Does practice make perfect?

The value of five-finger exercises and pawn endings

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One of the things I disliked most in my childhood was piano practice. Not that I disliked playing the piano; in fact, I spent quite a lot of time sitting at the piano and playing things through. But I did very little practising. Playing scales, or other keyboard exercises, were things I almost never did. Partly, this was because my piano teacher (whom I liked very much and to whom I owe a great deal) did not teach me how to practise, nor explained to me why practising is important, and how it differs from playing pieces through and hoping that by repetition you will play them better.

Much the same was true of my early experiences of playing chess. I learned the moves from my father; I played at a club at school and later for a club in the local league; but all I ever did was play games. I did try to memorise some common opening moves (which I found very difficult to do beyond the second or third move), but no-one ever suggested to me that playing chess might be a skill that required practising.

The proverb, “Practice makes perfect” therefore intrigues me. What exactly is practice? Is it just playing a piece on the piano again and again, or playing games of chess as often as possible, with the hope in both cases that  improvement will be the inevitable result? Or is there more to it than that? Equally, what does it mean to play music, or to play chess, “perfectly”? Is that even possible? And will it result from proper practice?

My attitude to piano practice changed abruptly and forever when I was sent to a new teacher as part of starting my music studies at university. That teacher was Phyllis Palmer, who is something of a legend amongst those who ever studied with her. At my first lesson, she told me that the piece I played to demonstrate my standard was badly chosen, my posture was dreadful, and my technique was poor. She also introduced me to a book of piano exercises, recommending I try the easiest two. “These,” she remarked, “are what a professional would use for the whole of their career.”

What do you do when you practise?

Here is one of those piano exercises by Dohnányi to which the redoubtable Phyllis Palmer introduced me:

Finger exercise (Dohnanyi) transparent

When I first saw this, it looked trivially easy. You put your five fingers on the five white notes C, D, E, F and G, and only use one hand (to begin with; you add the other hand, an octave lower, later). You keep one note depressed while you play the others. The pattern changes by one note in each bar until it repeats itself. Easy.

Then I tried playing it. I couldn’t.

Nowadays, I often start a practice session with this exercise, which trains your fingers to move independently, and makes them stronger. It is an exercise that shows the value of practising.

Now here is a chess position to which, a year or two earlier, an older member of my chess club introduced me:

pawn ending exercise 4 (Black to move and lose)
A pawn ending. Black to move.

“What do you think of this position?” He asked me. “It’s Black to move.”

“It looks like a dead draw,” I replied.

“Quite right. Try and play it out.”

Since Black’s king  can’t go forwards, I moved it one square backwards. “Ah!” said the older player who then, in a few more moves, forced my king into the corner, took all Black’s pawns, and won.

The position should indeed be a draw. But of Black’s five legal moves, four lose. It is a position which shows the value of practising.

Five-finger exercises and pawn endings

There is an affinity between five-finger exercises and pawn endings like the ones above. They enable you to develop the kind of ability which underlies much more complex tasks, which however cannot be attempted unless the “practice” task is completely mastered.

The piano exercise by Dohnányi is not a great piece of music, but if you can play it perfectly, then your fingers will be able to attempt the counterpoint of a Bach fugue or the figuration of a Chopin Étude. Equally, the pawn ending is not a great game of chess; but if you know how to draw and not lose the ending, you will be able to tread a path through real, tricky endgames.

Both kinds of exercise look deceptively simple. The first bar of the Dohnanyi exercise is fairly easy, in fact; the second bar is a lot harder, and the third bar really takes practising. Pawn endings share this deceptive quality. Here is an apparently symmetrical, equal position; White is to move. It is a win for White.

pawn ending exercise (White to win)
White to play and win

On the other hand, if the kings are anywhere except in the corners, the result is different:

And here is a similar position where, if White is to move then White will win, while if Black is to move then Black can draw:

pawn ending exercise 3 (White move win Black move draw)
White to move and win; Black to move and draw

How do you practise?

