Profile In Ivy – Tom Heany

I am committed to doing many more profiles than last year. Well, actually, I am committed to doing more of everything than the last half of last year. So here we go.

Got back from the gym this morning, it was packed. A lot of resolutions. I am personally down 46 pounds from my biggest last year. I remember the beginning of the year last year, there were a lot of people starting at the gym to lose Covid weight. Remember Covid weight? They dwindled down in number, and by June it was the usual crowd and those of us who were sticking it out.

And it wasn’t desire, I don’t think. Everyone wants to make whatever changes they want to make. And it isn’t even about weight loss education, everybody knows the formula, burn more calories than you eat and you lose weight. And I don’t think it is even about motivation. No one starts trying to lose weight then says, “Nah, I am ok where things are.” I think it is that the process of making any long lasting improvement is in and of itself a practice. THEN there is what you are trying to change. But first, you have to know in general how to change.

Enter Tom Heany. Heany would be a profile on this site anyway because he is a master arpeggio (fingerstyle) folk guitarist who also happens to dress Ivy. Here:

That is an untucked WOCBD AND his father’s Hamilton tank watch.
Copyright: Andy Phillips. All Rights Reserved

Ivy inclinations established sartorially, allow me now to present Ivy inclinations intellectually. Tom Heany was the Director of Programming for the National Music Foundation for 16 years. Then, his wife got a disease so rare it was not even named at the time. For years, Heany was caretaker to his wife, a process of erosion that cost him his job, withered his finances to the point where he lost his house and “98% of everything we owned” and ultimately he lost his wife. Left with a few boxes and a car and a hole nothing could fill, Heany sought a solution in his music. And the practice, thereof. Specifically, he sought to heal through practice.

And to do that, he studied the art of practice, rather than just fumble through practice. And his research and experience produced his book, First, Learn To Practice.

Yeah, it is a book about practicing an instrument. Which may or may not be for you. BUT it is also about about how to really get better at anything, which SHOULD be for you.

So for New Year’s, pick your resolution, something you want to get better at, and follow the advice in the book. First, Heany says, “If you are not enjoying your practice, change it until you are.” Forget Atomic Habits (read it twice). The truth about making change is found here. Getting better at something, quitting something you are dependent on, both require practice and if you do not enjoy it, you will not do it. Welcome to human nature.

The next lesson is more complicated, but also fundamental. Heany talks about understanding what it is you want to produce before you start trying to produce it, and then working on the most basic element. For Heany, because the book focuses on learning to play an instrument, the formula is movement. Movement makes music. For my weight loss, what I wanted to produce was to be a decent boxer (more on that later) and I learned that the most important part about boxing training is footwork. And so I learned to move my feet.


Anyway, back to Heany. The rest of the book, a very good read because Heany is a master storyteller, is a look at the process of practicing and learning to love practicing as much as you love whatever it is you are practicing.

I’ve interviewed Heany twice on my other show. His story is inspirational, and I am going to ask him to do an Ivy-Style podcast too just to talk about his style. If you want, he did a Christmas show with me that you can catch here, it gets into the Ivy weeds a little. He worked for Dick Clark (who was Ivy for a spell) but most of his stories are about the intellectual pursuit of a better life through mastery of what you love. And his songs are remarkable too.

Buy the book here.

4 Comments on "Profile In Ivy – Tom Heany"

  1. Practicing. It’s certainly better than drugs or booze. I discovered practicing in the early 80s after a somewhat difficult time, nothing as traumatic as Tom’s. As a result I found a steady gig which financed…my practice habit. I became a practice-a-holic for about twenty years. Then came 9/11 and the GWOT, so I had to quit cold-turkey. That was 22 years ago, now. Everyone should discover the peace and joy of practicing something worthwhile. It is good to be good at something.

  2. Most of the things that make practicing work make everything else work, too. Structure. Habit. Scheduling. Honesty. Self-evaluation. Self-correction. Self-discipline. Lots of self stuff, because in the end no one else but you cares about your practicing, and there’s some magic in that. Practicing also seems to contain the opportunity (not necessarily something that works for everyone) to fold it into your identity – “I’m someone who practices.” I’d be interested to know how often practicing shows up in a life adjacent to difficult times.

  3. Charlottesville | January 3, 2023 at 4:03 pm |

    I played guitar, dobro and piano in my youth, but have unfortunately neglected them for years, perhaps picking out an occasional tune, but not really practicing. I should mend my ways.

    I note that my father too wore a Hamilton watch but, sadly, it was stolen at some point. However, I now am wearing a version from that era, and it looks remarkably like the one pictured above, including the shape and the second hand at 6:00.

    • I started on piano and still intend to get back to it, but I’ve been saying that for along time. My father’s Hamilton is currently in the shop. It has been revived a few times; I’m hoping it has one more life left in it.

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