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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: Have you hit your 10,000 hours playing the violin?

October 31, 2009 at 6:57 AM

Have you hit your 10,000 hours playing the violin?

The magic number is on my mind after writing the blog about Suzuki, who frequently asked his students to play 10,000 repetitions of various exercises and pieces. It's also a number that has come up recently, in Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers, which asserts that true expertise in any field comes only after 10,000 hours of practice.

Basically, I'm asking you if you've reached "expert" status.

I did some math, to help everyone along. If you practice one hour a day, it will take you a little more than 27 years to log your 10,000 hours. If you practice two hours a day, it will take nearly 14 years. If you practice three hours a day (this is every day, mind you), you can expect to reach expert status in about nine years. Four hours a day, about seven years. Six hours a day, it will only take four and a half years, provided that you don't injure yourself. There is a point of diminishing returns!

Looking at the numbers, the 10,000 hours idea rings rather true.

After 32 years of playing the violin, I've certainly logged my 10,000 hours playing, and probably teaching as well. How about you? And what do you think of the 10,000-hour concept?


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 31, 2009 at 11:52 AM

 There was a discussion thread about this not too long ago, and for myself I calculated a little over 3,000.  I actually find that kind of comforting, because it means there's still hope for me to be a lot better, when/if I do make 10,000.

From Christian Vachon
Posted on October 31, 2009 at 12:16 PM


I have trouble with this concept as applies to the violin.   Sure, in 10,000 hours you will probably learn much about yourself and the instrument, but for complete mastery of the violin those hours would have to include the correct ratio of slow practice to fast playing, a correct setup from the start with no or very minimal errors in movement corrected along the way, the correct line-up of material in a good step-building sequence and all of this done before the age of 18 years old so that it is permanently imprinted on your neural pathways (assuming as one grows the physique perfectly adapts to the changes in relation to the instrument).  And this, taking only the technical side into consideration, not the musical or personality (we will assume that the case mentioned above has all the necessary qualities).  I know that someone will say that players past 18 can continue learning, and yes, you can improve unbelievably later at any age, essentially by doing away with errors in movement.   But the permanency of the retention that would spare you from more than the minimum of practice for the rest of your life and play at the very highest level will probably not happen in most cases (at least, I personally have yet to see it).

For the top elite, many get that chance.  Most of the people that I have come across didn't get the chance, sadly enough.  I think that the mastery issue with the violin is different than with other tasks.  Some top players got around it by fulfilling 10,000 hours of correct pratice/playing but in actuality doing a lot more than 10,000 hours.

It is with what I mention in my first paragraph that Carl Flesch stated in his Memoirs what he thought was the reason beyond Heifetz's supremacy in their time - he had always practiced with correct movements from the earliest beginnings and never been allowed to stray off the correct path (and therefore having to reconstruct like most) which Flesch believed accounted for the perfection and incredible consistency and reliability of his playing.

I may get blasted on this site for what I am saying, but I have devoted a lot of time thinking about this very thing and finding a rational/objective answer to incredibly variants in the application of this concept to the violin and this is what I have observed.


From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on October 31, 2009 at 2:20 PM

Thanks for this interesting post!!!

About the theory itself, I also have a problem with this kind of theory...  When I started violin in my teens, with much irrialistical "dreams", I used to play minimum 5 hours on week days and more on weekends for a few years, then I got down to 3 and 6 to 10 on the weekends and since one year, I often have to skip days because of my science studies.  (I am not happy of this of course).  But overall, I think I have done my 10 000 hours or very close.  I am absoluntly not a superb player : ) My conclusion is that it depends on talent (natural abilities too), the way that one practices etc etc etc.  I am not of those who think one can play like a pro or "master" something after 10 000 hours. Of course, I respect all views. What goes into a prodigy is much more complex than this and no, we do not all start with equal talent, skills, context and musical ability...  This is something society tells to people so that everyone believe he/she will be good.  I am absoluntly for positivness and am sure the "winners" attitude can push someone far over his/her expectations but these 10 000 hour theories and "every one has it with much work" make me go crazy.  Not all those who have spent 10 000 hours on something in history are masters.  We just hear about those who did this + happened to have special talent.   

But this is just my opinion, maybe too down to earth or pessimist lol   With these kind of theories, some are very much for them and others very sceptic and of course there are good arguments for the two. 

I have a sceptic nature so...  : )



From Sam Milner
Posted on October 31, 2009 at 3:03 PM

Many people misinterpret Gladwell's 10 000 hours theory.  They think that he has claimed that 10 000 hours would be sufficient to reach mastery.  He never ever says any such thing! 

Rather, Gladwell claims that 10 000 hours is generally the minimal requirement for anyone to reach mastery, including the most naturally gifted or talented.  Obviously most people will never be experts or reach mastery in their discipline (whether it be flute, chess, violin, mathematics, tennis . . .), no matter how many hours they invest.   Mastery after a mere 10 000 hours assumes prodigious talent and very good use of the 10 000 hours. 

