Archive for February, 2011

How much practice can I do in one day?

If performance ability is closely linked to practice volume, then it would make sense to put practice in the highest position when allocating time, and spend as much time as possible practicing.  It turns out, however that there are limits to how much practice on an instrument actually produces improvement.  In studies that range across elite athletes, musicians, chess players, scientists and writers, a common upper limit exists because our bodies and minds can only sustain extreme effort for a limited period of time.  It doesn’t seem to matter if the exercise is mental, or physical, or both.

“Across many domains of expertise, a remarkably consistent pattern emerges: The best individuals start practice at earlier ages and maintain a higher level of daily practice. Moreover, estimates indicate that at any given age the best individuals in quite different domains, such as sports and music, spend similar amounts of time on deliberate practice. In virtually all domains, there is evidence that the most important activity— practice, thinking,or writing—requires considerable effort and is scheduled for a fixed period during the day. For those exceptional individuals who sustain this regular activity for months and years, its duration is limited to 2-4 h a day, which is a fraction of their time awake.” (Ericsson, et. al, p.30)

Ericsson’s study is particularly interesting because the research team carefully selected participants who could practice as much of their day as they desired (elite conservatory students).  These are all musicians who have worked hard for years and years, and it appears that no one is able to sustain more than this volume for a long period of time.  Even more interestingly, it is not even necessary.  All elite performers spend similar time in the most difficult part of their day – that part spent on intentional improvement (practice).

Of course elite performers in all disciplines spend many other hours on music related activities (around 50 hours total per week in Ericsson’s study).  But these other activities (playing with others, performing, listening to music, going to classes, talking with colleagues) do not share the same direct impact on performance, although they are related and correlate to a lesser degree.

Interestingly, the elite violinists in the study averaged practice sessions of 80 minutes for a total volume of 3.5 hours per day as recorded in their practice diaries.   This correlated well between pianists and violinists at an elite level, leading to the conclusion that this finding is not instrument specific.  Furthermore, benefits for practicing in longer sessions are reduced:

A number of training studies in real life have compared the efficiency of practice durations ranging from 1-8 hr per day.These studies show essentially no benefit from durations exceeding 4 hr per day and reduced benefits from practice exceeding 2 hr (Welford, 1968; Woodworth & Schlosberg, 1954).

The musicians in this study practiced at this level consistently throughout the week. There was no difference in practice between weekend and weekday, though they had more leisure time on the weekend due to a reduction of other music-related activity.  The study clearly indicates that there is a sustained level of activity over the many years needed to develop expertise as a musician, and that a certain part of the result is related to the sustained volume over time.  This makes developing musical expertise an endurance event, and not a sprint.

The most elite musicians all had dedicated morning practice times, correlating extremely well with elite scientists, authors, and other cognitive disciplines.  It was also apparent that the most elite musicians also took short afternoon naps, just like elite athletes to recover from morning training, and then continued to practice more in the afternoon and early evening.  Late night practice was not observed to any extent, and a full eight hours of sleep was normative.

So, an ambitious student, who intends to make the most of his or her ability should seek a training volume of 3-4 hours a day, spread across several 70-90 minute sessions with rest and other activities in between.  Keeping definite dedicated practice times with specific goals and objectives for each session is a must.  Spending three continuous hours pounding at an instrument well after concentration is lost at the 90 minute mark,  is not beneficial compared to purposeful training sessions of limited duration and purpose.

The goal of deliberate practice is not “doing more of the same.” Rather, it involves engaging with full concentration in a special activity to improve.

It would also follow that for adult students who have extremely demanding jobs, or “hard days” to go easy on themselves during these times.  Spending precious practice time mindfully is more important than dutifully running some set of exercises mechanically.  Find the training volume that you can sustain with full engagement and work from there.

Note that warm-ups, playing for enjoyment, playing concerts, etc. do not count into this figure, so the actual time spent at the instrument and in musical activities will of necessity be higher.  Obviously, these training volumes do not apply to very young children, and must not exceed the muscular development  and endurance level of the musician.  Pain in practice is NOT normal and is an indication of improper technique, overwork, or injury.