Now that I am no longer a child, and thanks to Phyllis Palmer’s accurate assessment of my weaknesses, I enjoy practising the piano. A regime of Dohnányi’s A Legfontosabb Ujjgyakorlatok [Essential Finger Exercises] and Bach’s immensely beautiful, immensely tricky 48 Preludes and Fugues (Book 1 in odd-numbered years, Book 2 in even-numbered years) will keep me happy for the rest of my life, I should think.

Practising chess technique used to be more laborious, requiring books of puzzles, endgame studies, and the like, as well as a board and pieces (unless you could play blindfold, which I cannot). That, however, has been entirely changed by the internet. Nowadays, a regime of practising using an internet chess site is a direct parallel to practising a musical instrument. The examples above were endgame puzzles; here is an example from Chess.com’s training website, where you need to remember basic pawn technique to win an ending that looks as if it comes from a real-life chess game:

pawn ending exercise (Chess.com tactic 175366)
Chess.com tactic 175366. White to move and win. Click to try it yourself!

I try to practise every day. Like Schumann, I try to make Bach my “daily bread”. In chess, I am still very poor at endgames, partly because I prefer to practise tactical puzzles which reinforce the kind of pattern recognition I waxed lyrical about in Creating patterns.

I certainly don’t manage to practise the piano every day, but I do usually manage to practise chess tactics (which takes a lot less time). And in both realms, there is no doubt that my technique has become a lot more secure.

So, does practice make perfect?

No, of course it doesn’t. At least, not in the sense that I will ever become a pianist to rival András Schiff or a chess player to rival Magnus Carlsen. However, what practice can perfect is that underlying technique that can allow you to aspire at least to competence. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred I can play that Dohnányi exercise as well as anyone; and ninety-nine times out of a hundred I can draw a drawn pawn endgame, or win a won pawn endgame. It is practice that enables me to stop worrying about the routine business of playing the right notes or choosing reasonable moves, and get on with the rewarding business of interpreting great music or formulating chess strategy. But in both contexts, that is true only if I keep practising, daily if possible.

Even a professional pianist or a professional chess player has to practise – in fact, professionals practise an awful lot more than I do or could. It was Phyllis Palmer herself who first gave me that well-worn adage: “An amateur practises until they can get it right. A professional practises until they can’t get it wrong.”

Author: Robert Samuels

I teach music for The Open University and play chess for Cowley Chess Club in the Oxfordshire Chess League.

2 thoughts on “Does practice make perfect?”

  1. A great read. It fascinates me how many areas of activity are affected by practise.

    In my early years in The City I analysed hundreds of sets of corporate accounts, working out mathematical ratia to determine likelihoods of business/project success or failure. Doing all those calculations brought me to the point where I could just look at the numbers and know whether my eventual conclusion would be a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. I still had to do all the work so I could justify my decision to my superiors, but my final ‘by the book’ conclusion never differed from that first instant opinion. That was all down to the ‘practise’, not simply experience. I know that because I now have more experience than ever but I haven’t done the constant practise for years – and now, on the odd ocassions I need to study a set of accounts, I no longer have that 100% correlation between my first impression and my final opinion. It’s probably down below 85% now.

    Theaw days, working primarily as an artist, practise is something completely different, but it’s still necessary and still not simply a matter of repetition. I have to practise mark-making, especially with the more difficult to control tools like the spitsticker used in wood engraving.

    It isn’t only that manual control either: I need very literally to keep my eye in. A commonly recommended exercise for photographers is to spend a day, or a week or a month, using only a single, fixed focal length, lens for all one’s work. That restriction becomes more than an obstacle to overcome, forced to find compositions that work from a single perspective. In the end it becomes liberating: by removing choices one is freed to give more attention to, and be more flexible with, the options that remain. Even the restrictions of working on a commission, interpreting someone else’s choice of subject and working to realise their vision while still aiming to put one’s own imprimatur and ‘style’ into the finished work, can have a powerful effect in moving my own work forwards.

    These benefits of practise seem to come, often, as a surprise. When I teach photography my students often rebel against the restrictions of the exercises I set them, and then, surprised by the liberatiom they find, return the next day eager for more.

    I think in my rambling way I’m saying that I agree with you – and have found that the effects you describe in chess and music practise also occur in other fields, both artistic and ‘not’.

    Like

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