The 10,000-Hour Practice Rule - Debunked?

August 21, 2019, 3:24 PM · 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?

practicing

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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Replies

August 22, 2019 at 03:31 AM · Another question about the study: How did they determine how much people practiced? The only way I see is self reporting. Seriously, can you calculate with any accuracy the number of hours you spent practicing in your life? I certainly can not do that. I can not do it either for my own profession of chemistry BTW (i.e. hours of laboratory practice etc.); it is not because I am an amateur that I don't know now much time I spent practicing.

Come to think about it: where does the 10.000 hour rule come from anyway? To me it contradicts common sense: People learn skills at different speeds, some are ready for the driving test after three lessons, others need dozens for example. Whey this should not apply to violin playing is hard to fathom.

August 22, 2019 at 03:51 AM · Don’t always believe what your professors tell you!

That was really motivational!

You’re so positive!

August 22, 2019 at 04:18 AM · Mr. Galamian used to say that 5 hours a day was the magic number. Less than 5 hours, and you wouldn’t be good enough. And if 5 hours a day wasn’t enough, you weren’t ever going to be good enough. But he was a stickler for quality practicing, and keeping both mind and body active participants in the work.

August 22, 2019 at 04:28 AM · The concept of the 10,000-hour rule is derived from the work of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, who studied the way people become experts in their fields.

August 22, 2019 at 04:35 AM · I have never ever believed the ”10 000 hours law”, it just simply is ridiculous as people learn different amount of things when they practise for 1 hour, so how could that be any different if it is 10 000 hours?

I have always viewed it as an ideological issue. To me it seems that in the United States there is an ethos of ”everything is up to the individual and everybody can acchieve everything” with which I have always disagreed. And so the 10 000 law has so much meaning in the States but almost not any meaning at all i my European country.

To put it simply I taught piano when I was young, had 2 practise-pupils. One of them have innate talent and learned very fast and the other did not. Her fingers just couldnt performe however she tried and she was very average. So how could this be any different if all practiced 10 000 hours.

But as I said this is a cultural ideological thing. If one wants to believe that everybody has the same opportunity, one reads the studies that confirm that, if one believes otherwise, one reads the studies that disagree with that.

So everybody learns but only very few can become world class soloists however young they start or however hard they practise. And with violin, you have to have money and support very much to become a world class soloist or indeed a high class professional ,because the level has risen so much, only talent and practise doesnt make it happen.

But one needs to practise too ;)

An interesting point is that in Finland I would say that the ethos is quite the opposite. I learned at school very fast that practise is not valued and every child diligently tells everyone that they dont do any homework, and minimum of practise, when asked regardless of what they really do. Because only if you achieve something great without practise is it valued. There is a downgrading word called ”hikari” for children that do a lot of practise at hone to get a good grade. So if you get a good grade (which often requires you to practise) you just say that you did almost no work at all for it and only then is it socially valued highly. And this term ”hikari” is often applied especially to girls when they are bright.

Well, things may have changed a bit since I was at school lol, but still it is funny to read about how Suzuki-parents in some Eastern countries inflate the amount of practise there kids do and here parents deflate the amount of practise their kids do.

So if you have watched the famous document about Finnish school system which states that kids dont do ANY homework so it is not quite true. They do considerably less that in many countries it is true, but many still do and many parents also superwise homework, but they all keep quiet about it when asked. When I was a child my Mom certainly taught me st least 1 hour every Saturday and Sunday and a bit older I certainly did homework and extra homework, because it was sometimes impossible to learn anything at school because the school was so caotic and sometimes scary even. I was bright but Im quite sure that many parents had to teach the homework on daily basis.

And getting more on the sidetrack, you may now wonder why Finnish kids do well in the Pisas if it is not because they seemingly do not do homework. So, its beacuse the society is more equal, there are high taxes and several subventions for people less fortunate and the teachers are on average better (though I had some bad luck when I was a kid) and the teaching professin is well paid and appreciated and the one single biggest reason is that there are no private schools.

August 22, 2019 at 07:23 AM · I think this 10k hour rule is becoming a advertising jargon to get people to work harder.

