Temporal Relativism (1668 Hours)

In a recent article in the NY Times, a meta-analysis of 88 scientific papers on deliberate practice found that only 21% of the difference in performance between musicians was due to the number of hours they had practiced.   This would seem to call into question the entire democratizing premise of this blog (that anyone can achieve a certain level of mastery after 10,000 hours), and begs the question of what is causing the remaining 79% of performance difference?  The Times article claims that the difference is “talent” but the scientific paper it quotes actually states that the 79% is an unknown quantity.

Since the study was a “meta analysis” looking at a large number of studies, it can only show that variations within a group of people may depend on other factors besides the number of hours practiced.  It is important to remember that variation in an individual’s performance still depends entirely on the amount and quality of practice they put in.   In other words:  no matter how “talented” a person may be, you can’t get to Carnegie Hall without putting in 1000’s of hours of practice.   The exact number of hours to achieve “mastery” will vary from person to person, but there is a critical mass of hours for both the musically gifted and the musically challenged.

That being said…. it is also immediately clear that not every ability is influenced by practice.  Some traits & abilities are binary: you either have them or you don’t.  Most of these binary qualities can be learned or acquired, but are not significantly affected by practice.  Other skills are progressive: they exist on a continuous range and can be improved incrementally with practice.  Mastery of any musical instrument is a combination of binary and progressive skills & resources.  Having certain binary attributes can accelerate the benefit you get from practice because these binary skills influence not only the way you practice, but also help determine your comprehension of that practice.

Examples of Binary Traits:

  • perfect pitch
  • musical literacy
  • possessing passion/drive
  • knowing music theory
  • knowing good form
  • efficient practice routines
  • having a positive attitude
  • having a GOOD teacher
  • access to a quality instrument
  • owning a practice microphone
  • exposure to specific composers
  • working memory
  • understanding the biology of learning
  • understanding of basic physics
  • vocabulary

Examples of Progressive Skills:

Most of these binary traits and progressive skills are deeply linked together.  The NY Times study merely demonstrates that 21% of musical performance results from the small portion of progressive skills that are independent of binary traits.  In other words, only 1/5 of the skill gap within a group of musicians is from practice-based skills alone.  This does not invalidate the so-called “10,000 rule”, since thousands of hours of practice are still required for mastery.  It simply means that 10,000 hours is a rough estimate, and the benefit of each hour spent in the practice room increases dramatically with the acquisition of more binary traits.   Some people may call these prerequisites “talent.”  However only two items on the list are accidents of birth (Perfect Pitch & Working Memory), so I choose to call the sum of these binary traits: preparation.

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7 thoughts on “Temporal Relativism (1668 Hours)

  1. Pascal says:

    There’s also some skills prior to start playing an instrument that, in my opinion, can give an edge. Manual dexterity is one of them. I think bowing is a rather complex process that involves dexterity. The 10,000 hours rule has been mostly applied to people learning in their childhood. If we compare two children, both starting to learn the cello at 5 and start the counter, their learning of the bow should be influenced by their respective dexterity. If dexterity is a skill that is (at least partially) made and not entirely born, it’s as if the kid who developed this skill more get some edge and we should have started counting the number of hours of practice sooner.

    Similarly, while the kids actively learn an instrument, they spend time developing skills doing something else. The activities they choose has an influence on the skills needed to play an instrument. Do they listen to music? Do they read a lot? Do they practice activities where manual dexterity is important? If we counted all the hours that people spend directly learning their instrument and developing the skills involved in playing, then maybe we would find out that it is not 10,000 hours, but 25,000 hour that is actually required to master an instrument. That’s at least an area where adults have an advantage: they start with more of the basic skills developped.

    Another weakness in my opinion of the 10,000 hours rule is that it does not take into account the negative impact of time on learning. Young people who become master in an instrument seem to follow a pattern where the number of hours of practice increase each year, for instance: year 1: 100 hours, year 2: 150 hours, year 3: 200 hours, year 4: 250 hours, year 5 to 7: 300 hours, year 8 to 11: 500 hours, etc. It’s as if you need so many hours just to maintain your level, then some more to improve. For adults, it explains why despite having spent so many hours on various skills, our edge is not huge when starting playing an instrument. So 10,000 hours over the course of 40 years is probably not as efficient as 10,000 hours in 15 years.

    • Thank you for your very thoughtful comments, Pascal. From what I have seen, manual dexterity (or what I called “muscle control and awareness” above) can definitely be an inborn advantage, though it doesn’t seem to be “binary” since it can also be trained incrementally to a very high degree even if you are naturally clumsy like me. The degree to which previously acquired dexterity is an advantage would seem to depend largely on how well that training applied to the cello. Cello dexterity is kind of unique it that seems to be very specific and requires a great deal of simultaneous ear training to accurately develop, so I’m not sure how much prior dexterity can be transferred to the cello in terms of training hours. For example, the dexterity acquired from playing guitar since I was 17 was all but useless when applied to the cello.

