10,000 hours to master anything? Nonsense.

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How to practice your instrument efficiently

[This article is written by guest contributor Joe Marson.]

In his book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Somehow this notion made its way into the mainstream consciousness and is considered by most to be fact. It’s a statement that attaches an objective number value to a completely subjective outcome.

What is a master and who determines that status?

I have my personal heroes and people I think are masters, but, to loosely quote The Big Lebowski, “That’s just like my opinion, man.”

There is no objective Master Zone that you can work toward by punching a time clock. No one makes it to the top of Mastery Mountain and resides there in ecstasy. In fact, most “masters” I’ve heard talk about their craft clearly state that they still feel like beginners. I don’t think that’s false modesty speaking. I believe it’s indicative of just how high they have set their sights – and how relative mastery is.

Quality of practice, not quantity

In my younger years, when I thought I wanted to be the next Jimi Hendrix on the guitar, I used to practice five hours at a time. Because that’s what I was told to do – to “shed.” So I would put on the timer and do my exercises mindlessly with an “I just need to hit that five-hour mark” mentality. Years later, I discovered meditation and the power of a focused mind. I realized I would get a lot further if I practiced less and concentrated more. After all, there are not many on Earth who could really concentrate at 100% for five hours.

Break it down

I began breaking down guitar licks to only a few notes. Then, I would put my entire being into playing them over and over. With intention and focus. Really just concentrating for as long as I could before giving myself “brain breaks.” Like sprinting and walking, sprinting and walking. I found this method to be exponentially more effective than sprinting, then walking, then crawling to a five-hour finish.

Practice with intention, as many hours as it takes to get to where you want to be. Don’t focus on how much time you practice as the benchmark for your skill. Rather, focus on repeating that song, that vocal line, the trumpet lick until it becomes part of your body, resonating in your bones. Translate it from numbers and charts into feeling – a much deeper source of memory.

Want to exponentially improve?

Record yourself. That simple.

Record yourself, listen back, and work on getting right whatever you got wrong. Then record that and listen back. Take someone doing that for an hour every day and watch that person grow exponentially faster than someone just cramming for hours. There is nothing more honest and sometimes brutal, but if you can sound great when recorded in a live atmosphere, then you are truly on point. A lot of you reading this right now will avoid it, guaranteed. I know I did for quite awhile because you come face to face with your ego. Even worse, you come to terms with the fact that you might not sound as good as you do in your head. That’s the case at all levels. Be brave enough to take it out of your head and see how it matches up with a strong dose of recorded reality, and you will reap the benefits.

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[Image of guitarist from Shutterstock.]

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  • Simbolic

    Actually I think Gladwell said 10,000 hours of productive practice…on the other hand after 50 years of practice I still consider myself a “student”.

  • mc9320

    Exactly. Couldn’t have put it better myself. It must be productive practice, otherwise you’re just playing. If you’re jamming and playing tunes, you’re not really practicing. I practice so much more effectively as an adult than when I was a teenager. That’s why I always query when people say I’m too old to learn the piano. Life experience teaches you how to work more effectively (usually)

    I teach a 55 year old guy who has progressed more than any of my younger students of similar ability. He knows he doesn’t have much free time, so he makes the most of it when he practices. Martyn = > http://www.musicteacherinfo.com

  • Agree with this post. There is a lot of material coming out lately with an analytically view of creativity in the sense of “trying to figure it out”, some of it very valuable such as “The Talent Code”. However, we also have to keep in mind that these are arbitrary rules.

  • Jim in Texas

    I teach here in the DFW area, and have had to modify my view on this 10,000 hours business. I have seen too many 12 year old kids that play better than me, and I’ve been at this for a half century. The true “wonder kids” get there quick. Very few musicians become great in their 50s or 60s. And while these kids play tremendous numbers of hours early in life, they get very good way before 10,000 hours. But the operational definition of “mastery” is what’s at play here. There are very few I consider masters, they have all played far past 10,000 hours, but they were also near mastery long before the 10,000.

  • Kevin Schroeder

    I’ve been practicing inter-dimensional time travel now for well over 10k hours and I’m still at the same place I started.

  • The original 10,000 hours hypothesis was developed by Anders Ericsson in the early 90s I believe as a part of a paper at the University of Colorado called The Role of DELIBERATE Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. It seems to be more focussed on looking back at what goes into an elite performer as opposed to how any of us can become one, if that makes sense.

    Some German psychologists in Berlin had studied the practice habits of violin students in childhood, teenage years, and adulthood. All of them started playing when they were five and practiced the same amount. But as they grew older their practice times differed and by the age of 20, the elite performers had averaged more than 10,000 hours practice while the less able performers had only done 4,000 hours. There was nothing to suggest that any of them were naturally gifted as it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to expect gifted performers to emerge after about 5000 hours. So they concluded that things we might believe to be innate, natural born talent in other people are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years.

    You’re right. It’s not simply about putting in the hours. It’s about focussing on the important stuff during that time.

  • AZ Regurge

    I read the book. The story about the Beatles playing in Germany was striking. Two things are true. First, the Beatles had practiced and composed before playing in Germany. Then, performing as much as they did in Germany helped them refine every aspect of music: composition, editing, performance, etc. On the other hand, I have heard of country, pop, organ and other performers who never advanced regardless of the magic number of hours.
    So, ten thousand hours is not magic – it is hard darned work.

  • Ah to be young, practiced, and as brilliant as the Beatles. That was a good chapter in that book.

    @ChrisRobley