On Practice

Before being a magician, I studied math at the University of Toronto and in those days, I also made most of my income as a martial arts instructor.

Suffering for art - Photo by Michael Kostiuk

Suffering for art - Photo by Michael Kostiuk

Through math I learned how to break down tasks into smaller manageable parts; to problem solve. Through martial arts, I learned how to practice.

In a recent article, master jazz musician Wynton Marsalis offered up twelve tips on practice to be employed by musicians, but also athletes or just about anyone. The list is fairly straightforward but the full article helps put it into perspective:

  1. Seek out instruction: A good teacher will help you understand the purpose of practicing and can teach you ways to make practicing easier and more productive.
  2. Write out a schedule: A schedule helps you organize your time. Be sure to allow time to review the fundamentals because they are the foundation of all the complicated things that come later.
  3. Set goals: Like a schedule, goals help you organize your time and chart your progress…. If a certain task turns out to be really difficult, relax your goals: practice doesnʼt have to be painful to achieve results.
  4. Concentrate: You can do more in 10 minutes of focused practice than in an hour of sighing and moaning. This means no video games, no television, no radio, just sitting still and working…. Concentrated effort takes practice too, especially for young people.
  5. Relax and practice slowly: Take your time; donʼt rush through things. Whenever you set out to learn something new – practicing scales, multiplication tables, verb tenses in Spanish – you need to start slowly and build up speed.
  6. Practice hard things longer: Donʼt be afraid of confronting your inadequacies; spend more time practicing what you canʼt do…. Successful practice means coming face to face with your shortcomings. Donʼt be discouraged; youʼll get it eventually.
  7. Practice with expression: Every day you walk around making yourself into “you,” so do everything with the proper attitude…. Express your “style” through how you do what you do.
  8. Learn from your mistakes: None of us are perfect, but donʼt be too hard on yourself. If you drop a touchdown pass, or strike out to end the game, itʼs not the end of the world. Pick yourself up, analyze what went wrong and keep going….
  9. Donʼt show off: Itʼs hard to resist showing off when you can do something well…. But my father told me, “Son, those who play for applause, thatʼs all they get.” When you get caught up in doing the tricky stuff, youʼre just cheating yourself and your audience.
  10. Think for yourself: Your success or failure at anything ultimately depends on your ability to solve problems, so donʼt become a robot…. Thinking for yourself helps develop your powers of judgment.
  11. Be optimistic: Optimism helps you get over your mistakes and go on to do better. It also gives you endurance because having a positive attitude makes you feel that something great is always about to happen.
  12. Look for connections: If you develop the discipline it takes to become good at something, that discipline will help you in whatever else you do…. The more you discover the relationships between things that at first seem different, the larger your world becomes. In other words, the woodshed can open up a whole world of possibilities.

How to practice

In addition to my performing career, I've had lots of opportunities to work with students in different fields. For years I taught martial arts (which was mostly how I paid for university where I studied math... not the fast track to popularity you would think it was) and for nearly as many years tutored math (primarily for high school students). Now I teach magic several times a year through a children's community outreach program called My Magic Hands

One of the things which often needs to be included in that training is an instruction on how to practice. This short animated clip summarizes things quite nicely. It's important, because once you learn strategies for effective practice, they transfer almost immediately to any discipline. 

While they gloss over it briefly towards the end, particularly effective is the idea of starting slowly and building up speed over many, many repetitions. I remember both for students of martial arts and magic, when something is not working, the tendency was to attempt to do it faster or more vigorously. In fact, speed early on just diminishes the amount of control that you have and tends to make things worse.

When it came to math, the equivalent was for the student to try to do as much work in their head as possible. I believe the unstated premise was that the method which had the least amount of writing in the page was the most effective because it got to the solution "faster". In fact, trying to juggle lots of pieces of information behind the eyes slowed them down, increased their chances of making a mistake and making it impossible to find later. What proved the most valuable the most often was the method which left the most steps visible on the page (in accordance with the cliche dictum of showing your work). 

Another early magic mentor highlighted another important phrase: practice doesn't make perfect, practice makes permanent. So effective practice becomes extremely important.