Is it possible that it just doesn't matter how much you practice? That practicing 10,000 hours doesn't make a difference? That some people can reach an elite level of playing without all that practice? Or that some people can practice 10,000 hours and still not be that great at playing?
A new study is inspiring headlines, such as: "Blow to 10,000-hour rule as study finds practice doesn't always make perfect" - and "Research of violinists undermines popular idea, as average players practice more than best ones."
Let's take a closer look at this new study: The players were lumped into three categories: "best"; "good"; and "least accomplished." Both the "best" and "good" players in this study were undergraduate students at Music Academy of West Berlin and Cleveland Institute of Music. For the study, the "best" players were nominated by their professors as having potential for "for careers as international soloists." The players labeled as "good" in this study were simply the ones who were not nominated by their professors for that international soloist potential.
The "least-accomplished" in the study were music education majors from Music Academy of West Berlin and Case Western Reserve. (Here is a link to the new study by Brooke N. Macnamara and Megha Maitra, as published this month in the Royal Society Open Science journal.)
News flash: None of the players in this study is "average," as the news stories are calling those in the middle group, labeled "good." They are all violinists who gained admission to elite institutions. They didn't pick up guitar last week to play in a garage band -- they all won competitive international auditions to land where they are. Likely, any one of them could slip into the violin section of a professional orchestra and hold his or her own; any one of them could stand up and play a concerto from memory with an orchestra. In the scheme of things, these students are already elite musicians.
And frankly, the music education majors, labeled "least accomplished," are also elite musicians; they simply are pursuing something that is not performance. A substantial bit of their "10,000 hours" would and should be focused on teaching their instrument, not just playing it. Thus their 10,000 hours of gaining expertise would not show up as all being "deliberate practice" on their instrument.
By my reading of it, the new study actually seems to reinforce the 10,000 rule. The students chosen as both the 'best' and the 'good' violinists all had accumulated more than 10,000 hours of "practice alone," on average, by the age of 20. The music education majors had accumulated 6,000 hours of "practice alone," on average.
But when you look at the charts from the study, the "good" violinists seem to be practicing a bit more than the "best" violinists.
So what do they think they've proven with this study, exactly?
I suppose they have proven that the elite college violin students whose professors believe in them are not actually practicing quite as much as the elite college violin students whose professors don't believe they'll be "international soloists." Perhaps that lack of affirmation might provide some motivation to hit the practice room a bit more often?
And by the way, is being an "international soloist" really the measure of peak musical excellence?
My conclusion: If your goal is to reach an elite level of musical fluency on the violin, you can still plan on that 10,000 hours of practice over 10 years. If you plan to be a teacher, you'll probably be spending part of that time teaching rather than "practicing alone." But it won't be the only factor. Also plan on soaking up as much music and culture as you can, cultivating your human relationships, developing your sense of beauty and expression in all realms, and developing your intellectual powers. Also, don't always believe what your professors tell you.
Then we'll see what happens. Hopefully you will enjoy the journey!
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