My father is a professional musician. He always told me that only perfect practice makes perfect. If you practice your mistakes, you get really good at making those mistakes!
This makes sense for anything where you are training your fingers or body to do something the same way over and over. Musicians, dancers, martial artists, all want their muscles to think for them from having practiced until perfection is innate.
What about other arts? I think practice makes easier, in a lot of ways. My husband is a professional artist, and he says everyone has 10,000 bad drawings inside them, so you’d better get started drawing to get them out. The more you draw, the more you learn about drawing, and the easier it is to draw next time. The more you perform, the more ease you have with performance.
I read about a ceramics teacher who divided his class in half. The first half he graded on quantity – they’d get an A if they used enough clay and made enough stuff during the semester. The second half he graded on quality – they’d get an A if they made really good stuff. What he found was that the half that made a lot of stuff kept practicing, learning from mistakes, trying something new, and getting better and better. The half that focused on making really good stuff spent a lot of time talking about it and planning it, but the stuff they made wasn’t that good.
So, another reason practice makes perfect is that practice allows you to figure out what works and what doesn’t. It lets you try out new things in a safe space.
The problem comes when all you do is practice. Or theorize. Or talk about it. At some point you have to do it. Experience comes from doing.
I took a class with Caterina Rando, and she doesn’t like the idea of practice. She says just go out there and do it. The doing is practice of a sort, in that you get better and better the more you do it. But if you spend all your time trying to get perfect before putting yourself out in the world you’ll never get anywhere.
The thing is, mistakes teach you something. No one will ever get to be so good they don’t make any mistakes – and if they did, they’d be boring and stunted. You risk mistakes to try something new. You risk mistakes to get bigger, brighter, and more amazing. But if you don’t risk it, you stay small and dim.
Mistakes aren’t the enemy. Staying stuck is.
In improvisational acting, mistakes are celebrated. People feel like they failed and are encouraged to say Yay! Mistakes are a sign that someone stretched. They tried for something. They learned something. This is a cause for celebration, not demonization. It takes courage to fail, loudly, publicly, and on stage. But if it’s not actually a failure, if it’s a sign you’re human and striving and it gives permission to everyone else to be human and striving too, that’s a victory.
So, practice scales. Practice tai-chi. And then get out there and dance. Wildly, imperfectly, and perfectly you.