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10,000 Hours of Practice Makes Perfect?

Practice > 3 Hours a Day > 7 Days a Week > for 10 Years

How much should you practice? In This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, Daniel Levitan writes about the ten-thousand-hours theory, which proposes that 10,000 hours of practice is required to become a world-class expert in any field: basketball, ice skating, chess, or the viola.

This idea was further popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell points to examples including Bill Joy, Bill Gates, and the Beatles, while Levitan counts up the hours to Mozart’s Symphony No. 1, which he composed at age 8.

Is there such a thing as “talent”?

In a study cited by Gladwell, violinists at Berlin’s Academy of Music were divided into three groups: the “stars”, who had the potential to become world-class soloists; the students who were merely “good”; and a third group who did not intend to ever play professionally, the “teachers.”

The students had all started playing around age 5, and for the first few years they all practiced about two or three hours a week. After age eight, marked differences began to emerge in the amount of time devoted to practice, with the best students “purposefully and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better — well over thirty hours a week.” By age twenty, the total hours of practice were:

  • Star Violinists: 10,000 hours
  • Good Violinists: 8,000 hours
  • Teachers: 4,000 hours

The same group studied amateur and professional pianists, with similar results. The amateurs never practiced more than about three hours a week, while the professionals increased the hours devoted to practice every year. Totals at age 20 - Amateurs: 2,000 hours; Professionals: 10,000 hours.

Levitan presents another study, where students were secretly divided into two groups based on their teacher’s evaluation of their talent. After several years, the students were rated again. The students who performed the best were those who had devoted the most time to practice — it didn’t matter which group they had been assigned to initially.

Levitan suggests that talent is a label that is used in a circular fashion: “we think we mean that they have some innate predisposition to excel, but in the end, we only apply the term retrospectively, after they have made significant achievements.”

Think back to the merely “good” violinists, who had practiced 8,000 hours by age 20. What would happen if they worked full-time (2,080 hours American) for another year — would they catch-up to the “stars”?

Gladwell doesn’t address this, but as a practical matter, they are at a crossroads. If they graduate and become professional musicians, they will be devoting an increasing amount of time to their instruments. If they leave the academy to teach or follow some other profession, it’s likely that the time devoted to practice will level off or begin decreasing.

There are of course other factors, both genetic and environmental, that go into making an expert musician, and we will look more closely at those in Part Two. But these studies strongly suggest that none are as important as practice. Gladwell writes:

Once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or much harder than everybody else. They work much, much harder.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t become an expert after age 20, but in fields such as athletics and music, if you aren’t playing professionally by age 21, I would think the odds of reaching world-class status begin to diminish significantly. You can still do it, but it will be harder. Much harder.

Practice > Play > Perform: What’s the Difference?

Glad you asked. Part Two will answer this question by digging into the work of Anders Ericsson and Benjamin Bloom, whose studies formed the basis for much of the writings on this topic by both Levitan and Gladwell. We will also look at other factors that contribute to (or impede) success. And for all of the 22-year-olds who may now be thoroughly bummed out, we’ll ask another question: Why do you want to be an expert anyway?


David D’Agostino is Executive Editor of the handcrafted artisan music blog:

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