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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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