10,000 hours = Success?

In a word, no, at least not when stated that simplistically.  There is no “one-size-fits-all” recipe that will guarantee success.  The moment that I finish 10,000 of focused, intelligent practice, I will not be interrupted by the world press at my doorstep and a cotillion of lawyers looking for me to sign recording and performance contracts.  It is perhaps more useful to see it as a mile-marker.  Given that many top international players took 20-25 years to ascend to the international stage, it is more useful to see it as a metaphor for working on one’s craft every day, constantly striving for more.

In Linchpin, Seth Godin explains that a main task of the artist is to make a map.  Map making is a metaphor for figuring out what it is going to take to succeed, what is the destination, and how one should move forward.  If attempted honestly, this will result in many different pathways, and many different outcomes.  Our job as artists and students of our craft is to make the map – to plan out our practice to reach our goals, and then to execute with full emotional commitment.

Equally important to the time-in-grade is to be truly honest about our desired outcomes, and to be internally aligned in our expectations.  This is the only way to sustain the effort over the kind of time-frame that it takes to develop real proficiency.  Of course discipline and internal motivation must be present to an extraordinary degree, but it is much easier to be motivated by true personal goals than by accomplishments absorbed from others.  Finding internal clarity is always a precondition for success, and spending the personal time to distill down goals and motivations is well spent.

There is no arbitrary amount of effort that will guarantee success.  Ultimately we must chase goals and standards of excellence, and the time takes care of itself, if we mean to be a success.  We have to constantly evaluate our progress and re-make the map.  The daily discipline and commitment to practicing eventually builds into a solid technique, means of expression and body of bio-mechanical skill.  Taken over a lifetime, tremendous improvement can be realized, and we move daily closer to our ultimate aim.  As noted elsewhere on this site, it is the journey that is significant, and our full engagement is as necessary as doing the work.  This is no place for mindless repetition.

World-Class from a Late Start? Possible?

Continuing the thoughts explored in the last post, a serious student must ask, “Is it even possible for me to get where I want to go?”.    The answer depends very much on where it is one desires to end up.  All the self-help books would have us believe that anything we believe and work for is possible. But is it? If I put in 10 years of hard work, will I really be able to play like Valentina Lisitsa?

If the desire is to play at the level of an international recording artist, the truthful answer is: probably not. Achieving an international level of expertise is different than becoming a competent, or even expert musician. The reality is that the current standard expected of international performing artists is of exceptionally high standards – so high that only a small fraction of players will ever achieve it – despite starting as small children. Here is what K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely have to say:

Our research shows that even the most gifted performers need a minimum of ten years (or 10,000 hours) of intense training before they win international competitions. In some fields the apprenticeship is longer: It now takes most elite musicians 15 to 25 years of steady practice, on average, before they succeed at the international level.
Though there are historical examples of people who attained an international level of expertise at an early age, it’s also true that, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, people could reach world-class levels more quickly. In most fields, the bar of performance has risen steadily since that time. For instance, amateur marathon runners and high school swimmers today frequently better the times of Olympic gold medalists from the early twentieth century. Increasingly stiff competition now makes it almost impossible to beat the ten-year rule.

They also note:

Not only do you have to be prepared to invest time in becoming an expert, but you have to start early—at least in some fields. Your ability to attain expert performance is clearly constrained if you have fewer opportunities to engage in deliberate practice, and this is far from a trivial constraint. Once, after giving a talk, K. Anders Ericsson was asked by a member of the audience whether he or any other person could win an Olympic medal if he began training at a mature age. Nowadays, Ericsson replied, it would be virtually impossible for anyone to win an individual medal without a training history comparable with that of today’s elite performers, nearly all of whom started very early. Many children simply do not get the opportunity, for whatever reason, to work with the best teachers and to engage in the sort of deliberate practice that they need to reach the Olympic level in a sport.