At very high level, it is your hard work, talent, and luck that get you to very top. You maybe able to compensate lack of one element by having more on the other two. But if "practise more" is the only trick you have in the bag, how do you expect to compete with others when everyone enter the music school practise hard?

I also think that music is not pure skill or technical/physical competition. Some people, despite not having the best skill, produce music that touch people, or at least some part of the generation. We can sneer at their inferior playing, but they are top notch in using music to communicate with people.

August 22, 2019 at 09:13 AM · I'll bet Jimi Hendrix didn't practice on his own for 10,000 hours - there's proof you don't need to!

August 22, 2019 at 12:01 PM · Maria Lammi, I really enjoyed reading your comments.

"There is a downgrading word called hikari for children that do a lot of practise at home to get a good grade."

Ouch! I was that child! As a boy I "excelled in math." But my mom taught me to read and do basic arithmetic (with popcorn kernels!) when I was 3, and she was buying me extra math workbooks to do at home when I was only 8 years old. Talent? Or carefully managed industry? I did have an innate "competitive streak" that comes from being the youngest of three boys. I quickly discovered that kids like me (i.e., seriously applying myself to my school work) were in the minority. I think that's one reason I did better on piano than I did on violin. I had an older (by 5 years!) brother who played the piano and I wanted to catch up to him, whereas I never heard other child violin students ever, so I had no observations to calibrate my competitiveness. If the internet has been around in the 1970s, I would have been the kid who came on here asking how I could turn pro when my Vivaldi A Minor was utterly hopeless.

August 22, 2019 at 02:06 PM · This study is incredibly superficial, lacks integrity and experience in the field. Classical music is an entrepreneurial endeavor that has as many combinations for success as there are people in the field. One clear fact is that a classical musician must be a disciplined and practicing artist. It, like many entrepreneurial paths, requires a lifetime of commitment and growth. But to try an publicly evaluate classical music success with the buz-phrase “10,000 hours of practice” is like trying to quickly explain universal physics with the buzz-equation E=MC2. No one journalist can conveniently summarize the world of classical music in one little article - especially if they, themselves, are not an active classical artist. Likewise, no one journalist can summarize the infinite world parenting in one little article - even if they, themselves, are a parent! ~Jerod Tate, classical composer/pianist

August 22, 2019 at 02:25 PM · People misunderstand what 10,000 hours means. It was never intended to mean that 10,000 hours was a guarantee of success in any field. 10,000 hours is merely a PREREQUISITE; people who are accomplished almost invariably have committed a great deal of time to their art.

The 10,000 hours concept was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers" which was essentially an argument against the cult of talent. What he was arguing is that, regardless of anyone's talent level, it takes a really long time and a tremendous amount of work to become an accomplished musician.

Gladwell was trying to change the way people think about talent. Talent does not mean people are born with some magical innate ability to play violin. It may mean that people are born with a love of music, or a love for the violin's sound, and that love motivates them to pick up their violin and play it for hours every day, and solve the problems they need to solve to become accomplished.

It's a really useful concept. It means hard work is essential. 10,000 hours is just a way of saying -- practice a lot for 10 years. Even if you do that, you're not guaranteed to be professional level musician. But without it you have virtually no chance. Talent without hard work, and 4 bucks, gets you a cup of Starbucks, that's all.

August 22, 2019 at 03:03 PM · For the original study see this link.

For the new study see this link

For Brooke N Macnamara see this link

no one has mentioned the difference (v.bad) between Malcolm Gladwell and Anders Ericsson.

As for jimi Hendrix I remember a rockumentary going on and on about how hard he worked at it...

August 22, 2019 at 03:28 PM · The Anders Ericsson book Peak has similar ideas as yours Laurie. Have you read it?

August 22, 2019 at 04:36 PM · Leopold Auer claimed if ya' can't do it in 3 hours a day, find a new profession.....Sibelius, saw-the-light and gave up performance for composing. The list of 'variables' is obviously lengthy and everyone has different 'strokes'.

August 22, 2019 at 05:36 PM · Hi Mark, I've made your links hyperlinks; some of the links were not quite working so let me know if you wanted to add any.

Thomas, well-said.

