Why We Practice and The King’s Speech

Tom and I went to see The King’s Speech on Saturday night. Lila went on strike beforehand, as she inevitably does when we have date night. “OK, well, you have to tell me the whole story about the movie afterwards,” she shouted as we hustled out the door, our ears hiked up to our shoulders from the guilt.

So we did. The next day on the way home from church, we told her a tale about two brothers. David, the older one, was good at lots of things. Activities came easily to him. He laughed a lot and people liked him. And everyone said he’d be king when he grew up.

His younger brother, Bertie, was not so lucky. He was born with bowed legs and had to wear braces on them. (“What are braces?” asked Lila. “Like what Emma wears on her teeth.” “Oh, yeah those.”) Then when he was five, he started to stammer. Stammering is different from stuttering, we explained, demonstrating both. Stuttering is when the words come out staccato. Stammering is when the words won’t come out at all. No one knew why he stammered, but his brother and their friends thought it was funny, and they teased him and imitated him.

We also told her about the various therapists Bertie saw who tried to teach him to talk without stammering. She liked the part about Bertie trying to talk with marbles in his mouth, and the singing, waltzing, shouting outside, blurting inappropriate words. She liked that Bertie’s teacher, Lionel, helped him the most by being a good listener and a good friend.

Tom took over the story, and between the two of us, a couple of babysitters, and my mother, Lila spent the next two days getting as many versions of The King’s Speech as she could. She will now tell anyone she encounters about the movie.

A few days later, as we were practicing violin, Lila said, “Oh, I know why David was good at stuff. He must have practiced all the time, right Mama?”

I was stunned. She was repeating something her Suzuki teacher Emily Greene had said to her last August. “Do you know why we practice, Lila?” Lila had shaken her head. Emily leaned in and whispered. “To make it easier.” This had been a profound moment for me, but I was surprised that Lila had taken it in so deeply as well.

“So,”  I explained to Lila. “There are two ways you might be good at something. One way is something people call ‘talent.’ That’s when you run fast or read early or sing on tune when you’re little, or draw really well,” I said, though as the words came out, I realized how meaningless this must be to her in the world she inhabits. I don’t think it’s ever occurred to her that some kids are good at some activites and some kids are good at others–or even more to the point, that some kids aren’t good at some things. Right now it’s all play. Right now, the only thing she notices is who will play with her and who won’t.

But I went on. “The other way you get good at something is by practicing.  Like the way you play violin every day, even on days when you don’t want to. If you practice something really consistently, you will be good at it eventually. And if you don’t practice something, you won’t ever get better.”

Lila nodded and played a couple of notes on her violin. Then she said, “Like what?”

“Well,” I said, searching. “David was good at things like horseback riding,” (This I got from the one photo of him we could find on the internet that showed him as a boy–Lila had said, “Show me pictures of David doing things that were easy.”) “And he probably liked it, too, and it was easy for him, so he did it a lot–which is practicing. So he probably got better and better at horseback riding. But one thing he didn’t practice was doing things that were hard for him.  Like paying attention to other people’s feelings. That’s hard to do. Plus, it was really hard to be king! Especially at the time he was made king. There was a war going on.”

Lila nodded impatiently. World War II is old news to her–after all, she has seen The Sound of Music. “I know, Mama. And that’s why Bertie had to learn to talk. To tell the people about Hitler.”

“Yes, and that’s what I liked best about the movie,” I said. “When people practice really hard, the way Bertie did to learn to speak without stammering, it makes them very good at what they’re practicing. In fact, it makes them even better than the people who had natural talent to begin with. Maybe because they appreciate how precious that thing is that they have learned to do. Like you with violin.”

About nields

musician, writer, mom
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One Response to Why We Practice and The King’s Speech

  1. nields says:

    I love this post, Nerissa. I think all the time about the idea that there is no such thing as talent. It is hard for me to believe because I see kids who seem to be able to do things without any training at all. So I really appreciate the explanation you gave Lila. There is such a thing as talent, but it is not the only path to mastery; in fact, it probably isn’t even the best path to mastery.

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