Gladwell's 10 000 hours idea helps debunk the notion of the genius that is instantly an expert at something.  We have all heard the myths of the person who plays a piece of music perfectly the first time they pick up the violin.  Even Mozart depite his amazing genius, invested thousands of hours in music and composition before his compositions exhibited the remarkable characteristics which have made them enduring.  Most of the music of his youth is noteworthy only for the age of its composer and not for its beauty or intrinsic qualities.

Gladwell notes that it is often much easier for the genius to invest the 10 000 hours because the practice does come more easily and is thus more enjoyable or at least, less painful and torturesome.  Most 6- or 7-year-old children are not capable of practicing 3 hours a day and to force them to do so would not only be quite cruel, but would also probably do little to increase their skill level.  Given that one's attitude towards a learning task is inextricably intertwined with how quickly one learns, forcing 3 hours of practice would probably be counterproductive.   Those rare incredibly talented 6- and 7-year-olds often have to be pried away from the violin, piano, math problems, or chessboard.  For them getting to the 10 000 hours is relatively easy.

Certainly the quality of one's practice is important.  That is self-evident.  If one practices bad habits for 1000 hours, one has not gotten 1000 hours closer to 10 000, but has probably gotten about 2 000 hours further away from the 10 000 given how difficult it can be to eradicate bad habits.  All that Gladwell has propagated is the idea that there are no shortcuts:  doing something at a world-class level involves a considerable investment of time.  Mastery requires considerably more than talent, good teaching, and some quality practicing:  it requires lots and lots and lots of time. Gladwell never claims that time in itself is sufficient.  He merely fleshes out the warhorse about how one gets to Carnegie Hall.

Numbers are meaningless by themselves:  you need words around them to give them meaning!  Just to be clear:  investing 10 000 hours in developing a skill does not mean that you will master it;  however, anyone who expects to master something to a world-class level can expect to spend at least 10 000 hours.   Most of the people who invest 10 000 hours will NOT reach a world-class level.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on October 31, 2009 at 8:31 PM

In realizing that I have probably practiced 10,000 hours of scales, I have entered into an existential crisis that only Graeter's Chocolate Chocolate Chip Ice Cream can solve...

Seriously, there is so much more to factor in besides woodshed time.  Score study, listening to CDs, studying video, (Huzzah for Youtube!), learning theory and history, attending concerts and recitals and masterclasses, playing chamber music and playing in orchestra, lessons, coachings, learning other instruments, and sometimes, like Brahms, taking a nice walk.


From Bart Meijer
Posted on October 31, 2009 at 10:19 PM

In this month's Strad, Simon Fischer writes about strengthening the foundation of the violin technique building. He says that when you do that, more top floors will appear magically by themselves. I like that image a lot!

In retrospect, much of my practice when young was spent building top floors on shaky foundation. I'm afraid that does not count. There may be a kind of practice that counts negatively -- oh horror!

Anyhow, that explains why, having practiced over 10,000 hours and having all the talent I could wish for, I still don't play better than I do. It's a moving target!

Incidentally, would violin playing talent among violin players be distributed in the same way Descartes claims for intelligence? No-one complains of having too little, so it must be distributed evenly? Hmm.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 31, 2009 at 10:46 PM

Certainly there is more to factor in than the sheer time spend practicing, but it is an undeniable factor. Of course, 10,000 hours with no intent won't do much of anything. But even those with the keenest instincts and best teaching have to put in the time. I can't tell you how many times I've had seen the student who listens and practices earnestly pass up the one who seemed to have natural ability but simply didn't practice.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on November 1, 2009 at 12:59 AM

Bart, I fear the same thing as you expressed. Too much of not-so-good practice is probably the worst thing a violinist can do to himself/herself. 

In terms of talent, it reminds me of other stuff such as intelligence, beauty or even love, things that I definitely will not have or will lose if I believe I don't have them. I used to say comparison is meaningless, especially comparing myself with super stars. But after I learned directly from some fine concert violinists how much time they have been putting in their practice, by comparison, I feel pretty good about my own talent, as little as it may seems to be:)

What is the Descartes' claim you referred to? "Cogito ergo sum"?  

From Bart Meijer
Posted on November 1, 2009 at 7:25 AM

Hi Yixi,

It's the first sentence from his Discourse on Method. From Wikiquote:

Of all things, good sense is the most fairly distributed: everyone thinks he is so well supplied with it that even those who are the hardest to satisfy in every other respect never desire more of it than they already have.


From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on November 1, 2009 at 3:18 PM

Sam, what you tell makes absolunte sense. This is fairly logical and there is nothing better than to read the exact book!!!   Anne, I agree so much that it's important to not just play violin but to positivly fool around in the violin world by looking to videos, listening recordings etc.  It is also a positive booster if used correctly!

Well, can you invite me for this ice cream party too lol!!!


