Ten Thousand Hours

At one recent yoga class, our teacher, Karen, asked us to close our eyes. She then asked us to raise a hand if we practiced yoga at home in addition to our one-hour-a-week class.  She then told us about a one-page (perhaps apocryphal) book called How To Become an Expert in Everything. Supposedly, the one-word text in the one-page book was “practice.”

Anders Ericsson and colleagues at Florida State University, in 1991, proposed a theory that Malcolm Gladwell made famous in his highly successful book The Outliers (2008): namely that with 10,000 hours of “dedicated practice” nearly anyone can become an expert in anything. However, a recent study has called some of these findings into question. A Business Insider article from earlier this year reports that psychological scientist Brooke Macnamara of Princeton University and colleagues

found that practice accounted for just a 12% difference in performance in various domains. 

What’s really surprising is how much it depends on the domain: 

• In games, practice made for a 26% difference

• In music, it was a 21% difference

• In sports, an 18% difference

• In education, a 4% difference

• In professions, just a 1% difference

The best explanation of the domain dependency is probably found in Frans Johansson’s book The Click Moment.

In it, Johansson argues that deliberate practice is only a predictor of success in fields that have super-stable structures. For example, in tennis, chess, and classical music [emphasis mine], the rules never change, so you can study up to become the best. 

Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day of practice over ten years.  Perhaps this explains why some cultures that value proficiency in classical music will push their children to achieve greatness at earlier and earlier ages. However, even though you can find instances of Asian children, for instance, playing “perfect” renditions of quite difficult classical pieces at extremely early ages, their performances are often (but not always) criticized for lacking emotion.

As Daniel J. Levitin notes in his 2006 book, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, “there is more to being a musician than having excellent technique. Both Arthur Rubenstein and Vladimir Horowitz are widely regarded as two of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century but they made mistakes—little technical mistakes—surprisingly often.  [. . .] But as one critic wrote, ‘Rubenstein makes mistakes on some of his records, but I’ll take those interpretations that are filled with passion over the twenty-two-year-old technical wizard who can play the notes but can’t convey the meaning.’”

So I wonder how many hours I have practiced in my nearly seventy years?  I won’t count the many, many years between my two bouts of serious study (i.e. taking lessons). So let’s say for 21 years, ages 7-18, and 59-69, I played an average of 30 minutes a day.  That amounts to a total of less than 4,000 hours.  So it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever reach even the once-thought necessary and sufficient 10,000 hours of practice to become “expert.”

“There is no doubt that deliberate practice is important, from both a statistical and a theoretical perspective. It is just less important than has been argued,” says Macnamara. “For scientists, the important question now is, what else matters?”

Levitin suggests an answer: “What most of us turn to music for is an emotional experience. We aren’t studying the performance for wrong notes, and so long as they don’t jar us out of our reverie, most of us don’t notice them. So much of the research on musical expertise has looked for accomplishment in the wrong place, in the facility of fingers rather than the expressiveness of emotion.”

My piano teacher, Stefanie Jacob, and the head of the piano department at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, Teresa Drews, played a concert last night at the Conservatory: one piano, four-hands.  While watching them play together (yes, they used music), I noticed, not only the physical strength and apparent effortlessness of even the most difficult music (Ravel, Schubert, Rossini and Dvorak), but also the obvious feeling that played across their faces and bodies as they moved through the extremely varied emotions required by the music. 

Levitin again: “If music serves to convey feelings through the interaction of physical gestures and sound, the musician needs his [sic] brain state to match the emotional state he [sic] is trying to express. Although the studies haven’t been performed yet, I’m willing to bet that when B.B. [King] is playing the blues and when he is feeling the blues, the neural signatures are very similar.”

I’ll bet that, too.

In my case, however, I know that concern for playing a piece correctly gets in the way of emotional expression until, at least, I have learned the piece to an extent (i.e. put in enough hours) that will allow me to turn my attention to completely feeling the emotion suggested by the piece. I imagine it’s like an actor memorizing lines. Until they are truly his/hers, it is probably difficult to let flow the emotion supposedly called forth by those lines. And yet I know there are musicians (my teacher included) who come to both technical proficiency and emotion simultaneously: they somehow “hear” the emotion from the beginning and can immediately express it. Maybe this is partly because much of the classical canon is so familiar, especially to someone who has a degree in music and has studied music history. But then how do they do it with music they’ve never heard before, such as much of the modern and contemporary music I have come to admire and even love?

Interesting questions, for now unanswerable, at least as far as I’m concerned.

I do like Levitin’s point that I’ve made before in this blog. He says, “We also know that, on average, successful people have had many more failures than unsuccessful people. This seems counterintuitive. How could successful people have failed more often than everyone else? Failure is unavoidable and sometimes happens randomly. It’s what you do after the failure that is important. Successful people have a stick-to-it-iveness. They don’t quit.”

Speaking of which, two of the seven publishers to whom I sent The Beautiful Unnamed have already rejected it.  But quitting is unthinkable to me.

Stefanie once remarked, perhaps when I described the recital I envisioned for my 70th year, “You’re ambitious aren’t you?” When I said yes, she said, “So am I.”

Apparently, really caring about something marks those experiences as important to the brain. Levitin again: “If I really like a particular piece of music, I’m going to want to practice it more, and because I care about it, I’m going to attach neurochemical tags to each aspect of the memory that label it as important.”

So where does this leave me? Well, I am an ambitious amateur, who cares deeply about the music I’m playing, and who hopes to recreate that emotional experience as smoothly and intensely as possible for my listeners a little more than six months from now.

So mote it be.


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