I just watched a superb video by renowned New York landscape abstractionist painter, Brian Rutenberg, titled Studio Visit #43 in which, among other things, he eloquently discusses the subject of repetition. Coincidentally, I had been talking with my sister, a jazz musician/piano teacher just last night about this very topic. Laura was lamenting the fact that the majority of her students, especially her adult students, do not put the work required into practicing their lessons, but instead beg to be somehow automatically endowed with the ability to be great pianists, not later, but now. Because of this stultifying attitude, they do not and cannot possibly progress, wasting both their money and her time.
Laura and I began reminiscing about our high school Latin teacher, Virginia Snyder, whose mantra for learning anything was repetition. Back in the 1960s, we both launched a fantastic four year adventure in our freshman years of high school with this extraordinary woman. Miss Snyder was probably around 60 or so when I first met her at age 14. She had spent her whole adult life immersed in this fascinating and difficult study of a dead language and a long dead society. She was an eccentric non-conformist whose life revolved around her passion. She kept a framed picture of Julius Caesar on her desk and spent every summer in Europe, mostly in Italy, digging for more information to further her knowledge so that she could bring us back even more insight. I suspect that if she had lived to be 100, her quest would never have been satisfied.
Every night, we Latin geeks would be buried in hours of Latin homework, conjugating verbs, declining nouns, memorizing phrases and translating stories. It all seemed ridiculously labor intensive at the time, but today, I am so grateful for the life lessons this amazing woman taught us. She would stand in front of us with fire in her eyes and shout, “Repetition! Repetition! It’s the only way to learn!”, and then she would turn on her heel and write something cryptic on the blackboard to further mystify us all.
Remembering this about Miss Snyder also reminded me of one of my favorite art professors whose mantra was, “If you like something, do it again, and then again, and then again.” This is how series are borne, surely, but more than that, it is practice. And a painting professor once told us that portrait artist John Singer Sargent, whose deft hand could indicate a hair ribbon, for example, with a single swipe of color, would practice that swipe 100 times on his palette before laying it down on the canvas. It wasn’t an accident that his strokes looked so effortless, it was repetition. Artists need this practice in order to build their painting skills, just as one needs to conjugate verbs before translating the Iliad or learn scales prior to playing a concerto. Whatever it is that is your goal, repetition is the key to being the best at what you do.
Charlotte Cram, by John Singer Sargent, 1900