From Yixi Zhang
Posted on November 1, 2009 at 5:48 PM

Thanks Bart! Other than our claim to some basic human rights in a fair and civilized society, I don't know anything else can be expected let alone claimed to be equally distributed among all of us. Even the former is often an illusion. Accepting this truth is a starting point for me to peace and happiness.

From Bart Meijer
Posted on November 1, 2009 at 6:53 PM

Of course Yixi! I meant it ironically, and I'm sure Descartes meant it that way as well.

From Michael Divino
Posted on November 1, 2009 at 7:02 PM

Nope. Not at all. I think for me it would be about 2,500 hours.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on November 1, 2009 at 10:20 PM

Bart, I don't think that all violinists believe they are especially talented.  I don't think that about myself.  In particular, I don't believe I have the kind of ear for intonation that makes for a master violinist.  I wouldn't be at all surprised to find out that I scored at the lower end of some scale that measured ability to hear fine gradations in pitch.  All other things being equal, I probably should have played the piano as my main instrument, but I love playing in orchestras, and playing orchestral music, too much.  

But thinking about these kinds of issues has made me feel better about the efficiency of the relatively small amount of practice time that I've put in so far.  Of course some of that time was wasted, but given that I've gotten this far with limited practice time and modest talent, on the whole I think it has been time very well spent.  So I'm not scared of the next 6,900 hours still to come, and even looking forward to them.  

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on November 2, 2009 at 1:12 AM

I'm not going to count how many hours I need to reach the 10K because, honestly, I don't want to know. It's like the old joke I was once told: It's true that an unexamined life is not worth living. But what if after you've examined your life carefully and discover that it is not worth living?  

Bart, I know you've got good sense of humour but I'm not sure Descartes did. More likely I never got his sense of humour.

Karen, I feel the same way as you do.  I met Rachel Parton Pine in one of her recent concerts in Vancouver BC and was completely amazed by her technique control and musicality.  I also just found out that she started violin when she was 3, and by age 11, she had performed solo with orchestras more than 50 times. Then from age 11-17, she practiced 8 hours/day and never missed a single day at such schedule! Just imagine the amount of work she has put in before the age of 20, before most of mortals even touched any major concerto.

Considering how late I started, how long I was on my own without a teacher and how many years I didn't touch the violin at all, I should feel really good about my past three years' steady progress and about my talent.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on November 2, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Very good point Yixi!    Considering this, quite a few should be happy urrraaaahhhh!   I'll try to remember this one but then I'll get upset to not have had the context etc but life is filled with occasions to get upset so mind as well get use to it lol   I also agree with Karen!   We see some "l'm a star type people" everywhere but not everyone is like this!!!  


From Elinor Estepa
Posted on November 2, 2009 at 3:40 PM

Even you reach that 10,000 hours, your still going to look for more ways to go up the ladder to be better, that is the urges that you prove to yourself that you can do it, but again where is the fun  of that?

So, might as well, practice with quality, and whatever it takes, Do Not Loose the Fun of playing/ teaching, without it, its useless..

There is no perfections in anything in this world. Why not be that someone who's enjoying this journey, and when it time to look back you remember those moments that are silly, frustrating, just so imperfect in your imperfect world.

So, go ahead and practice some more, and play music..

My 2 cents..

From David Wilson
Posted on November 2, 2009 at 7:36 PM

 Although it is essential, practice is not the only element required to "master" violin. To list a few, it also requires expert training, inborn talent, and, most of all, ridiculous amounts of energy and passion.  If only it required 10,000 hours of practice!

From Federico Piantini
Posted on November 2, 2009 at 8:36 PM

I will be glad to tell my kids in orchestra about this!!!!!!!!!

Sounds superb!!!!!!!!!

10,000 hours? easy many years ago!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

From Peter Kent
Posted on November 2, 2009 at 8:37 PM

Wasn't it Leopold Auer that claimed if you can't make it in 3 hrs. per day, to pack it in and do something else ??

My teaching mantrae would include:  Miracles Happen During The 2nd hour of Practice.

and they usually did for me, lending a satisfying feeling to the expenditure of time.

From Margaret Mehl
Posted on November 3, 2009 at 2:35 PM

As a previous discussant has remarked, no one is claiming that 10 000 hours are guaranteed to make you a first-class violinist. Starting at a reasonably early age is important, as is that elusive thing called talent (although the evidence for this is rather less conclusive than that for the efficacy of practice) and (Suzuki again!) a supportive environment. If you want to read the argument in a more concise form, see Ericsson, K. and M.J. Prietula et al. (2007), The Making of an Expert, in: Harvard Business review, July-August, pp. 115-121.

As for Suzuki and his 10 000 repetitions, this is another example of what has been called "the timelessness of Suzuki"; much of his method is based on principles that have been proven sound by other experts. By the way, in case you are interested in reading about the historical context of Suzuki (his method is rooted in a particular time as well as timeless), may I recommend my forthcoming article in RIME (Research and Issues in Music Education, an online journal): Cultural Translation in Two Directions: The Suzuki Method in Japan and Germany.

Best wishes,


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