Thursday 24 March 2011

The Cold Ten Thousand

This is my current bedside reading:

I'd had a glance at Daniel Levitin's book in a Boston bookstore last year, but for some reason hadn't bought it; I don't know why as this is exactly my kind of thing. Perhaps I was thinking about luggage allowance on my flight home. In the end I picked up a copy a few weeks ago in Cardiff, and it's very interesting stuff, both in the specifics of its theme - the science of music perception and appreciation, and as a handy primer on recent developments in neuroscience. Levitin is a scientist, but he's also a muso - if you've ever wanted a book that hops cheerfully from Mozart to Metallica by way of MRI, this is the one for you.

I've still some way to go, but last night I was struck by a section in the book where he talks at some length on the "ten thousand hour" thing. This is the notion, with which I was only glancingly familiar, that it takes about ten thousand hours to get good at anything - by which good is taken to mean "expert" or "world class". In the case of Mozart, for instance, there's no need to assume that there was anything exceptional or freakish about the young Amadeus - he was simply brought up in a household environment where the necessary ten thousand hours of tuition and practise could easily have been achieved at a relatively early age. Levitin stresses that the ten thousand hours applies to far more than just music.

This got me thinking about my own long-documented struggles with the guitar, and how much time I'd need to put in to get near that magic ten thousand mark. Three hours a day for a decade will get you there, but very few of us can hope to spend that much time on what is essentially a hobby - not if we've got day-jobs or other interests. Nonetheless, and barring other factors, I suppose I could do it if I were so minded. An hour in the morning, an hour at noon, an hour in the evening - and then keep that up for ten years...

Well, no - that's obviously not going to happen. But then it occurred to me that I don't have to do ten thousand hours from now, since I've already been playing - or attempting to play - for more than fifteen years. That must knock quite a chunk off the target, surely?

Well, sort of - but not very much. I've been kind of semi-serious with my guitar for the last two or three years, but if I'm going to be honest, I doubt that I spent more than two hours a week on it for most of the time before that. So that's - what - a hundred hours a year, for a decade or so? In other words, and allowing for my increased discipline in the last couple of years, I doubt that I've managed to shave more than two thousand hours off the target. So that's just another eight thousand to go, then.

I suppose I'd better be realistic...


  1. I thought the blog title was the title for your latest short story :)

  2. Interesting book recommendation I think I'll check that out.

    I've come across this 10,000 hrs before in my other guise as a fencer. In writing terms I suppose it's probably equivalent to that maigic 1 million word that everyone seems to bang on about. It's true that Mozart reached his 10,000 because of his environment and I think it's that last word that's important.

    If you lock yourself in a cell and practice for 10,000 hrs will you be an "expert"? You will certainly be technically better but I question how well you would actually play.

    In sport we would say that you need the right environment to become good and there a number of components that need to be considered: a good mentor, good opposition, regular practise (5 days a week at a minimum) and a good training venue (though this isn't essential). You also need a good support group from your family and friends (again this isn't essential but it helps). Personally you also need discipline and organisational skills - which I am sure you already have.

    What am I getting at? Well I think while you will have made strides in your ability to play the guitar unless you were seriously regular you will still be less proficient than you'd like. Which is the message I am receiving from your post!

    Get practicing and if you're serious get that support group set up.

    But please please please don't let it be at the expense of your writing! :D

  3. I take some comfort in the fact that I don't expect to be world class in any of my hobbies. So I'll just put in a couple of thousand hours. :-)

  4. Nor do I!

    I do kind of like the idea of getting to 8000 hours and stopping. "No, mate - you're only 8/10ths of an expert - sod off!"

    As long as we're having fun, though, who really cares?

  5. Neil Young; he isn't particularly good at the guitar. According to "Shakey," his bio, he practiced hours upon hours when he was young, never quite making it "right". Still, he is now a living legend. I get goosebumps from, say, "Old Man" or whatever. Guys would kill for his skills....

    Lesson? Being _otherwise_ talented, one can redefine a craft! :-D

  6. And you can also destroy the passion that made you want to play the guitar if you were to start cramming in the hours to get to the expert stage. Like you said, so long as your having fun!

  7. by my calculations, to be an expert in any regular 9-5 career, unless you are taking your work home with you, would take about 5-6 years, and that's assuming you have near enough 100% productivity. wow

  8. Richard: I guess that kind of makes sense, though, right? Assuming less than 100% productivity - after all, in any job, there will always be interruptions and downtime outside the control of the employee, no matter how diligent they are - that figure that could easily stretch to 10 years or more.

    Simen: I've been learning a basic version of "Old Man" for a while now. It's one of my favorite Neil pieces.

  9. If your hobby is, um, walking a dog, you don't need ten thousand hours... but you might have to do it for that long anyway. Coincidence, I think not. If your dog lives fifteen years and you walk him for half an hour a day every day, that's about .. a similar result.

  10. Hello Al
    I've just started working on keyboards over the last two years after 30 years of guitar and I know I havn't got 10000 hours left to practise!

    But I enjoy it and that's the thing.

  11. Hi - sorry to resurrect old posts, but I couldn't resist. I'm a professional guitarist and instructor. Here are some suggestions ;-)

    First of all - the level of guitar playing which I suspect will give you pleasure is well within your grasp. If you want to play songs and write a few, it is unnecessary to be a virtuoso.

    So don't give up!

    The biggest issues I come up with people trying to learn the guitar is misaimed practice. There is a massive divide between practice and playing. Practice only really happens in short bursts

    Here's an idea. Assign yourself a 3 minute task - getting from one chord to another, a fingerpicking pattern, a strumming pattern and so on. Set a timer and finish after 3 minutes. Interleave another 3 minute exercise. Then another. Go back to the first after you've run out.

    Be slow and perfectionist. Practice is not music. You are building muscle memory.

    After 15 minutes of this your head will hurt. Take a break.

    I can't handle more than an hour of real practice. There are plenty of other things musicians do to build up their 10,000 hours - listening and transcribing, learning other musical skills (time, ear training, reading), writing music, playing gigs, rehearsing and so on - but in terms of purely learning guitar, I think 15m is enough especially at beginner level. As you get better you may find you need a bit more. Don't be afraid to chop this up into your daily routine. Sitting with a guitar for hours on end is not the smartest way to work.

    Playing is entirely different - you are performing. You can do this on your own (for example playing for enjoyment.) But it is not practice. Practice is work, playing is fun!

    Hope that makes some sense :-)