On Ten Thousand Hours

Like the grand old Duke of York, Malcolm Gladwell had ten thousand hours. Gladwell’s hours were the time you needed to devote to an activity to master it. It was originally applied to violin players, and thence to everyone. And now it’s back. Because someone has said it may not be true. No shit. This morning’s Guardian ran a piece on a new study that apparently contradicts it. It doesn’t, of course, because there’s nothing serious to contradict. That and what the real issue is here, that most thorny of questions: how talented are you?
There is a tendency with guitarists of the contemporary sort to eschew the tried and tested methods of acquiring mastery of their instrument, employing the most spurious of arguments so that they might remain pure in guitaring spirit. The arguments that rage around this subject are quite delightful.
I am talking, of course, of the great debate that pits ‘technique’ against ‘feeling.’ It is plain to anyone who has spent more than thirty seconds considering the issue that there is only really one discussion to be had in this debate, namely why those who are the most passionate speakers on the subject fail to understand what it is they are being so passionate about.
We’ve all heard the argument. It comes down to the idea that ‘being a good guitarist isn’t about technique’. Well, I disagree. Vehemently. And yes, I have (or at least had) a colossal technical command of the instrument, so obviously I’d think like that. Or perhaps not. Frank Zappa once said that he was a composer who just happened to be able to operate an instrument called a guitar. And operation is, I feel, a highly apposite word. Playing the instrument is a craft. It is learnt through hours of application of nose to grindstone. Anyone can become a very good guitar player. Of course, there are physical and physiological attributes that allow one person to be physically ‘better’ than another given the same amount of work, but that’s another thing altogether.
Let’s get one thing straight: the physical ability to play difficult things on the instrument is not technique, because if you play anything slowly enough, it becomes easy. A better way of describing it is (though I hate to use an Americanism) ‘chops’. Chops are the result of technique plus work. Chops are what allow you to play [insert technique of any kind] in real time. Chops are not limitless, and we all have a level above which we will never climb (don’t worry, no-one, but no-one, comes even close to hitting this level). This is what’s called aptitude (we’ll get to talent later). Aptitude is just one of the attributes ignored by those who believe the Gladwellian 10,000 hours equals virtuosity equation. Gladwell didn’t. He realised that the 10,000 hour barrier was selective: if you had no aptitude for the instrument, then you would be highly unlikely to reach the number of hours that he found correlates with ‘virtuoso’ playing (and remember correlation does not mean causation) It’s just as valid, if not more so, to point out that musicians who have racked up 10,000 hours on their instrument have done so because they are a virtuoso, as to suggest their virtuosity is a result of these hours of practice.
It’s also rather important to consider how efficient your practice. Practice badly and you get very good at playing badly. But tecnique is not music.
In every sphere of human action, technique is simply the way in which one achieves an outcome. Good technique is an efficient way of doing something; bad technique an inefficient way of doing something. It refers to the manner in which you manipulate your instrument: the level to which you do so is your chops. Technique is possibilia, however, it gives you possibility. We can measure our chops, in some senses, through activity. A crude example is as follows:

Guitarist 1 (G1) can play melody A perfectly at 100bpm.
Guitarist 2 (G2) can play melody A perfectly at 200bpm.
When asked to play melody A at 100bpm, both players can play it perfectly, but G1 is at their limit. G2, on the other hand, can manipulate the melody, as they have, in effect, more time in hand with which they might play each note.
Ask them to play melody A at 150bpm, and guitarist 1 is awful, as it’s far beyond their physical capacity. G2, however, still has a ton of headroom, so they can still manipulate the melody.

G2 is, by this specific measure, the superior guitar player. They have (at this point), superior chops. Their superiority in this instance can be down to more experience, more practice, better technique, or all three combined. For G1 to reach the level of G2, they must practice more, yes. The better their technique, however, the quicker they will improve their numbers (and this goes for practice technique, too). They may already have better technique than G2, however. If this is the case, they may well be able to far surpass G1, and with less effort.
But here’s the thing: we can’t measure potential. Honing our technique to be as efficient as possible allows us to skew the effort/reward curve in our favour when developing our chops.
It gives us the best chance of climbing high up our ladder of potential. We never reach the top, nor do we even see it, but we all know we feel better if we’ve given ourselves every chance to climb it.
As the study’s author pointed out, it is important for people to understand the limits of practice:

“Practice makes you better than you were yesterday, most of the time,” she said. “But it might not make you better than your neighbour. Or the other kid in your violin class.”

We can’t all be virtuosi, if only because the definition changes constantly. But technique on an instrument has nothing to do with being a musician. Being a musician is something else, and needs other types of practice. Obviously, that’s a not entirely correct statement but the principle is sound. Technique on an instrument is physical. It is the technique in a person that is potentially musical. This is why one must exercise the creativity muscle, to hone the technique of turning thoughts and feelings into sound.

4 thoughts on “On Ten Thousand Hours

  1. Reading about the 10,000 hour rule hurt my progress at the time because I started focusing on counting hours rather than getting specific results from each practice session.

    The evidence to back it up is anecdotal and it could simply be translated as “it takes a lot of time, over a long period of time to master anything”.

    • Absolutely. Even Gladwell uses it as a metaphor, when it comes down to it. And you’re right about concentrating on hours rather than process, and I also think that’s where a lot of people go wrong (and, as you also point out, hurt themselves) – they hear guitarist ‘x’ say ‘I used to practice ten hours a day’, and so jump right in. ‘X’ never says ‘and it almost destroyed my tendons and my mental health’, which is a pity. You have to work damn hard to get anywhere on a musical instrument, and obsessing on it can be really dangerous. Approaching it intelligently and with foreknowledge is where it’s at – and that’s where having a really good teacher is invaluable.

      • Teacher quality is another huge variable. I started with teachers who could barely play, let alone teach, learned from the mistake, and found some really good teachers along the way.

        It makes a huge difference.

        • Absolutely – the wrong one/s can set you back an awful lot of time and stress, if not kill your desire altogether. Some of my students at LMS/MI London hated me, but I think that more learnt to appreciate my methods! That, after all, was where the whole album reboot idea came from. I wrote a tiny bit about my first teacher about a decade ago here.

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