When I began my first run at music school, it didn’t take me long to realize that I was woefully underprepared. In the months before my audition, I sat down at the piano daily and diligently practiced technical exercises, but six-years-stale childhood lessons were definitely inadequate for what lay ahead. In fact, my enthusiasm for this misguided practice routine induced a three month bout with tendonitis almost immediately after my audition, which (thankfully) cleared up before the start of classes. Once classes began at Mount Royal University, I was quick to realize that I had a long way to go, and after suffering through an epic emotional breakdown, I buckled down and learned how to Practice.
Looking back, there was one professor at Mount Royal University for whom I harbour a certain fondness. I can’t say that I particularly appreciated his methods at the time, but I suspect that my relationship to him is similar to the fondness that a soldier might feel toward his hard-ass boot-camp drill sergeant. It was a rough and insecure time in my musical development, and at the time, Sgt. James’ (name changed to protect the innocent) high expectations were not the most eagerly anticipated part of my class schedule. In spite of this, one thing he said has stuck with me in the years since completing that program: (paraphrased)
“Individuals who start playing an instrument late in life (referring to the few years after high-school) will reach technical parity with those who have been playing since early childhood by age 30, assuming that they adopt a practice routine consistent with professional performance.”
There is a lot of writing dealing with this particular phenomenon, which was presented in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” as the “10,000 hour rule.” His thesis was that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery of any specialized skill-set. For some perspective, this figure corresponds to about 3 hours of daily practice over a ten year span (from 20 to 30 years of age). The most notable such work dealing specifically with jazz performance is Kenny Werner’s “Effortless Mastery.”
The remarkable thing about Sgt. James’ career was that he enrolled in an art/design program right out of high school and it wasn’t until later that he decided to pursue a career as a jazz performer. Gauging from the anecdotal accounts that he shared in class, he had a very successful career on the “world stage” before returning to Calgary to teach. Having started practicing piano seriously at about the same age as he had started on his instrument, I always wondered how my efforts would measure up to this rule-of-thumb.
At the time of writing, I am 27, working to complete my BFA in music at York University in Toronto, and I am fast approaching the all-important three-o. I’ve certainly had my share of doubts about my ability to close the gap between myself and those blessed with continuous practice since childhood, but it’s starting to look promising. Incremental improvements over a seven year span really do add up, and the going definitely gets easier once certain obstacles are overcome.
The most difficult technical aspects of piano technique are unquestionably those relating to finger-independence (playing 2 or more independent melodies with only one hand, for example) and keyboard-awareness (making large leaps confidently without needing to look and see where your hand is going). For me, these skills are central to feeling natural while playing the piano – the moment when you can just close your eyes and just lose yourself in the sound, regardless of the difficulty of the music, is one of the most rewarding that I’ve ever experienced. The difficulty of developing these skills, however, has often been to blame for the doubts that I’ve had. While they can be practiced directly, in many ways, it is comparable to developing a colloquial (slang) vocabulary and natural accent in a secondary language – true fluency takes time and persistence.
As I mentioned earlier, though, incremental gains do add up. As the subjective difficulty of past accomplishments increases, self-confidence starts to build. Nothing seems as impossible as it once did. It’s amazing, at this point, to reflect on just how long and hard I once struggled to achieve a fluency in skills that I now take for granted. From my current vantage-point, approaching the end of this theoretical learning curve, I truly believe that the “10,000 hour rule”, or “30 year parity effect” are indeed accurate. I don’t think anybody would have called me “talented” seven years ago, but I’ve noticed whispers to that effect recently. My intent in writing this article is to correct those whisperers’ false assumptions.
There is a mythology that pervades the popular consciousness with regard to music and musicians: There are those with “talent” and those without. This myth is manifested in a number of different ways depending substantially on an individual’s experience with playing music. The statement above succinctly expresses the most widespread myth, however once immersed in a post-secondary music program, these rumours become all the more vicious. On the classical side of the fence, there is the “cult-of-composer,” painting anybody who ever put note to page as a self-assured genius, the “cult-of-prodigy,” validating ambitious parents to force their children into high-pressure performance competitions at a young age, and the “cult-of-learned-music-theory,” delegitimizing any artistic expression which hasn’t duly suffered from dry pedagogy. On the jazz side, there is the “cult-of-true-improvisation,” referring to improvisers who supposedly think of original musical ideas without needing to develop a musical vocabulary in the practice room, and the “cult-of-technique/speed,” implying that there is a limit on a “less-talented” individual’s ability to improvise coherently. This list could go on indefinitely, but to be honest, I’ve never met a truly “talented” player, at least, not of the type that these mythologies describe.
Okay… full disclosure: I stole that last sentence from a friend that I was hanging out with recently. He spent some time in post-secondary music school, and recalled a professor saying that the only “talent” that really exists is the ability to really enjoy practicing at least a few hours every day. I’ll even take this a bit further: practicing four hours a day results in rewarding breakthroughs; over time, the cumulative sense of accomplishment is self-reinforcing. The only really hard part in this equation is maintaining this routine long enough that you come to expect this kind of progress as a certainty. There is no instant gratification in the practice room, and even modest long-term goals can seem completely unrealistic until you’ve exceeded at least a few of them.
It’s depressing to think of the sheer number of potentially successful musicians who have undoubtedly been discouraged by this kind of thinking over the years, and I suspect that anyone still reading this far into such a horrifically rambling article knows exactly how that feels. Let this rant stand as a message of hope:
There are no rationalizations or excuses. Every day presents an opportunity to get better, to become a little more fluent. The worst case scenario is that you make progress, but perhaps not as much as you hoped within a given time-frame. The 10,000 hour rule and the 30 year parity statement, do not guarantee any immediate gratification, and if anything, my experience is that the learning curve is exponential. I tended to see “unsatisfactory” progress with respect to the “grand scheme of things” when I first started locking myself in practice rooms, but in retrospect I think this has partly to do with the difference in self-confidence, as well as improving practice habits. Eventually, practicing practicing increases your capacity to practice effectively.
As the (rather nebulous) scope of this blog suggests, I have nurtured a fairly scattered set of interests within the field of music. To date, I’ve had a fair number of jobs that paid me to work professionally as a performer, composer, arranger, and sound engineer. Over the past seven years, I haven’t always maintained a complete devotion to daily piano practice, but in spite of these periods of neglect, I’m still closing the gap. That said, my definition of “period of neglect” may still seem like a lot of practice to the uninitiated. ;-)
Anyway… to conclude this article, I’ve compiled a list of practice tips that I have found valuable over the years. Hopefully this advice serves you as well as it has served me:
- Practice every day, and sleep properly. I’ve read several studies about sleep and memory, and my own experience supports their conclusions: The benefits of each day’s practice are stored in long-term memory during REM sleep. Practicing, even just a little bit every day contributes to your cumulative development, regardless of whether you actually exceeded your last day’s progress.
- The early bird gets the worm. Start early, and practice whenever you have free time throughout the day. Your ability to concentrate on the task at hand declines as you approach bedtime. Late practice sessions are just not as efficient per hour invested.
- If it sounds good, you’re not practicing. Work on something you can’t do… yet. (Thanks, Sheldon)
- If you are practicing something faster than you can play it correctly, you are practicing how to do it wrong. Slow down and use a metronome. Breaking bad habits is much harder than taking the time to learn something right the first time.
- Playing fast feels different than playing slow. Consider the mechanics of playing fast while you’re still working on something slowly. Are you learning any unnecessary motions that will make a fast performance sloppy/awkward once you speed it up? Once again – breaking bad habits is hard. (Thanks, Sgt. James)