What being a rapper taught me about practice

Dear Huhana and Kāhu,

I was about eight-years-old when I realised how shy I was, how badly I got stage fright, and that I could never, ever, ever rap in front of a crowd.

My legs were only a bit bigger than yours are now when I ran from my primary school library crying. I was meant to read something aloud to a class group, and I was too scared to do it. I don’t remember their faces or what I was reading, but I can still feel the panic in my chest, the tears on my cheeks, and the embarrassment as I ran.

Ten years later I moved to Wellington to study. I’d always written hip hop, rap songs. Rhyme books were my first journals. But I assumed I would always be too shy to perform them.

One night I was hanging out in a bar with a local MC (a rapper) and a friend told him I wrote music.

2010 – or something like that


“Cool, spit me a verse,” he asked – out of politeness I guess.

Rap in front of a human? No way, I’m too scared.

In hindsight, the fear was a good thing. It meant I cared about what I was doing. At the time though, it felt like my stomach was eating itself into a walnut sized lump, and the scaffolds holding up my eighteen-year-old heart had been kicked out from under it.

“Bro, don’t be shy, just rap. It’s only us here.”

So I rapped. Then I finished. The guy nodded. Then he took another sip of his drink.
And my heart was still beating and nothing else happened – later, he even told me I was good.

A few weeks passed, then that new friend asked me to jump on stage and perform during his set at a festival called the Cuba St Carnival.

Rap in front of a crowd? No way, I’d made my peace with the fact I’d always be a writer and not a performer.

That boot came back out and kicked, my heart dropped back down, and I thought long and hard about how I could refuse without looking weak.

It’s always easier to just say no, and when you do, everything always stays just like it was.

“Bro, don’t be scared, just rap. I’ll be up there too.”

So I rapped. Then I finished. People clapped. Then they left.
And my heart kept beating and nothing bad happened – then, the next year, I came back.

Over the next ten years, I performed so many times I have honestly lost count. It feels like hundreds, but it’s probably less. Some years I performed five times a month, some years six times in total. But what’s important is, I was still nervous for a long time. I even hated it for a while, hated standing in front of people. But I rapped. Then I finished. Then I did it again.
I practised.

I was starting from scratch, my performances sucked. Everyone always does at the start.
I wrote music most days, and like I said, I performed pretty often – so I got better, and eventually, good. That’s not your dreamer Dad bragging about how cool he used to be. It’s a fact. I recorded my first music in that little, concrete-floored bedroom at your Nana and Grandad’s in Otaki. Just like the performing, I was starting from scratch. The big clunky computer I recorded on was something you wouldn’t rescue from the garbage today – and that’s what my music sounded like for years. Much later on, people paid money to hear it. Because the quality got better, sometimes even, good enough to buy. The only thing I did differently between then and now, was practice.


Two-year-old-you watching  one of my music videos last month (link):
“You’re a funny daddy in this one, why are you wearing sunglasses inside.”
I practised writing music most days because I loved it – once I made it a habit, that was easy. I practised getting on stage even though I didn’t like it because I knew I needed the skill as a rapper – that was harder. That was what got me to good. I went from literally shaking with fear on the Cuba Street Carnival stage, to never feeling nervous in front a crowd. The only thing I did differently between then and now, was deliberate practice.


Deliberate practise is how people become talented. There’s no such thing as naturals. The people you see making things look easy, have just spent a lot of time practising, that’s all.

Generally speaking, there’s no genetically superior breed of humans who are naturally great at what they do. Superstar basketball players might have height through their genes, maybe some muscular advantages – the rest is learned. Deliberate practise is the stuff that hurts, it might even feel like work. It’s repetitive, it takes effort and motivation – and it’s what builds skill. Put effort into using that skill once you’ve built it, and that’s where achievement comes from. That’s when players get championship rings.


Talent x Effort = Skill.
Skill x Effort = Achievement.

I didn’t come up with that, it’s from Angela Duckworth’s book on Grit but I think it’s about right. The book explains it really well and is worth reading. I’ll finish my book notes on it soon and put it here with the rest (link).

I don’t have case studies or comparisons, I only have what I know and that’s what these letters are for. It took ten years of practice for me to get good at rapping (good, not great). But I could be an anomaly and completely wrong. Maybe people are born incredible musicians, genius writers or record-breaking swimmers. I don’t think so though – ask any competitive swimmer you know about the hours they spend at the pool. Ask a musician about the years they’ve spent practising.

I’m not going to tell you how to practise. Your mum and I will help with that when you find something you love more than putting on your gumboots and jumping in puddles. I’ll only say it needs to be regular (ideally: daily), and focused. The better quality your practice is, the better you will become, in less time. Practising something you can already do, isn’t really practise. It needs to be a stretch. But you probably figured that out already, you’re the smartest daughter we have.

Oh, and while you’re talking to your musician friend, ask her how happy she is. The other benefit with practising daily is that you end up spending an attention focused chunk of your life doing something you love. Your life is the sum of those days you spent in practice. Your brain interprets your self as well as the world around you. So, you are what you think. So… your self is made up of where you put your attention. Want to be a painter? Spend your days practising brush strokes, colours and depth. Want to be a rugby player? Spend your days practising the game. I haven’t really made music for about two years now, I’ve hit pause while I practise and learn to write stories. I’ve spent every morning writing (this book) for you, and while I know I’ve got about ten years to go before I’ll be any good at it, I’ve lived like a writer each morning before work and loved it.

And now I’ll sum all of that up in two sentences: Practice hard, and you’ll get better. Practice something you love every day and every day can be something you love. Pretty simple right? Simple but not easy. If it was easy then everybody who loved anything would spend the time it takes to get great.


I hope you find something that you makes you excited enough to roll out of bed at 4.30 to practise.

I hope you remember we all start from scratch and you’ll suck at whatever you do, for a while.

Most of all, I hope that whatever you do, gives your every day purpose and turns your life into something you love.

Love you


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