I have not read Peak - sounds interesting!

I don't really see all of this as a referendum on quality practice vs. non-quality practice. As a teacher, it's quite obvious to see: the students that practice a lot progress a lot. The ones who do not practice do not progress. The ones who practice here and there can still progress based on pinpoint efficient practice, but it's just not the same kind of solid-foundation progress as those putting in the hours.

Three hours a day for 10 years is 10,950 hours, so Auer's idea of three hours a day seems to point in the same direction as the 10,000 hours over 10 years idea! :)

I also don't think 10,000 hours is some kind of formula for success, but I'd say there is something to it, for sure, as most experts do devote approximately that amount of time to their area of expertise. I'd argue that, for a musician, those hours would need to be not all spent alone in a practice room, but simply spent with the instrument, in diverse settings, including practice, time in orchestra and ensemble, lessons...maybe even jamming with a band...But as always, quality practice leads to quality results.

August 22, 2019 at 05:40 PM · 2nd about Jimi Hendrix. Close friends said he was almost never without guitar in hand. I actually used that rockumentary to illustrate 10,000 hour rule to my kid!

August 22, 2019 at 06:00 PM · Laurie, et al.,

We humans do love maxims. While the infamous 10K hour rule is probably a good estimation of what it can take to excel at any given field of endeavor, it is, at best, a subjective standard most often applied to a subjective measurement of success.

The other part of the equation is missing - what was the goal in the first place? When I finally tucked a violin under my chin and started lessons my goal was simply to be able to play melody/descant lines of hymns from the Episcopal Hymnal in the church setting. I achieved that goal in much less than 10K hours. Yes, I continued study, joined a community orchestra, had a great time, managed to have a professional career (that also required a lot of continuous study) and now am passing on the skills I have learned to budding violinists who's families cannot afford private lessons.

I've surpassed my goals while never becoming a professional violinist, let alone concert soloist.

As other commentators have noted the 10K "rule" is probably more about motivation than an actual requirement for success. Many of the Ph.D's I associated with at Bell Labs probably put in way more that 10K hours in their field. The reality is that our goals change but we continue to learn and grow. What really matters is achieving realistic goals and being satisfied with our lives. There are just too many miserable people that everyone considers to be successful.

August 22, 2019 at 08:42 PM · Rules really shouldn't exist in the first place. I've seen "rules" used for both positive and negative results, but statistically leaning towards negative. Rules about technique (, rules about teaching (like tapes vs no tapes), rules about equipment (SR vs no SR).

For as many people that might be driven to practice *more* to achieve their 10k hours, an equal amount of people might be discouraged and give up due to this seemingly impossible number.

If you're efficient at practice and naturally clever, you can achieve much more, in much less time, than another student who blindly plays 10 hours a day. We need to stop pretending that all humans are the same.

August 22, 2019 at 09:26 PM · Who first said?; "Practice does Not make perfect, it makes permanent"

Practice is how the front of our brain trains the back of the brain switch board operator (cerebellum) to do all of those complex, rapid motions automatically. If we needed to consciously signal our leg muscles what to do at the right time, none of us could walk at all. Technical progress requires correct teaching and correct practicing. The 10,000 hour rule does not explain the prodigies, Mozart, Menuhin, Heifetz, etc, who weren't yet alive long enough to put in that amount of time. In my case, one hour a day was enough to make good technical progress in jr and sr. high school. I tried 3 hrs a day for a few months, but I thought it was getting into diminishing returns, not 3 times better, so I dropped it. What really eats up practice time is learning and memorizing all that major repertoire, which I didn't do, so I am not a full time pro violinist. I don't know about the conservatory track, but the BA in music at a public university does not permit that 3-4 hours per day of practice time.

August 23, 2019 at 04:54 AM · I had a teacher at Juilliard who told me "anyone can learn technique in 3 years". So what about the other seven? I'm imagining tone, artistry, performance ability, and maturity make up a lot of that! And, really, I know this goes against the current grain, but some people are just gifted, sailing beyond what us mere mortals can do. Does that mean they're perfection, and the rest of us should quit? Hell no! There is a place for all of us, in this great big musical world. Great article, Laurie.

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