The goal of disciplined piano practice is not to master the piano.
Shocking, I know. That can’t be right, can it? Why else would you practice? Why else would you spend hours—hours that you can never get back and that you could use any other way—doing the same thing, over and over again? What is the actual goal of disciplined practice for a piano player?
The goal is this: to experience the deepest possible joy from the piano.
It feels good to be skilled, and more skill equals deeper satisfaction.
Consider this: robots can master the piano. Surely there already exists, or soon will exist, a machine that can play “Moonlight Sonata” with even greater technical precision than any set of human fingers.
But the piano is not a machine, and pianists are not machine operators.
Rather, a piano (and any other musical or artistic instrument) is a conduit for joy.
Think of it as a kind of bridge. On one side of the piano, metaphysically trapped, lie combinations of notes that, when played at varying lengths and pitches, accumulate into something that both sounds and feels beautiful. This is music.
On the other side of the piano is you. The music is eager to rush into this world. It strains against its invisible boundaries, pressing its proverbial face to the glass, requiring only fingers capable enough to open the gate to the bridge and release it.
Something happens inside a well-practiced pianist when they play. To the listener it might sound like music emanates from the piano. But to the pianist, it feels like the music travels through them first, like an electric current. Only then does it spill over into the world.
That feeling of notes and melodies and phrases shocking up the fingertips and into the soul is the reason people gladly play instruments alone—or practice any other kind of skill, like dancing, knitting, public speaking, carpentry, etc.—for hours. It feels good. When practiced skill gives way to graceful execution, musicians stop thinkingabout playing and instead enjoy simply playing.
Discipline as a Skill
Holiness, obedience, spirituality, worship—like playing a musical instrument, these things are not activities. They are skills. And the goal of spiritual discipline—daily quiet time, weekly worship, Bible study meetings, regular prayer—is not for you to merely download knowledge, or have a satisfying spiritual experience. Discipline is also, mostly, for you to sharpen the skill of your Christian life. It is to slowly accustom your spiritual fingers to move from tapping clumsy two-note phrases to playing elegant sonatas of holy life.
Deep down, none of us likes not being obedient. If you’re a saved Christian, even one enslaved to the shallower pleasures of a particular sin or sins, some part of you wants to be good. Some part of you longs to live your life in uninhibited, unencumbered obedience to the Lord. You want it. And when you do it, it feels good. And then you want more of that life. Like a camera coming into focus, you want the gap between sinful you and holy you to shrink and disappear.
That gap is often talked about like it’s a failure of desire, or a passion gap—Why don’t you want it? How come your heart isn’t on fire for God? etc. And it is that, a little bit.
But it’s more like a skill gap.
Your Christian life is a skill. And discipline is how you get better at it.
Practices like daily Bible reading, daily prayer, fasting, giving, worship, and service form us in the way of Christ. Repeating them produces ability in daily Christian living: growth in our love for God, expansion of our capacity to love others, more instinctive, reflexive obedience in daily life. And when our prowess of obedience is trained to a taut kind of musical dexterity, the gap between clumsy, atonal sin and skillful, mellifluous holiness gets smaller. More and more of the beauty of holiness flows out into the world, and more and more of the joy of obedience flows into our souls. That joy is what we’re after. It’s what we were made to experience.
This is good news. Following Christ can be hard, but maybe not as hard as we sometimes make it. Probably the difficulty comes from having neglected practices that would advance our skill beyond that of a simple beginner. We would never expect someone who practices piano only on occasion to be adept at it, nor enjoy playing it. Why would we have the same expectations for our life following Christ?
I’m convinced there is more daily satisfaction for us in following Christ than we experience. The way into it is the way of the piano player: disciplined practice.
For more information about growing as a Christian through discipline, see the spiritual discipline books on the right.
Examen has drawn me more deeply into knowing God and myself. Through it, God has increased my gratitude and contentment while decreasing my anxiety and tendency to struggle with hope. It has also deepened my relationships with others.