I hate practice. But it works.
Roughly once a week my five year old asks me to draw with her. "Mum, pleeeeease draw with me?" Eventually I yield. I sound like a meanie mum for being reluctant, but let's be real. I know exactly how the drawing date is going to go down. But I give in, we find paper and pens and she sits down at the table expectantly.
"What shall we draw?"
There is never a right answer to this question. She asks me, so I do the polite thing and suggest something to draw, but she refuses all of them. "Flowers?" Too boring. "Family?" Already did that. See? There's one on the fridge. "Houses?" Don't know how.
She looks at me as though somehow I've fallen short of my elevated role as weekly drawing partner and inspiration and then says, with obvious disappointment in her voice, "I'll just draw a girl, then."
Okay. Fine by me.
She draws a girl, always with long hair and eyelashes, and because I want to make this into something that we're doing together, I draw a girl as well. I usually make the hair go down both sides of the head though. Because I think it looks better that way. I also use the proportional-limbs-to-torso style that my Dad taught me back when I was eight. For some reason I just don't feel right drawing arms that only go to the waist, or emerge from the neck. Then I draw a ruffly dress, or something a bit 'spesh', that maybe I wouldn't usually wear, and then I catch her eyes on me.
"You draw better than me."
I am not making this up. It happens every single time we draw together.
"You draw better than me. A lot better." She hangs her head, bams her pencil on the table, and goes to scruffle up her paper.
"Don't do that," I say. Every single time. "Look. You've done a great drawing. You've got a really great girl. And she's got arms, see? And.. are those shoulders? You drew great shoulders. You've done a really nice job."
It doesn't work. She recognises superior drawing when she sees it. "Well yours is like an artist. And I want to be an artist but mine isn't good."
(The other day my teenage daughter was hanging around watching this, so I said to her, 'You did exactly the same thing when you were four. You used to throw all your pictures away when I drew with you.'
She made a face. 'Yeah - because you always used to show off about your drawing.'
The five year old goes on. She asks the same question every single time. "How come you're so good at drawing?"
Now let me quickly assure my reading audience that I am absolutely NO GOOD at drawing whatsoever. However, the five year old does not yet know this. She thinks that because I can still draw a princess dress that would look adequate if a ten year old did it, I'm pretty alright. She asks again: "How come you're so good at drawing?"
Every week, I give her the same answer.
"Well, I'm nearly 43. I've been drawing for about 41 years. How old are you?"
She makes a face. "I'm five and a half."
I continue. "So really, I should be a better draw-er than you. If you were the same as me at drawing, it would mean that I hadn't learned anything since I was five." I shrug my shoulders at her. "You've just got to practice."
She does as close to an eye roll as five year olds can do. "Yeah, I know. Practice, practice, practice."
We have similar conversations about her violin playing, about the way I chop vegetables compared to her, about the speed with which I can make a bed or fold a shirt, and how I know how to plant a seedling in the vegetable patch.
"Practice," I say, over and over again. "Practice, practice, practice."
My poor child has so much to learn about practice and the art of gradual improvement. But when I think about it, I'm only just really learning it myself. When I pick up my cello and do my practice every afternoon, I get frustrated. It honestly doesn't seem any easier, any time I do it. Almost every time I put it away I think, 'I wonder when I'm actually going to be able to play this thing?'. But then I look back to when I started, nearly two years ago now. Every string squeaked. Every finger hurt. I could hardly play eight full bars of music without my shoulders complaining at me. "We're sore! Stop this!"
Now it's rare to get a squeak, and today I played a piece of music that was 130 bars long. Yes, I'm off pitch here and there, and my vibrato needs a lot of work (time to make the shoulders work even harder), but somehow, I got a lot better. Through practice.
We don't see the gains we make when we practice. It's hard to remember when you're five that this month you've learned to draw shoulders, or that when you were three, legs and arms were sticks that came out of a head. All of us tend to look ahead to where we want to go. We don't take enough time to look back and remember where we've been.
I've been practising patience and gratitude for many years. Some days I'm despondent; surely I should be able to do it better by now? Be less grumpy. Be more thankful. Other days I realise that I'm nearly 43 and a much sunnier, calmer person than I was when I was 27! I've been practising these for many, many years. And even though I don't see the gradual progress, it's there.
If you're practising something, keep going! Celebrate your daily grind and enjoy your weekly gains. If you're discouraged with practice, take a tiny break, but keep going! Look back: what have you learned this year that you could never do before? All the good things in life come through persistent, hard work and small, tiny gains that seem meaningless at the time you get them. But they all add up.
Practice, practice, practice. When you're 43, you might be able to draw as well as me.