I spent my freshman year at UT-San Antonio (UTSA) before transferring to UT-Austin my sophomore year. At that time, UTSA didn’t have a football team, and thus, no marching band. I am a super band nerd. Even now, I’m a member of the Longhorn Alumni Band, returning once a year to tromp up and down a football field carrying a 25-pound euphonium.
UTSA didn’t have a marching band, but they did have a great music school. I spent the next year in concert band, playing the Candide overture next to low-brass music major.
This guy was even nerdier than me. You kind of have to be if you want to grow up to be a conductor. When he listened to classical music in his car, he would practice conducting at red lights. No joke. He thought about music every single minute of every single day.
He would often practice his solo pieces before rehearsal. There was one piece in particular—I wish I could remember which one—that gave him all sorts of trouble. He stumbled on the runs, he couldn’t hit the high notes. It was a mess. A difficult mess, but a mess none the less.
Then on Tuesday, he showed up and played it flawlessly. We had rehearsal on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and because I hadn’t seen him over the weekend, the transformation seemingly happened overnight.
“That’s crazy!” I said. (I assume I said “That’s crazy” circa 2004. We’re not going for historical accuracy here.) “What did you do?”
“I showed up on Saturday and practiced for 8 hours,” he said.
“Wha—? My chops couldn’t handle that.”
“Yeah,” he admitted, his lips now looking a bit more swollen than usual (or was that my imagination?). “But I figured I just needed to blow through all the crap before I could get it right.”
The Everlasting-They say that it takes a certain number of hours to master a skill. I’ve heard 300 hours for an instrument, 1 million words for a writer. There’s also a sign in too many band directors offices: “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” (Thank you, Vince Lombardi, for making us all a little more neurotic.)
I don’t think either one of these philosophies explains the process it takes to truly become a master. We don’t set out with a stop watch and say, “Ok, I’m at 247 hours. Only 53 more to go until I’m perfect!” Nor do we sit down in a chair and play perfect scales over and over, rewrite the perfect sentence like automatons. We struggle. We muddle through.
But each of these ways of viewing mastery points to a certain level of dedication and enthusiasm that goes into practice. And it’s difficult, and we may play a lot crap along the way. But next week, we may show up and play beautifully. And that’s what we have to remember.
Even overnight transformations take work. Keep writing, my friends.