Practicing Your Way to Outrageous Success.

Being successful all comes down to doing one thing really well.

And that one thing is: PRACTICE.

And not just the type of practice where you turn on the egg timer and sit down at the piano to grind through your drills until you hear the ding (which brings me back to the 10th grade).

Growing up as the second child of five, I was raised by parents who understood the art of practice and relentlessly demanded it.  Each of us five children were required to practice the piano at least one hour per day (starting from the age of five) and that increased to two hours when we were older and our lessons became more taxing.  As well, we were required to read at least one hour per day -- every day.  Summer or not.  And to make sure we weren't fooling around, we had to report on the topic that we read in the book.  And fiction wasn't an option.  We read biographies or "practical" works.  At twelve or thirteen I can remember reading through my Dad's law books.

But back to music.  My mom was smart.  She did not allow any one person to monopolize the piano for longer than 30 minutes.  You signed up for a time slot and the schedule was firm.  During the summer, we got ourselves out of bed at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning to get practice time out of the way so that we could go run our lawn mowing business.

And it wasn't just an hour for the piano.  It was an hour for each instrument that we played.  Each of us played several.  I played the euphonium (think smaller, more eloquent tuba) and trombone as well.  Why the euphonium?  Because you had never heard about it before.    So in the basement I sat and practiced.  Hours at a time.  Until my lips would go numb and I would have to stop for a few minutes.  And the practice paid off.  I became an accomplished national prep school competitor.

But it wasn't enough.  I can remember the feeling of wanting more.  Of this passion for outrageous success boiling under the surface.  See right around the time that I was winning these awards for brass, my older brother was equally destroying the piano music scene.  It was almost unfair how good he was.  As a teenager, he was writing his own music.  And right about this time, I was done with the piano.  I just decided to move on. And so my parents decided that I could stop taking lessons -- stop practicing altogether.  That was the end of 10th grade.

I got an hour back of my life every day.  No more practicing.  No demands on my time.

But a strange thing happened that 11th grade year.  I found myself returning to the piano from time to time.  Really hearing the keys as they touched the piano cords.  Feeling the pressure of the pads as my fingers trickled over the notes.  And then it hit me.  I wanted back in.  I wanted to create art -- not just play because I had to.

And so I brought it up in casual conversation to my mother.  When we had a few minutes I mentioned to her that I was thinking about starting up my piano lessons again and competing in the state classical music competition the following year.

To which my mother infamously replied, "Oh.  That's OK.  You're good at brass.  Let your brother be good at that..." <silence>

"You're not good enough" -- she never said it, but that's what I heard.  And at that moment, I knew that I wanted to prove her wrong more than anything else in the world.  And that's where I learned my most powerful lesson about the art of deliberate practice.  About practicing my way to outrageous success.

It started with choosing the right song.  I had to be smart about this.  I wasn't the most technical artist.  I needed something that was emotionally moving.  So I enlisted the help of my school music teacher, Mr. Hodges.  After pitching the idea to him he came back with a quick answer, "How about Rachmaninoff' Opus 3, Number 2." It was his most famous work.

And so I listened to it.  "OK.  Not that hard," I thought.

And then he told me the back story.  According to history, Rachmaninoff dedicated this piece to a girlfriend who died before they could find lasting love.   Perhaps the story was a complete legend, but it was enough for me.  I was hooked.  I wanted to win the state classical music competition with this song.

And so I began the first of hundreds of hours of deliberate practice.  My goal was to play this piece perfectly.  I wanted to win.

So, I came home from school and practiced for hours.  On the weekends.  In the evenings.  I started to learn the notes.

Ten fingers in C# Minor.  And I was using each one of them.

Once I learned the notes, I learned to feel the notes.  The way you leave your fingers on the edge of the keys for a half second as the music reverberates off the sound board.  The silky smooth transition between the racing scales in the second movement.  The way to pause ever so slightly before the fastest parts to pull the listener into the experience with me.

And hundreds of hours of deliberate practice later, I heard my name being called to take the stage for the regional classical music competition.  Before I sat down I noted the song I would be playing and a 5-second mention of the history of the piece.  And then I sat down.

And I did what I had put hundreds of hours practicing to do.  I felt the music.  The tone.  The shape.  The sounds.  And it moved me.

It moved the judges too.  Once I finished and stood up, I noticed that three of the judges had tears in their eyes.  I found out an hour or two later that I had won.

At the moment, the full impact of success did not hit me.  It was some time later that I was able to really understand what I had actually done.  It took me even longer to make the connection between what was an outrageous success for me and the practicing that made it a reality.

Yes.  It was passion and heart and will.  But most importantly it was practice.

As I look back, I can see some of the lessons that I learned.  And it's a reminder of the price of outrageous success.

Practice:

  1. It was really hard.
  2. It required my time.
  3. It required that I care.
  4. It made me focus on my weaknesses.

And there are a million other lessons that I am still learning.  But here is the question that I ask myself every day:

"What am I practicing to be...  And will it be enough to earn me outrageous success?"

By the way, here's the song that I played:

What are you practicing right now?