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December 03, 2012


Excellent thoughts, Beth and I agree! I admire how you manage to do so many things so very well.

Since you ask....
Besides my art making, some of the skills I've mastered and practised over the years, like piano, sewing, batiking etc. while bringing up a family and taking care of a home and garden have fallen to the way side as more of my time has been devoted to my art. I could not do it all so I have chosen what is most important, and in spite of life's other distractions, I do feel maturity as well as practise has made me a better artist. I do continue to strive to keep learning and improving for that makes it interesting, challenging and rewarding. I've never counted the hours, I wonder what they would add up to?

How satisfying and right it is to read "I am a good overall amateur musician" without any qualifying false modesty that so often mars other blogs. The evidence is there for all to see; nobody could expect to achieve your weekly (monthly? annual?) throughput or its variety without it being true. Congratulations on your justified honesty.

I have loved reading your micropoems, Beth. And I love thinking about the ways in which this practice has made you more attentive to color and to your neighborhood.

These meditations on mastery are fascinating to me. I think, of course, immediately of poetry. Also of Torah. But I appreciate your inclusion of "parenting" at the end of this post -- I don't tend to think of it as something I am practicing (and might therefore be improving at ;-) so much as...it's just one of the things I am doing. But it takes up a lot of time and energy, and there is something satisfying in the thought of it as an art I can practice and can aspire to improve in.

I also derive some inspiration from watching your painting and your book-making and your singing. I hope that someday when parenting is taking up less of my mental / emotional space, I will move more wholly into growing in my arts as I see you doing.

Marja-Leena and Rachel -- you both bring up an enormous point, that for many people, and especially women, it's still true that parenting and homemaking take huge amounts of time that might otherwise be devoted to career or art or other pursuits. Although I didn't go the route of parenthood, my hoe has always been very important to me, and whether I was cooking a meal or making curtains or gardening or just straightening things up, I've always felt that making a home comfortable and welcoming for family and visitors was worthwhile, and an art in itself. I wanted to do those things - while at the same time, having a career and being an ardent supporter of women's rights and freedom of choice about how to live their lives. We should all write more, I think, about those choices.

Roderick, thanks...I wrote that with honesty but with a little trepidation, knowing that some people would read such a statement as tooting one's own horn rather than a simple statement of a fact. Self-deprecation seems to be the rule.

A few years ago i heard Yvon Chouinard speak.Chouinard is a famous mountain climber/adventurer who founded Patagonia an outdoor clothing company.He said its OK to be 90% good at something.The last 10% of the way to perfection isn't worth the time when you consider what you have to give up in relationships,fun,sex,goofing off and so on.I think you can even adjust that down to maybe even 80%.To be 20% short of perfection I'll take it.

As I have said before, Beth, what I envy so much about you is your musical life. I had some talent. Now my hearing is not very good, and music no longer gives me the pleasure it once did.
I am not so developed in skills as I would like to be and still am an amateur at most things, I fear. I'm glad I went back to school and got my degree in German, and I was a good English teacher, but I am now retired. Politics and media and blogging are my current passions.

Beth, have you read Richard Sennett's fine book, The Craftsman (shame about the title!)? I think it was there that I first read those figures re acquiring mastery, along with much about music (he was a musician long before a sociologist), other craft expertise, its disappearance in our times from the domain of labour and the deep implications of this... and much more.

John, thanks for this anecdote -- I think Chouinard is absolutely right. Some people seem to have extreme ambition and drive combined with a lot of talent - and probably a lust for fame - that propels them into that top 1%, but at the sacrifice of a lot that makes life enjoyable for the rest of us.

Hattie, I'm sorry about your hearing loss. It's something I fear, because I think I've already had a bit of it and people in my family have become pretty deaf in old age. It makes my current musical life precious to me. Good for you for going back to school and mastering a language and teaching English. I'm quite sure you were very good at it. Isn't it a happy thing that now we can keep learning all our lives, and pursuing changing interests, because of the web?

No, Jean, I haven't read it and I'm going right now to put it on my must-read list. Thank you -- I always take your recommendations very seriously!

