The other day I was out for lunch with a friend at a Chinese food restaurant. When the bill came, there was a fortune cookie for each of us. Not wanting to tempt fate, I reached for the closest one, and opened it with a bit of skepticism. (Seriously, fortune cookies are just for fun, aren’t they?) Mine read, “Practice is the best of all instructors.”

After laughing at the uncanniness of how a random fortune cookie could possibly know that I was a piano teacher (and spend a significant part of every day practicing and/or thinking about my students’ practicing) I marvelled at the big truth in the small sentence.

I see about 30 students each week, and we usually cover a lot of ground in our weekly lessons. I still enjoy taking lessons myself. I’ve noticed, though, that the real learning happens in our daily practice.

When I get engaged in my practicing (as opposed to just playing something while daydreaming) I learn a great deal. Much of my practicing seems like a science experiment in which I seek to solve the mystery of, “Why can’t I get this to sound the way I want?” The solutions are many and unique to each problem. To improve a passage where I always stumble, I must look closer at the notes and patterns or rework [and rework again!] the fingering pattern until it sounds and feels effortless. To master a complicated rhythm for two hands, I must understand beat and rhythm and learn to coordinate another new physical motion akin to patting my head and rubbing my stomach at the same time. To memorize a piece securely, I must analyze the piece’s structure and chord patterns – and understand the historical time period and unique voice of the composer’s musical language. To create a captivating performance, I must craft the phrasing as carefully and elegantly as the best short story. To play with a beautiful sound I must listen, adjust to the instrument’s response, and listen to get just the sound I desire. And then I repeat until the results become reliable.

Practice really is the best instructor.