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Practice Makes Perfect, Revisited

We’ve written before on what is generally called “talent,” which most people seem to define as some sort of innate skill that, if properly trained, can result in excellence. But in our article, which relied heavily on the research of Anders Ericsson, we presented a slightly different definition of talent. Here’s one key paragraph:

I think the most general claim here,” Ericsson says of his work, “is that a lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it.” This is not to say that all people have equal potential. Michael Jordan, even if he hadn’t spent countless hours in the gym, would still have been a better basketball player than most of us. But without those hours in the gym, he would never have become the player he was.

The main idea of our column is that “talent” is overrated; that practice really does make perfect; and that it’s a good idea to do what you truly love in life, because if you don’t, you probably won’t work hard enough at it to get really good.

I was reminded of all this recently while looking through the Summer 2006 issue of Daedalus. As with every issue, this one had a theme, which was “On Body in Mind.” It included a wonderful essay by Jacques d’Amboise (born Joseph Ahearn, btw), best known in his youth as a star dancer in George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet and later known as a choreographer and founder of the National Dance Institute. Here is how d’Amboise, now 72 years old, recalled getting his body and mind working together:

Early in the morning or on my days off, I sit in the empty auditorium, gazing at the stage. I am envisioning a variation from my repertoire, imagining, in detail, first how I will look in costume, then how I will enter the stage and from which wing. As if watching a movie, I then dance the variation in my mind the very best that I can, or even better — the leaps a foot higher, the space covered double what I have done in the past. I picture the expression on my face, the use of my arms and hands, and the speed at which I move. …

At first, I run this imaginary film to rhythmic counting alone (without music, melody, theme, harmony, etc.) — creating a blueprint of mathematical time. For example, I launch into a leap on the first count (or beat), float through the second and third counts, and land noiselessly on the fourth. Next, I rerun these movements, adding, in my head, the melody of the music in place of the counts. Each of these processes I repeat multiple times.

Now I am ready to make the imagined concrete. Up on the stage, I rehearse what I have envisioned — step by step, count by count, without music, over and over again. Sometimes I spend as much as two hours on a dance sequence that is perhaps one-and-a-half minutes long. During these repetitions, I count the beats out loud as I dance, even rehearsing how I will breathe. I also practice the dance movements in three different tempos: slow motion, ideal, and accelerated (in case the orchestra conductor has an adrenaline rush during the performance). I am now prepared to handle any tempo that may emanate from the orchestra pit.

Now keep in mind that this is how d’Amboise prepared when he was already a huge star. Practice makes perfect indeed.