I'm always aware of the time-spent/time-wasted/time-needed-for-mastery conundrum and always feeling guilty about it. Guilty when I don't live up to what I feel I should in terms of achievement, guilty for being so foolish as to worry about it, guilty for not being nonchalant enough, guilty for not being committed enough, guilty for blaming my upbringing, guilty for not overcoming my upbringing.
The list is long.
Guilty for making lists instead of getting on with something meaningful.
Guilty of commenting.
Guilty of not commenting.
What's my sentence?

Two chocolate eclairs and a delicious coffee. In other words, stop fussing and enjoy life - you've achieved a lot, Natalie! I wish I were a master of printmaking the way you are, for instance!

Beth, my tongue was in my cheek when I wrote that comment! Enjoyment usually comes first in my priorities which is why I don't achieve as much as I think I should. But thanks for that tasty sentence! I'll just have one eclair with the coffee.
BTW, the Blaug misses your visits....there are some walls you haven't seen.

determination is a key to mastery...
i strongly agreed with your line that "the more we practice-- with a reasonable combination of study, instruction, self-criticism and input -- the better we get, and the more satisfying the art becomes.
if we want to be a master in a specific field, then do something. dont just sit down and give your available time..instead make time to do it, to focus on it and at the end you can see the outcome.
mastery takes time but you can start it by believing in yourself, practice and focus on it.
thanks for this inspiring post..

What I've always wondered about the 10,000 hour rule is "how best" to spend those hours. Mastery through practice sounds logical, and perhaps there's even evidence to back this claim, but there must be more to it than the quantitative notion of putting in so many hours.

Practicing in the company of masters (either as a peer group, or "with" masters in absentia) will yield different results than practicing with "average" artists. Writing a lot each day is fine, but as long as I do not learn how to read, all that practice may not be as effective. Careful attention, the right company for guidance and inspiration - these are aspects that can make a lot of difference to all those hours. Perhaps there are more such qualitative factors, and perhaps one discovers them too with more practice!

Thank you for this thought-provoking post, Beth.

And thanks for your comment, "how to write a book."

Parmanu, yes, that's why I added "with a reasonable combination of study, instruction, self-criticism and input" in the last sentence. Mere repetition helps in certain areas, but doesn't change much in others, if there's no idea of what could be improved, or how to improve. You have to develop your own internal editor and internal critic, as well as asking for instruction and criticism earlier in the process of learning. Horowitz didn't need a teacher after a certain point, but you can bet he had a huge amount of training and criticism earlier on.

My adult piano teacher got right to the point, early on in our relationship. "There's no point in spending time playing the parts you know well and that are easy, but we all like to play them because they make us feel good. You have to spend the vast majority of your practice time on the phrases that give you trouble. Once you've mastered them technically, then you can start to work on the transitions between sections, and the overall interpretation." I hated playing scales and etudes and never did it very much; my technique has always suffered as a result. I was willing to work on technical section in real pieces, and that helped; no matter what other pieces -- usually two --I was working on, I always also had some Bach that I was doing, which helps tremendously. On the other hand I love to sight-read and am quite good at it, because I've done it a lot all my life and understand now how to quickly identify the problems as they occur and fix them. Sight-reading is like a diagnostic test... is the problem in the rhythm? In the fingering? In the competition between the two hands? As you read through harder pieces, you can see what you need to work on; it's like trying to ski down a slope that's harder than usual, or trying to ski top-to-bottom on a slope you know, but where you usually have to stop a few times, or skiing with people who are better than you are. There are analogies in all the arts, but it's easier to find them in music and the performing arts than in writing, for instance. Still, we need to be able to see if our descriptive writing is weak, or our dialogue, or if the rhythm of the writing is repetitive and boring, or musical and varied-- and so many other things.

We all have different weaknesses and strengths, and we enjoy cruising along on our strengths and avoiding our weaknesses - it's human nature. But mastery means having the discipline to identify and focus on what we're least good at, and learn how to work on that.

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.