the blog. I picked up piano again (after 30 years) about 1 year ago. I was getting frustrated with myself for not being able to play the repeat of Beethoven’s Minuet in G trio fast (per my teachers’ instruction as I like it slower) – without mistakes! I’ve been practicing for weeks and half the time I play it w/o mistakes and the other half I don’t. I’ve been thinking I’ll never get it right! Now, I know to just KEEP GOING!
    Great website, it will definitely augment my practice and lessons!

  • Chris

    I looked this up to prepare myself and my students for a recital. When I am doing bad even after practicing a half hour on one piece I give up. I used to practice a lot for a performance but I still had performance glitches due to anxiety in front of an audience. So I would think I had over practiced. Now I’m ready to try to practice even more. Thanks for the encouragement.