I delight, as Head of RISD's Department of Teaching + Learning in Art + Design, when I hear from an alum who shares with me something of their professional and/or creative practice. A recent post to TLAD"s Facebook Group by MA alumna Rohini Sen was such a communication in which she reflected on the nature of practice emanating from a recent experience of crocheting doilies (coasters). It was such a thoughtfully constructed essay that I felt it needed an even wider audience, hence its publication here.
A Note on Practice
During a crochet session with my fabulous teacher Jaishree Venugopal, we just decided to make this mini doily, both of us following the same pattern. Of course we were far too ambitious and we did not complete it that afternoon. The pattern is called Sunmote by Julie Hart. As you can see, I came home and decided to make a set of four. As I was working on each of these mini doilies/coasters, I began to think about this line we commonly hear – Practice makes perfect. I am not sure that I can agree fully. That wonderful feeling of “Oh I made this!” did not return when I completed the second, third and fourth piece because I already knew that I could make this. When I put them together and photographed them as a set, I appreciated the way the colors were meeting each other. However I did not see a difference in the handling or skill from the first one I made to the fourth one.
My tension (the tautness with which you hold the crochet thread and manipulate with the hook) was consistent, the stitch count was correct and the finer thread aligned well with the thicker base. So what did the act of repetition, making four of the same pattern, do for the perfection of my practice? Now let me point out some of the choices I made along the way. The first one was the dark pink and it was made with scrap thread that was kindly lent to me by Jaishree. When I decided to make a set I thought or judged I had enough thread for the outer part and began work on the purple one only to get jittery at the second last round because I had misjudged and the thread was about to run out. I looked through my yarn stash and found something a few shades darker and finished the piece. When I moved on to the third one, I chose pearlized cotton thread for the outer portion – it gave me that dreamy, smooth textured look I desired but it was a pain to work with and the layers didn’t show up like how it did with the sturdier beige thread. The picots on the edge were limp and lifeless. I was too far along to frog the whole portion and start over so I decided to problem solve with the fourth one (the aqua one) wherein I used the pearl cotton thread for everything except the last round, I completed the picot edging with a sturdier cotton thread. There is a slight difference in the shade of white (or BIG difference if you are finicky about your white! I am planning a whole series on ‘shades of white’!) but I can say I was happy with the finished piece. I think it is this problem solving nature of practice that leads to discovery and personal mastery. That might be one way of looking at the saying practice makes perfect.
If practice was all about repetition, I doubt it would lead to any sort of finesse, I would even say that if practice becomes solely about repetition, the boredom caused by the monotony would perhaps result in a piece not worth looking at. The need for embedded discovery to open the door of confidence and for that confidence in turn to attain personal mastery is what practice should be about. No teacher can ‘teach’ this embedded discovery I am talking about but what a teacher can do is to facilitate that journey.
When we teach, we talk very little about process and practice. I am reminded of my Carnatic violin lessons in Rishi Valley with Seshadri Sir (another person who will remember very well is Ranjit Gulvady but hope he remembers a little more than our constant bickering and Seshadri Sir telling us to shut up). When I was not getting a note right, we would be sent to the ‘practice room’ and you had to keep at it. So this time after 30 minutes of struggling with the note in the practice room I looked up and saw Seshadri sir sitting with his hand on head “No ma” – he said to me, “Don’t simply hold that bow and keep doing the same thing! That way it is not coming out right, no? Increase the pressure with which your finger is touching the string and try. Then decrease the pressure of your finger and try, then slide your finger slightly and try. Then only you will come to know what is the right sound.” I do not remember if I finally got the note right or not, it has been 12 long years and I do not play the violin anymore. But as I try to think about lesson plans, teaching methodologies and ways of making my own art practice progress I remember the words of some wonderful teachers I was blessed to have. Practice for me cannot happen without curiosity, discovery, problem solving and reflection – which is why I do not want to just put a picture of a crocheted doily without telling you the thoughts that wafted through it’s layers as I crafted it.