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putting in the necessary practice hours. “Even Mozart - the greatest musical prodigy of all time - couldn’t hit his stride until he had his 10,000 hours,”3

said Gladwell. Percussionist Interviews

So how do the percussionists interviewed compare? Does the 10,000-hour rule seem to apply to mastery in this field of study as well?

One of the questions asked of each of the percussionists interviewed was to give their best estimate of the number of hours per day they spent practicing during various time periods of their lives, from middle school to the present time. In all thirty-six cases, the numbers were amazingly high, and in a few cases, the numbers were astonishing.

The figure below shows the average number of practice hours per day of the thirty-six percussionists during various time periods of their lives.

On average, the thirty-six percussionists interviewed started playing percussion at nine years old. When their daily practice hours are totaled, they reach 10,000 practice hours by an average age of 21.5 years.

Environmental Limitations

When comparing the statistics of Ericsson’s studies, the age at which Mozart composed his first masterpiece, and the thirty-six percussionists interviewed, one very interesting trend emerges. The 10,000-hour milestone is typically achieved around twenty years of age.

because it is “all but impossible to reach that number all by yourself.”3

In addition to

requiring family support, “most people can reach that number only if they get into some kind of special program . . . where they get some kind of extraordinary opportunity that gives them a chance to put in those hours,” said Gladwell.3

Accumulation of this many hours requires extreme devotion, which may also explain why it is routinely reached at such a young age. The typical obligations of adulthood - work,

ala breve

That is an enormous amount of time to dedicate to a single activity, especially as a child and young adult. For this reason, Gladwell believes that not everyone is capable of achieving 10,000 hours. “You have to have parents who would encourage and support you”3

relationships, and families - greatly reduce an individual’s ability to practice. For this reason, it can be reasonably concluded that if 10,000 hours aren’t achieved before starting a career, the attainment of mastery may never be reached because the player simply will not have sufficient time to practice.

This notion was widely supported by the percussionists interviewed, with most indicating that once they finished their education and started their careers, practice became an activity of maintenance, not improvement. The quantity of time they were able to spend in the practice room was barely enough to sufficiently prevent them from getting worse. Most indicated they were no longer getting better at their instrument, but simply maintaining the skills they had acquired through college. This can be correlated to the immense drop-off in practice when comparing their average practice hours during college to their current practice hours. To put in perspective the severity of the drop-off, the percussionists interviewed currently practice less per day than they did when they were in middle school.

It is a common misconception among young musicians that they have their whole lives to get better. The truth is that players likely reach their greatest skill level when they complete their education. Once careers are underway, only a fortunate few are able to avoid a long slow decline in their playing skills. Students often take the attitude that ‘I’ll practice it later’ or ‘after I graduate I’ll learn to do that.’ The harsh reality is, they won’t. High school and college is the time to practice and improve your skillset, and once that time has passed, the opportunity to get better is likely gone forever.

The irony of this realization is that many of the percussionists interviewed confessed that that they did not discover how to most efficiently practice until later in their careers, when time was truly at a premium. While finally mastering the art of practice is a tremendous accomplishment, the window in which this skill would have proven most beneficial had long expired.

It is clear that in order to be a successful musician, one must put in the practice time. Statistics strongly indicate that there is no substitute for putting in at least 10,000 hours of practice early in life. However, how these hours should be best spent is much less certain. In fact, most people are extremely secretive about their practice habits. For example, what

do most of us do when we are practicing and somebody walks into the room? We stop. Rarely, do we practice in front of each other. Further, practice is usually a neglected subject in the classroom and in private lessons. While most teachers do instruct their students what to practice, a much lower percentage of teachers actually give their students specific details on how to practice the assigned material. Why is this? After all, diligent practicing was the only traceable correlation between all 36 percussionists interviewed.

If practicing is the key element of success, merely talking about it isn’t enough. We need share our practice habits with each other and we need to watch our students practice. Are they doing it efficiently? Are they doing it “correctly?” Observation followed by assessment is a standard procedure found in all aspects of music education and is how we evaluate our students. Why should practicing be any different? Especially when diligent practicing is the only commonality found among the world’s top musicians.

As educators, we commonly assess students by their improvement from week to week on a given musical passage. However, wouldn’t it be more advantageous to assess how they practiced that given musical passage? After all, the execution of a particular passage does not define us as musicians, but how we practice it does.

K. Anders Ericsson, et al., “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance,” Psychological Review 100 No. 3 (1993): 363-406.

Endnotes i

Michael J.A. Howe, Genius Explained, (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University press, 1999), 3.

2 3

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success, (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2008), 42.

Dr. Colin Hill is currently the Interim Professor of Percussion Studies at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville, Tennessee.


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