The Power of Practice

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | May 30, 2015

“If I don’t practice the way I should, then I won’t play the way I know I can.”
Ivan Lendl, tennis professional

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of asking a group of virtuoso music scholarship recipients from the University of Valley Forge about their practice habits. Most of them had been playing their instruments for over ​10 years. Two of them actually began before they were in first grade. 

Early in their lives much of the compulsion to practice came from immediate family members. Ginger said she hated practicing on her piano until she was about 11 years old. Eventually, each of them grew to love their instruments, and with that love came a deep passion to excel. But even for these accomplished musicians, practice still comes with huge effort and often with great sacrifice. 

Whether we are in medicine or law, sports or business, farming or sailing, technology or architecture, there are no shortcuts to excellence. When General Colin Powell was in the Naval Academy, he heard another general say, “Among the leadership lessons I learned, the impact of making time for practicing good leadership strikes me as the most significant.” 

In their great book “The Truth About Leadership,” James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner declare, “What truly differentiates the expert performers from the good performers is hours of practice. You’ve got to work at becoming the best, and it sure doesn’t happen over a weekend.”

They continue, “You won’t find a fast track to excellence. There’s no such thing as instant expertise. There’s no shortcut to greatness in leadership or anything else. Those who are the very best became that way because they spent more time learning and practicing, not less time learning.”  

Toward the end of each semester we always take a chapel service to feature classical music performed by UVF music majors. There are usually about 10 special presentations of extremely complex music. Students practice all semester for their performance before faculty and peers.

Most of the music requires someone to accompany them on the piano. One of the music professors had practiced all semester with these students but just days before the concert, he received word of his father’s passing. We all knew that the place he needed to be was with his family in New Mexico and our thoughts and prayers were with him.

None of us were thinking about the Monday morning concert except for Dr. Billy DeSanto, chair of the UVF Music Department. When he knew late in the week that his colleague would be gone, he stepped up to the moment and learned all their music over the weekend. He also conducts the UVF Choir and on Sunday of that weekend they sang at a church in New Jersey and he also was there with them.

You just don’t wake up one day and say you are going to accomplish such an amazing example of excellence. None of us who attended that concert would have ever known what he had to do over that weekend to be prepared for the concert, and it was only after I asked him that he told me what he had to do. He never could have done that had it not been for the years of practice that had become a part of his very life. 

Andre Previn captured the importance of practice when he said, “If I miss a day of practice, I know it. If I miss two days, my manager knows it. If I miss three days, my audience knows it.”

Many estimate that to become the best of the best at anything, it takes no less than 10,000 hours of practice over ​10 years, or about 2.7 hours a day to accomplish that. 

And as H. Jackson Brown said, “You can’t hire someone to practice for you.”

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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