Betwixt Code and Music

Out of Practice

October 17, 2016

I have noticed a funny thing as of late. In music-making and writing I am out of practice. This is a cautionary tale of awareness and a possible solution to being out of practice.


Musicians have long heard the phrase “practice makes perfect.” It is a silly phrase. One can practice for a year straight and be extremely excellent at doing something wrong. A better phrase is “perfect practice makes perfect.” Yes, this is something I have said to hundreds of students over the years.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers espoused the “10,000 hour rule.” Many people immediately became champions of this. The idea is that the difference between an expert and the rest of the herd is simply putting in the time—ten thousand hours according to Gladwell. Again, this amount of time spent holding your violin incorrectly will still lead to a situation of being super great at holding your violin, but now you are doing it incorrectly.

A more prudent approach is to make sure one is engaged in deliberate practice as told by this gentleman Anders Ericsson. This “on purpose” approach is key to getting better at one’s discipline. This is where having a guiding hand in a teacher or a mentor provides value. Let me revise that statement. This why a teacher or a mentor makes all the difference in the world, especially for someone new to a discipline.

“Mike, you are getting heavy. I thought this blog was supposed to be light and fluffy.”

Well, sometimes it is…but not writing for five months means I have been building up steam!

Over the summer I had the cool opportunity to take some time off from my software development gig to teach music. I spent two weeks teaching a local high school drum line in the afternoons. Another week I spent Monday through Saturday teaching a college percussion section.

“Whoa, man. All this time we thought you retired/moved on/abandoned your love of teaching!!”

Not at all, I just wanted to do something that was still creative, engaging, challenging, but more flexible and didn’t have a capped salary range.

As I was dusting off my drumsticks to go teach these three weeks in the summer, I realized some things. My chops and brain were as good as ever…but I had become out of practice. The daily repetitions were no longer part of my routine.

Thankfully, I knew what I needed to practice to get my hands/arms back in shape, but it wasn’t something that came immediately back. Keep in mind I had been drumming with my classes daily for over a decade with little time away from the discipline. With my fairly wide knowledge of practice routines, I was able to get my hands back into a decent form with minimal effort. (Shout out to Jonathan Ovalle from the University of Michigan and his old snare drum warmup routine, sadly now removed from his website…good thing I made .pdfs of them long ago!)

You might be wondering how I managed to get my hands back in shape with very little time. Deliberate practice. It is much better to spend ten minutes working on a specific skill or muscle group than just playing all of my favorite licks from time past. This approach was validated when I stood in front of college-age musicians and could easily hang with them. Now, this is not a truly objective test, I will admit. My expertise in drumming is already high, I had just lost some of the skills.

The takeaway: you can get better at your skills by doing lots of reps and practicing routines on purpose, with good form!

Hey, folks, this applies to more than music! Not great at budgets or typing or gardening or laundry or coding? Then make a plan to figure out what to focus on first and GO FOR IT! You might just find yourself moving into expert status before you know it.

Michael D. Mathew.

Written by Mike Mathew who lives and works in Dallas building useful things. Sometimes he posts on Mastodon. Mike also wears many hats at Presto Assistant where he is a co-founder, owner, and product engineer.