Practice does NOT always make perfect.


Why are doctors, lawyers, and musicians, even the seasoned and successful ones, still practicing? Is it just to keep up our current skill level, or is there something we still need to learn? Do doctors’ work, occasionally need dismantling and overhaul?

I recently got a teacher, whom I call The Crazy Russian, who insisted that I had talent and then proceeded to completely dismantle my technique.  Now I can barely play at all, there are so many things to remember.  But I practice, with the hope the changes will make my playing better.

The careers of doctors and lawyers are often called “practices”.  A doctor will say “I don’t do this in my practice” or a lawyer will say  “I practice mostly corporate law”.  Why are doctors, lawyers, and musicians, even the seasoned and successful ones, still practicing?  Is it just to keep up our current skill level, or is there something we still need to learn?  Do doctors’ work, like my violin playing, occasionally need dismantling and overhaul?

The word “practice” originated as a medieval Latin word c.1400 meaning “to do, act”.  In the early 15th century the meaning included “to follow or employ; to carry on a profession,” especially in medicine, and “to perform repeatedly to acquire skill, to learn by repeated performance”.  This means that when someone sets out to practice he could have several goals in mind.  A musician might want to improve his performance or he might simply want to maintain his skill level.  A doctor might also want to maintain his skill set, to “carry on a profession, to do, to act”, but any good doctor, as any good musician, is constantly striving to get better at what they do.  Doctors and musicians are not finished products when they come out of school.  Each encounter with a patient, each introduction to a new piece of music, demands that we take what we know, apply it to the patient or music in front of us, and tailor our approach according to the unique problems of the person or music we are dealing with.  During this process, we use what we have learned from that patient or piece and apply it going forward.

Some examples:  If I am playing the Sibelius violin concerto, which has a lot of arpeggios (broken ascending and descending scale passages in which only every other note of each scale is played), I will recognize them but I might want to pull out my scale book and review arpeggios in different keys, or find an etude that focuses on arpeggios.  Thus, not only do I learn the concerto, but I learn to play all arpeggios better.  If I encounter a patient with a rash, I might recognize the rash, but will probably pull out my dermatology textbook or online equivalent and review similar rashes, as a way of confirming my diagnosis.  In the process, I learn more about rashes in general.

Suppose, however, I approach the Sibelius concerto convinced I know how to play arpeggios, and have only to apply what I already know.  This might work if I really do know how to play arpeggios, but such an attitude will limit my ability to refine my technique and grow in this area.  Thus my practicing has limited effect.  Doctors who shut down their minds to the suggestions and opinions of others, convinced they know best, are depriving themselves of the opportunity to learn, and their practice can stagnate.

Good doctors, like good musicians, are learning all the time.  They are applying what they know and seeking to increase and refine their knowledge.  May we never be convinced that we know everything.

Image copyright: Ishikawa Ken, flickr CC BY-SA

Article last time updated on 18.12.2015.

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