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.

Taking Stock (1,000 Hours!)

Since I just hit the mile stone of practicing for a cumulative 1,000 hours on the cello last night, it seems like a good moment to look back and assess the status of the journey so far.  After all, the point of this project isn’t simply to log hours, but to really think and plan with measurable goals and structured & focused practice routines designed to meet them.   A good example of this kind of mile stone setting is the list of goals my teacher help me design at the beginning of 2013 for the next 12 months (and beyond).  It was short & ambitious list:

  1. Learn one 3-octave scale per month, until I have all twelve major scales memorized
  2. Work on shifting (1st thru 4th positions)
  3. Improve intonation
  4. Work on Tone & bow technique
  5. Finish Suzuki Book 4
  6. Memorize 1 piece
  7. Work on Vibrato

Due to some injury related setbacks, I am a little bit behind on my scales.  As of October, I have 8 major scales memorized (C, G, D, A, E, B, F, & Bb).   So I am behind by 1 month – not too bad!   Technically, I am very familiar with Cminor too since it is prominently featured in Suzuki book 3, which is really Eb Major, so actually I’m still sort of on schedule.  As for shifting, I have probably done all the shifts between positions 1-4 many thousands of times each, and while my shifting isn’t perfect by any stretch, it is infinitely more reliable than it was 9 months ago.  My intonation has also improved dramatically since I can now clearly hear the difference between a note that is 10 cents off pitch, and when I started I could only reliably detect a difference of 30 cents.   Btw, this doesn’t mean that I play perfectly in tune to within 10 cents all the time, it just means that if someone plays a 440hz A, and then immediately plays a 442.6Hz A, I will know they’re were a little different.   9 months ago, I could only tell the difference between 440 and 448.   Smart phone pitch pipe apps (like Cleartune) are wonderful tools for measuring & developing this kind of sensitivity.   Unfortunately, it took a wrist injury and nerve damage to show me how sloppy, tense, & contorted my bow technique has been.   However, doing anything that is wrong (like tensing up, pressing, contorting, or waggling) causes instant feedback in the form of very real pain, so I am slowly discovering ways to play loudly, clearly, and with a more sensitive and sweeter tone that requires very little muscular effort while maintaining a very neutral anatomy.   Now it feels like the bow is fairly solidly in my hand, but I am holding it lightly enough that it could be wrestled away by a small child or a larcenous squirrel.   Once I heal, my teacher has some (non-Suzuki) challenging duets lined up, so combined with the injury setbacks, I will probably finish Suzuki Book 4 in Jan 2014.   I have memorized several pieces of music from Book 3, and my vibrato is much more relaxed and fluid on all fingers and in positions 1 through 6, though it is still somewhat stiff and tense in first position.     All told, I feel very good about this list and the progress I have made this year.  In all honesty, I thought it would take me several years to get to this point on Cello Mountain.  It’s probably a good time to refine the goals on that list into something more specific and measurable, and also to look more deeply into what learning techniques and practice elements were the most effective.

Tilting at Windmills (915 Hours)

tilting_at_windmills

The proper age at which to begin musical study is somewhat shrouded in mythos. The composer Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967) was famous for saying that the training of a musician should begin nine months before the birth of the mother.  While it is clear that those who begin young have a significant head start, I tend to subscribe to the view that passion & curiosity are the more critical components of success since persistence or even initial interest is hardly guaranteed by situation of birth. For those who dedicate their lives to musical study a little later in life, achievement is very much possible, however the breadth and depth of the gap between late bloomers and their wunderkind peers has yet to be objectively measured. Historically, late beginner students lost access to advanced musical training once they aged out of the system, however the internet is increasingly the great equalizer in this regard, and music teachers are slowly opening their doors & minds to the potential of adult learners and digitizing their vast stores of knowledge. Still, much of the progress that adults make remains stunted due to constraints on freedom that come with adult responsibilities. The typical musical sojourn last ~2 years before ambition becomes ambivalence once the true distance to the mountain top is realized. This is far too short a timespan to know the limits of an adult learner. Partly out of scientific curiosity and partly out of my love for music, I have decided to embark on a 10 year -10,000 hour journey to explore and demonstrate what is really possible for a dedicated adult learner on one of the most difficult instruments to master in western music: the Cello.

The secondary and perhaps more important goaI of this blog will be to document the concrete steps such a journey entails. Scientific information about the path to musical mastery remains largely obscure, and advanced knowledge is still passed down by the traditional osmosis from teacher to student like closely guarded family recipes. The first tentative steps are uniquely terra incognita because most teachers were also child students. Much of the early learning process in then lost from memory to the dark recesess of inarticulate youth. The only well known study on the subject of obtaining mastery (by K. Anders Ericsson) was popularized with some controversy via Malcom Gladwell’s now famous 10,000 hour rule, which poses the dangerous idea that genius is really hard work & passion in disguise. Never one to look down my nose at lofty notions, I am actually quite inspired by the premise that the major barrier between myself and Yo Yo Ma is a mere ten thousand hours of practice. Therefore I’m starting with the assumption (or quixotic delusion?) that the only true limits are time, dedication, and whatever modicum of unrefined talent I am imbued with. Proceeding forward from there, I will be shinning a bright light upon the trials, tedium, elightenment, and exultation contained within a 10,000 hour journey into the realm of the possible.

In this blog, we will examine:

1) the process of learning

2) the elements of good technique

3) effective & efficient practice methods

4) the fundamentals of musicianship

5) how being a musician impacts the mind

6) the nature of sound & music