Mistakes In Practice by Shunryu Suzuki: Reading and Meditation

October 19, 2020  • Todd Breyfogle

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Professional performers—from concert pianists to pool hustlers—have told me that if you want to be really good at something you need to practice at least 6 hours a day. At the height of his career, Michael Jordan still practiced free throws. Every author I have read has given the following advice on writer’s block: keep writing. But what separates good practice from bad? And how often do we really like to practice? A retired cellist friend once told me that as a child prodigy she hated practicing so much that she accepted her mother’s challenge—that if she didn’t practice, she would clean the bathroom every day instead. She did. For two years. 

Suzuki, the founder of the ubiquitous method of music instruction, differentiates between four levels of practice. Joy, he suggests, is an intermediate, and inferior, stage of practice. The highest stage is without joy. It is not that the highest stage of practice is joyless—perhaps it is beyond joy. In this final stage, it would seem, one transcends joy in a state of self-forgetfulness. You are the music while the music lasts. But the other three stages would seem to be a state of greater or lesser struggle. Where does the discipline of practice come from? What draws you on through the struggle of practice? What practice are you neglecting, and what will sustain you when the absence of intermediate joy threatens your practice altogether?

Todd Breyfogle, Denver, Colorado

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