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Piano Practice and the 10,000-hour Rule

A recent study seems to have dealt a blow to the often cited idea that 10,000 hours of practice will make an expert of anyone. “The idea has become really entrenched in our culture, but it’s an oversimplification,” says Brooke Macnamara, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

The origins of the 10,000-hour theory

The 10,000-hour theory was popularised in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers (2008), in which he states that “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness”. A lot of people – not least piano teachers – have really seized upon this, to the point of ignoring Gladwell’s other ideas. The book proposes a formula for success that could be summed up like this:
Talent + Various cultural, social, financial, and circumstantial advantages + 10000 hours of practice = Unusual success.
This is demonstrated by a set of examples like The Beatles, Bill Gates etc. In other words, Gladwell is trying to explain how certain extraordinary circumstances create extremely successful people, rather than revealing the best way to achieve expertise.

What does science say?

Gladwell in his turn had picked up the 10,000-hour rule from a 1993 study, which found that violin students pointed out by their professor as having potential for careers as international soloists, had clocked up on average 10,000 hours of practice by the age of 20. What the study also found was that “individual differences, even among elite performers, are closely related to assessed amounts of deliberate practice”.
The recent study by Brooke Macnamara and Megha Maitra could not replicate this latter finding. Using the same categories as in the previous study, they found that “good” violinists (these were students in a highly ranked music conservatory, but were not deemed potential future international soloists by their professors) had accumulated even more practice time than the “best” ones. (Both the “best” and the “good” had an average accumulated practice time of more than 10 000 hours). The “less accomplished” violinists – who were also music students, but in a department of music education – had practiced less, but certainly several thousand hours.

Amounts of weekly practice for students in the new Macnamara/Maitra study:

Should I keep aiming for the 10,000 mark?

Well, nothing in the new study debunks the claim that it takes a long time and a tremendous amount of work to become an accomplished musician. It still seems like aspiring professional musicians (and music teachers) practice a lot. Of course, the 10,000-hour rule was never intended as a guarantee of success. You may or may not become a professional musician, but you can reach a very high level of skill if you are dedicated enough to keep going for thousands of hours.
The concept can also be useful to counterbalance our tendency to focus on talent as something almost magical, an innate ability that some people just have. Musical talent could just mean a love of music that motivates you to play your instrument for hours every day, in order to solve the problems you need to solve to become accomplished.

Further reading:


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