Amateurs Practice Until They Get It Right; Professionals Practice Until They Can’t Get It Wrong

George W. Loomis? Percy C. Buck? Harold Craxton? Julie Andrews? Anonymous?

julie02Dear Quote Investigator: The creator of the following insightful saying was listed as unknown:

Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.

While searching for background information I came across this interesting variation:

Amateurs practice till they get it right; professionals practice till they can’t get it wrong.

Could you find out more about this modern dictum?

Quote Investigator: Because this adage can be expressed in many ways it is difficult to trace. The earliest evidence located by QI was in the domain of education in 1902. A school superintendent named George W. Loomis whose talk was recorded in the “Michigan School Moderator” discussed the best way to teach students to spell properly and employed a precursor of the modern proverb. Boldface has been added to some excerpts below: 1

It must be admitted that spelling is not taught successfully; indeed, the difficulty lies in the fact that it is seldom taught at all. Spelling lessons are assigned, studied, recited, but not taught. Much of the time spent in hearing children recite—guess till they get it right—should be spent in a definite teaching process, until they can not get it wrong.

In 1922 the distinctive second half of the expression was used in an educational book titled “Swimming and Diving”: 2

This coordination of arms and legs is perhaps the most difficult as well as the most important thing about the breast stroke. After each element has been mastered separately, practice the combination on land until you cannot get it wrong.

In 1944 a full version of the adage appeared in the volume “Psychology for Musicians” by Percy C. Buck who was an organist and a prominent Professor of Music at the University of London. This popular book was reprinted several times in the succeeding decades. Buck did not take credit for the saying which was presented as an anonymous definition: 3 4

What is the real difference between a professional and an amateur? Does not your mind immediately turn to the shallow explanation of money-payments? Two definitions have been made which may help you to think deeper than that:

“An amateur can be satisfied with knowing a fact; a professional must know the reason why.”

“An amateur practises until he can do a thing right, a professional until he can’t do it wrong.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1963 the saying was used again in the music domain in a newspaper in Iowa. An orchestra conductor named Dr. Francis Mayer of St. Thomas University, Minneapolis spoke the expression: 5

Dr. Mayer told the group that the difference between an amateur and a professional is that “an amateur practices until he can do everything right and a professional practices until he can’t do anything wrong.”

In March 1971 an instance of the expression was printed in a newspaper article by the journalist Peter Crossley about a Canadian music festival: 6

“An amateur practices until he gets it right; a professional practices until he can’t get it wrong” said adjudicator Kenneth van Barthold in adjudicating Class 245 — Pianoforte Solo — advanced — final at the Planetarium Auditorium in the Friday evening session of the Manitoba Music Competition Festival.

In November 1971 Peter Crossley included the saying in another article he wrote. The domain of application was switched from music to theater, and the word “practices” was replaced with “rehearses”: 7

It is said in theatre that an amateur rehearses until he gets it right but a professional rehearses until he can’t get it wrong.

In 1988 a partial instance of the adage was included in the novel “A Postcard from Rome” by David Helwig: 8

Edith had always obeyed a piece of advice that Faith had given her early on: if you are a professional, you do not practise until you can get it right, you practise until you cannot get it wrong.

Top quotation expert Nigel Rees included an instance of the adage in the April 1994 issue of his ‘Quote … Unquote’ Newsletter. The words were attributed to the music professor Harold Craxton: 9 10

‘Amateurs [musicians] practice until they can get it right; professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong’ (quoted by Harold Craxton, one-time professor at the Royal Academy of Music).

In 1996 Robert Page, a Professor of Music and Director of Choral Studies at Carnegie Mellon University, employed the saying which he ascribed to the Oscar-winning actress Julie Andrews: 11

“Julie Andrews once said an amateur rehearses until he gets it right,” Page said. “A professional rehearses until he can’t get it wrong.”

The variation of the saying without the words “amateur” and “professional” appears to have been created relatively recently. Here is an instance used by a veterinarian in a Vermont newspaper in February 2013: 12

For safety and to offer your pet the best care we have to get it right every time. To do that, we practice together. We don’t practice until we get it right, we practice until we can’t get it wrong.

In conclusion, this saying with the words “amateur” and “professional” was in circulation by 1944, and its originator was anonymous. It has been particularly popular in the music domain.

(Great thanks to top lexicographical researcher Barry Popik who obtained important citations while tracing this expression. Many thanks to Jonathan Lighter and other ADS list participants whose electronic messages introduced QI to this expression. Special thanks to Nigel Rees whose wonderful newsletter discussed this saying. Great thanks to Jason DeVillains @TheCynicalRPh whose inquiry gave impetus to QI to prepare this article. Many thanks to James G. Cina who pointed out a footnote identifying the speaker in the 1902 citation.)

Update: On August 31, 2013 the name George W. Loomis was added to the article. Loomis was identified in a footnote to the 1902 article as the speaker whose talk was recorded in the Michigan School Moderator. On December 13, 2013 the citation for the fourth impression in 1946 of “Psychology for Musicians” was added. On March 3, 2015 the 1988 citation was added.

Notes:

  1. 1902 March 20, Michigan School Moderator (The Moderator), Editor Henry R. Pattengill, Volume 22, Spelling, (Footnote describes article: A talk to the critic teachers of the Central State Normal Training School by George W. Loomis, Superintendent), Quote Page 432, Column 1, Lansing, Michigan. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1922, Swimming and Diving by Gerald Barnes, Quote Page 37, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1944, Psychology for Musicians by Percy C. Buck, Quote Page 102, Geoffrey Cumberlege: Oxford University Press, London. (Fourth Impression 1946) (Note about date: QI believes that the quotation appeared in the 1944 edition, but currently QI has only examined a 1946 impression. Author Percy C. Buck died in 1947, and the front matter does not list any other authors. It also does not mention any revisions to the first edition in 1944.)(Verified on paper)
  4. 1944, Psychology for Musicians by Percy C. Buck, Quote Page 102, Oxford University Press, London. (Tenth Impression 1967)(Verified on paper)
  5. 1963 April 20, Carroll Daily Times Herald, Area Musicians Rehearse in City, Quote Page 5, Column 3, Carroll, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1971 March 6, Winnipeg Free Press, ‘Finesse’ Decides Winner by Peter Crossley, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Winnipeg, Manitoba. (NewspaperArchive)
  7. 1971 November 11, Winnipeg Free Press, U of W Play Both Good, Bad: A Review by Peter Crossley, Quote Page 28, Column 2, Winnipeg, Manitoba. (NewspaperArchive)
  8. 1988, A Postcard from Rome by David Helwig, Quote Page 158, Published by Viking, New York. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1994 April, The ‘Quote … Unquote’ Newsletter 1992-1996, Edited by Nigel Rees, (Kindle Locations 4133-4135), Kindle Edition First Published in 2012; Purchased August 2013.
  10. 2001, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Nigel Rees, Section: Professionals, Quote Page 350, [Cassell, London], Sterling Pub. Co., New York. (Verified on paper)
  11. 1996 October 3, The Virginian-Pilot, Evolving Virginia Chorale Looks Ahead as Season Opens by Craig Shapiro, Page E1, Norfolk, Virginian. (NewsBank)
  12. 2013 February 3, The Times Argus, Section: Vet’s View: Blogs, Pet Restraint, Barre, Vermont. (NewsBank Access World News)