Übung – German for ‘practice’ – is both one of the earliest words I learned in German, and perhaps the first time I consciously heard the concept of regular, focused repetition as the means to an end. In this case, the means to playing a simple tune on the piano. I can’t recall just WHAT I practiced and eventually played. I do, however, clearly recall the circumstances that motivated me.
I was living in Germany, just turned 9, and the two girls of the family I stayed with both took piano lessons with Fräulein Weniger. She was lovely, the kind of European woman I since came to admire greatly: hearty, demanding, attractive in a firm no-nonsense kind of way – and smelling deliciously of a particular perfume that will always conjure this memory. As for practicing: the old upright piano resided in the parental bedroom, which meant practicing by day when Rolf was at the chem lab. Anytime he was home there was strict silence, strict adherence to his schedule and needs, strictness, period.
So perhaps my earliest associations with practice align with strictness, a certain harsh rigidity alongside a certain soft femininity that co-existed silently, secretly, securely in my heart. Another prompt, that.
I am no stranger to practice. You don’t learn foreign languages without it. You don’t move beyond rote scales on the piano without it. You don’t even try to facilitate a circle of becoming-conscious women without a lot of it. In fact, there isn’t much I can think of that doesn’t require practice of some sort.
I now recall the first dress I confidently attempted to make. I bought some (expensive) Merimekko fabric from Design Research in Harvard Square in the early 60’s thinking, perhaps, that the source of the fabric might somehow confer success on the project. Mind you, I had never in my life sewn anything; I had watched my mother sew yards of crinoline for a high school prom dress for my older sister. I had peered at her old Necchi sewing machine with its treadle and knobs and needle without understanding a thing about it. But I was always a determined young thing, so details like lack of knowledge or practice didn’t slow me down one bit. I bought a yard of bright fabric in shades of pinks and oranges, a splashy print just begging to become a simple sundress. Once home with it, I held it up, determined an approximate outline of my body, and cut. I imagine you know the rest of the story. Suffice it to say, there’s a LOT that goes into creating a dress, but one thing I learned that day was what you see is NOT where you start.
And perhaps that is the big lesson I’ve learned about practice: that it makes you appear to have come by whatever IT is, naturally. You can only be that comfortable in your skin – whether that skin be words, a tasty meal or a warm shawl – through much practice behind the scenes. Practice through discouragement, mistake, and doubt; practice until you reach a place of confidence. Maybe not so much in your ability to master, as in your ability to try; and for that to be enough. In creating, as in practicing, we are providing an opportunity, an opening, a possibility; something that can only be realized with time and intention. Something that allows, even encourages, that silenced feminine strength to flourish if only for the pure pleasure of the process, the feel and taste and sound of it, the experience of that power unleashed, the ability to make something through trial and persistence. Yes, those are the strict parts: but also through instinct, desire, love of the process itself.