      Between kids and adults, I’m not sure who has the advantage in free time vs basic skills. If I added up all of the hours I’ve spent listening to music or reading about music theory, delving into artist & composer biographies and insights, studying learning itself, neuroscience/psychology, and other performance related skills, it would probably triple the number of “practice hours” I have logged. Perhaps I should start logging those hours too, for the sake of completeness?

      Everything that I’ve read on neuro-biology and acquired manual dexterity says that development of skills is like the creation of a deer path. Over the course of countless repetitions, mistakes, and corrections a neural pathway is slowly forged and reinforced so that ultimately it becomes the “natural” default way of way proceeding. Another way of looking at this is that you are creating a “bias”. The pattern of ever-increasing practice hours might be due to the extra effort required to attain increasingly smaller degrees of accuracy. However, it should be noted that after you have developed a certain bias for manual dexterity, it simply gets increasingly difficult to alter the set pattern. (eg changing old habits is harder than making new ones) Adults beginners may start with certain basic skills, but we also come with very LARGE neural biases, both in terms of manual dexterity and in terms of cognitive assumptions. Overcoming these biases can be a significant source of frustration for adult beginners, and it should be noted that when you practice while frustrated, you are also practicing being frustrated. This is why I advise other adult beginners to wipe their mental slate as cleanly as possible, and challenge every assumption and core belief about yourself as if you were a newborn to this world in order to avoid artificial limitations.

      In regards to practicing just to maintain your skill, it should be noted that intonation (the ability to play in tune with accuracy) is something that requires constant upkeep and can start to degrade after only a few days of neglect. This kind of ear training skill is entirely different from manual dexterity which does not degrade like this. So things like vibrato or bowing technique are things you can actually own. Whereas, without perfect pitch, intonation is something that you never fully own and can only rent.

  2. Pascal says:

    I did not know about intonation and its degradation with time, good to know.

    All the aspects of learning an instrument like the cello are intriguing, because really, there seem to be no real way to know for sure. I wonder if, for instance, someone who starts with a good relative pitch prior to start playing the cello will learn faster. Maybe with if you start with poor relative pitch, you’ll practice with improper finger distance for a while, which you must then unlearn. Not only do you spend time developing good relative pitch, you must also unlearn/learn the proper positions, distances and shifting as intonation is improved. Or maybe this is done without any real impact as you progress. We need more people experimenting with learning like you!

    For my part, I think I’m a fast learner (at least to get the basics), but I usually quickly reach a plateau. I guess that since I’m used to get immediate rewards with relatively small efforts, a challenge for me is maintaining my motivation when rewards will only with hard work. Hope this time I will succeed on the cello where I failed with other instruments.

  3. Glad to help, Pascal. Btw, my teacher has mentioned that it is indeed much easier for someone who comes to the cello with a well developed sense of intonation in the beginning. I was never so lucky however since my ear was at the bottom of the barrel when I first introduced it to a cello. I managed to get reasonably good intonation within a couple years, though getting any finger position to be “perfect” seems to be a never ending process of refinement.

    Some people have a natural affinity for music and the cello in particular, maybe you are one of these lucky people? For me, the cello doesn’t give up it’s best secrets quickly or easily. It does give them up steadily though if I look long and deeply and discover a useful next question to ask it. Using this method of continuous inquiry and the snowballing accumulation of “binary” and “progressive” skills, I would actually say that my rate of improvement seems to be increasing rather than slowing down, even though I have been practicing fewer hours for the last few months.

  4. Pascal says:

    It is still too early to tell and I wouldn’t say cello is easy or natural to me. I think I have a slightly above than average ear, but as you said, it does not mean it helps position my fingers accurately, I just happen to know when it sounds wrong, and it does most of the time.

    I had a moment of epiphany yesterday, I had been struggling recently with a F# for a few weeks. Tried everything. I was out of ideas when I read about wolf tones. I had previously heard about that, but it’s not at all what I had in mind, I thought it would be just some vague whisting overtones in some cellos, not a scratchy sound that you can even feel in your bow. So the cause was my new cello and its wolf tone on F# (precisely, at F# +10 cents, and much worse on the G string!). Still learning the basics!

    • Your ear is probably better than mine 🙂 I also have a wolf note that is just a hair sharp of my F#. It’s a wide one though so it even affects my G3 and my F3 on the C string. My ear relies heavily on overtones, so I am easily confused by the oscillation of resonances that a wolf causes. As a result, I couldn’t accurately identify an F or F# on my cello until I finally gave in and put a wolf eliminator on it about it about a month ago.

  5. Pascal says:

    It is still too early to tell and I wouldn’t say cello is easy or natural to me. I think I have a slightly above than average ear, but as you said, it does not mean it helps position my fingers accurately, I just happen to know when it sounds wrong, and it does most of the time.

    I had a moment of epiphany yesterday, I had been struggling recently with a F# for a few weeks. Tried everything. I was out of ideas when I read about wolf tones. I had previously heard about that, but it’s not at all what I had in mind, I thought it would be just some vague whisting overtones in some cellos, not a scratchy sound that you can even feel in your bow. So the cause was my new cello and its wolf tone on F# (precisely, at F# +10 cents, and much worse on the G string!). Still learning the basics!

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