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.

Embrace the Null Space (935 Hours)

There is a tendency when we look at a familiar piece of music to see it as a single contiguous object, rather than as a series of moments, each one flowing into the next. However when we look at a new piece of music, especially one with unfamiliar note transitions, something magical happens in our brains. We are forced to disengage our autopilot, slow down, and forge new neural pathways to an untilled plot of mental real estate. Once we find that note, even if the transition is not very clean or accurate, our instinct is to move forward and begin conquering to the next series of notes.

Unfortunately, if an awkward transition between any notes remains neglected, something rather untidy and unmagical begins to take root in our minds. Each time we play that passage, we accumulate a set of awkward sensations that get reinforced through repetition. This now predictable awkwardness turns into disconcerting thoughts, feelings, and judgements so we tune them out as best we can to “focus on the music” and in the process, the transition between the notes gets fuzzier and increasingly chaotic. The result of such practice habits can be disastrous during a performance where unconscious hiccups become magnified as tunnel vision kicks in and our instincts take over.

The best way that I’ve found to banish these subconscious gremlins is to insert a series of rest beats inbetween each note transition in a new piece, and put the section (usually just two notes) on a metronome loop, repeating the transitions over and over again. The rest beats are the key to this exercise because they give the mind time to calculate and the body time to relax and find a graceful path to the next note. Every mistake is an opportunity to examine what can go wrong, and then make a positive reinforcing correction on the next loop. Its important to avoid the temptation to fix the problem mid-loop, or else you’ll be ingraining “note hunting” habits. These are especially heinous because not only do they result in mealy technique, poor intonation, and messy bow-starts, but in a performance setting, the unsteady sounds they produce are often much more apparent to the audience than to the musician.

The reason this rest note exercise seems to work is very similar to the principles of micro muscle movements taught in tai chi. To go fast, you must first go slow. The slower you go, the more information your muscles and nerves have to work with, and the more time you have to declench that vulcan death grip on the fingerboard! Likewise, the more rest beats between the notes, the easier, smoother, and more relaxed your note transitions will ultimately be. I have gone as high as three rest notes. Try it on a short piece of unfamiliar music. You will be amazed when your fingers begin to be drawn, as if by magnetism, to the exact right spot with each metronome click. Once you experience this magical feeling, then you are only just beginning to get a benefit of repetition. To get the full benefit, you will need to wear a mental grove in that string by reinforcing the accurate motions on a daily basis.

This practice technique is so useful and effective that I now devote the first hour (or more) of my practice sessions to this kind of exercise. It’s essentially like scale work, but with an emphasis on accuracy rather than tone. There are similar exercises that I do for tone, but that will be for a future post!