Readers of this blog know that my approach to practice is based on patience, tenacity, and science. I read a lot of science books, admittedly many that are beyond my ability to fully comprehend. The process is frustrating, as I need to keep looking things up, rereading entire chapters, reviewing the math that I never really learned in the first place, and eventually putting the book down because my brain has completely shut down. There is also an occasional moment of revelation, especially when something rings true to my own experiences. I recently had such a moment of glory while reading Richard Dawkins' The Magic of Reality. (If you are so inclined, the iPad version is excellent, filled with clever animations, games, and beautiful illustrations.)
I was reading a beautifully explained passage on the slow and gradual nature of evolution. Dawkins guides the reader through a thought experiment where one takes a picture of their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc., and lays them out in huge stack. If we go back in history a very long way, we arrive at some ancestors that look very different from the way we look today. This imaginary march backwards through time leads us to ancestors that we share with other species, and inexorably into the sea, where all life began.
So what? What does this have to do with practicing to achieve musical mastery? Wait for it . . .
Dawkins points out that if we take any two adjacent portraits from the stack, the child will always very closely resemble the parent. In fact, a fistful of generations will be essentially identical in general appearance. Evolution happens so slowly that it is impossible to observe without taking large leaps through the pile. (Adaptations happen faster with living things that reproduce more quickly, which is why you don't want the flu shot from last year!)
When it comes to talent farming, the changes occur much, much faster than the glacial creep of evolution. But relative to the cosmic brevity of our lives, acquisition of mastery is a very gradual process. Dawkins reminds the reader that there is never a single day when a baby is suddenly a toddler, or a child clearly an adult. There will never be a single moment when I look into the mirror and see an old man in the reflection, but no matter how slowly the changes occur, I will eventually be a graying geezer.
The pursuit of mastery plays out exactly in this manner. There is never a single day that we triumphantly leap onto the stage as a heroic virtuoso that didn't exist in the moments before that concert. Skill doesn't click on like a light switch. The days look much the same, indistinguishable from each other. There will be perceived moments of sudden victory, but these are more like the teenager suddenly recognizing a grown-up in the mirror. Change doesn't happen suddenly, but it creeps up on us.
The next time you are feeling frustrated about your progress, consider that you didn't change from a toddler to a teenager overnight, but that change surely happened! Investing in regular practice will yield slow, steady progress - too slow to measure in short intervals. Keep working hard, and remember that every great artist started as a helpless baby, and that once upon a time, every atom in your body was forged in a star.