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The Path to Mastery by Colin Hill, Tennessee Tech University

Success in nearly every field is commonly attributed to some combination of innate talent and hard work. There are those who argue that mastery is predominantly a consequence of innate talent and believe achievement of true virtuosity is only attainable for those born with extraordinary physical and mental characteristics. On the other side of that debate are those who believe that mastery is only possible for those who have a relentless drive to achieve, manifested through countless hours of hard work and dedication.

Editor’s Note: This article appears as one of a series written especially for Ala Breve by experts in the field of music education. same age.

Robert Schietroma, Joshua Smith, Gordon Stout, John Tafoya, Blake Tyson, Michael Udow, Ben Wahlund, Eric Willie, and Brian Zator.

What I discovered was unexpected - their practice habits are as unique and individual as their playing styles. Not only were there a seemingly countless number of methods, techniques, and philosophies successfully utilized, but many of their habits and preferences were in direct contradiction with each other’s.

I am continuously amazed and inspired by the incredible ability and innovation displayed by the world’s top musicians. How do these individuals achieve such mastery? Were they each born with an extraordinary level of innate talent or is their achievement primarily a result of tenacious practice and perseverance? I decided that asking the masters themselves was the best way to try to answer these questions. How do they practice? How do they prepare for performances? What habits and methods do they credit most for their success?

Over the course of three years, I had the opportunity of interviewing some of the world’s most successful performers and educators in order to explore their personal practice habits. I focused my attention on one instrument area, percussion, to minimize variables and provide quantitative constants between those interviewed. In all, I conducted thirty-six interviews with percussionists at various stages of their careers and in diverse areas of expertise. This group ranged from young virtuosos to legendary hall-of-famers, and from seasoned orchestral players to in- demand soloists. By including a wide range of classical percussionists, I hoped to reveal those practice methods and philosophies shared by all great percussionists.

The thirty-six percussionists I interviewed were Joakim Anterot, Jason Baker, Kevin Bobo, Michael Burritt, Thomas Burritt, James Campbell, Omar Carmenates, Gary Cook, Christopher Deane, Brett Dietz, Matthew Duvall, I-Jen Fang, Mark Ford, Andy Harnsberger, Anders Holdar, John Lane, Julie Licata, Frederic Macarez, Payton MacDonald, Brian Mason, William Moersch, Jason Nicholson, Brian Nozny, John Parks IV, Paul Rennick, Emil Richards, Steven Schick,


However, the closer I examined the data, one commonality did emerge.

All thirty-six

interviewees exhibited an extreme devotion to practice, a discovery consistent with other studies done on the topic of high achievement. These studies are not limited to music or to any specific field, but were collected under the umbrella topic of success.

10,000 Hours

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Outliers, Gladwell studied the practice trends of highly successful people. The closer he studied the habits of the most gifted and successful, the more evidence he found that innate talent routinely played a much smaller role than preparation.

In the field of music, this premise is also supported by a series of studies done in the early 1990s by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson.1

Ericsson and his colleagues conducted a similar study, this time comparing the practice hours of amateur pianists with professional pianists. The professional pianists were trained at the Music Academy in West Berlin while the amateur pianists were recruited through newspaper and campus ads.

When the total hours were analyzed for this data, the results were remarkably similar to the violinists’ data. The amateurs on average totaled 2,000 hours by age twenty and the professionals, like the ‘best violinists,’ reached 10,000 hours by approximately age twenty.

Perhaps the most interesting finding of Ericsson’s studies was that among violinists and pianists, there were no ‘naturals,’ as defined by musicians who belonged to the top group but practiced a fraction of the time. Similarly, Ericsson and his colleagues didn’t find any ‘grinds,’ people who worked harder than everyone else but didn’t belong to the top category.1

These findings are intriguing, as the existence of ‘natural talent’ seems so obviously apparent in child prodigies. To explore this idea further, consider the most famous child prodigy in music history, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Ericsson’s team studied violinists at

the Music Academy in West Berlin. The violinists were divided into three groups. The first group was comprised of the Academy’s ‘best violinists.’ According to the professors, these students were most likely to become world-class soloists. The second group was made up of the ‘good violinists,’ and the third group, ‘music teachers,’ consisted of violinists from the music education department of the academy who exhibited less skill than their peers.

The individual practice hours of all participating violinists were added up and the ‘best violinists’ had on average totaled 10,000 hours by the age of twenty, while the ‘good violinists’ averaged 8,000 hours, and the ‘music teachers’ averaged 4,000 hours by this

Michael Howe, author of Genius Explained, believes that Mozart was really no different than the violinists and pianists in Ericsson’s study. While Mozart started composing music at the age of six and was widely considered a childhood genius, Howe argues that these claims are exaggerated. He points out that “by the standards of mature composers, Mozart’s early works are not outstanding. The earliest pieces were all probably written down by his father, and perhaps improved in the process.”2 Further, Howe argues that Mozart’s first seven concertos for piano and orchestra were “largely arrangements of works by other composers,”2 making his first widely regarded masterwork, containing purely original music, Piano Concerto No. 9 in E Flat Major, K. 271. This was not composed until 1777, when Mozart was twenty-one years old.

Based on this argument, Gladwell is convinced that not even prodigies are exempt from

February/March 2015

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