Ouch!  That seems to put quite a crimp on dreaming of playing like Murray Perahia.   Despite my own immensely strong desire to believe that it just isn’t so, and that I will certainly be the exception that proves the rule, the simple fact is that is is extremely unlikely that I will play at this level in ten years.  So unlikely, in fact, as to be virtually impossible even given an “all-day, every day effort”.  In fact, even competing at the level of the major amateur piano competitions indicates that the 10 years of solid effort will likely put me in contention, and not even guarantee winning results!  Peruse the biographies for the performers at last year’s competition in Chicago, and it is evident that most studied from childhood, have performance degrees (some even Master’s degrees), and have continued to play while pursuing other careers.  It goes without saying that amateur competitions are not the same level as the Van Cliburn, Tchaikovsky, or Chopin competitions that the finest young pianists in the world use to launch their concert careers.

So where does this leave us?  Is it, therefore not worth the effort of even starting?  Should I just invest in a good CD player or MP3 player and let others do the playing for me?  Why even bother with all the practice when Reference Recordings isn’t ever going to call for me to make the definitive recordings of Chopin’s most difficult work?  At some point, any of us who start into classical music late (after 6-9 years of age) are going to have to look this in the face and make a decision to either give up or to press forward.    Are there ideas that would support a decision to move forward in the face of overwhelming evidence against achieving a world-class level of achievement?

1.  There is a LOT of great artistry below the level of the international concert stars! Think about it – there are thousands of students graduating from top conservatories every year.  Every one of them is capable of playing professionally – and many do on a local, regional, or national level.  We would be happy to listen to any of them play, but almost none of them will grace international stages.  It is much like the cut-off that happens in professional sports.  College football or soccer teams perform at an elite level and so good that many sports fans prefer to watch them play than professional teams!  Yet most of the players in college sports are not able to make the leap to professional or international status.  Just because Sony Classical won’t contract me to record the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, doesn’t mean that I can’t perform at a very high level, learn all those sonatas, and play for many happy people!  Amateur athletes now regularly best what would be world-class times in days gone by.  Excellence is still available below the rarefied air of the international concert scene!

2.  “Best in the World” is relative for most of us. Outside the dozen or so players who actually are “the best in the world” right now, most of us are able to be “best in the world” for some other audience.  Seth Godin explores this in an interesting way by noting that being “best in the world” is related to what one’s customers expect.  If I am performing with the New York Philharmonic in front of the one of the most demanding audiences in the world, being the “best” means the incredibly high standard of the hundreds of world-class artists that have passed across the stage in the last 10, 20 or 50 years.  Being one of the dozen top current performing artists is necessary, but insufficient in this setting.  What about playing a benefit concert in your hometown for a new hospital wing?  Or competing in an International amateur competition?  Or becoming a composer, a teacher or You Tube star?  “Best in the world” takes on a different meaning, and it is entirely possible to satisfy those audiences without being an international super-star.   A better question might be, “In what ‘world’ can I operate at my highest potential and bless people with my gift?”.  That is a question that opens discussion, rather than shutting it down.

3.  While inspiring, watching others play doesn’t scratch the itch I have to play.  This is perhaps the strongest reason of all.  Even if I never play the hardest pieces in the literature to the highest international critical standard, I still want to play play major swaths of the literature myself!  I want to play it on my piano to express and experience the emotion and content of the great masterworks of western civilization. I know how satisfying it is to play music for myself from the studies I’ve done so far, and I can’t deny or suppress the need to continue.  It is baked into the core of my being.   The challenge of satisfying the demands of the greatest musical accomplishments in western history is deeply satisfying to me.  I can truthfully say that the work is its own reward.  If that is true, than it matters little whether or not I have access to the several dozen leading concert halls in the world.

4. I can only work to my potential anyway. Life is a forward-facing adventure.  Re-doing the past is not possible.  Starting from today, I have potential.  There is work I can do, and achievements that I can make from where I am right now.  I don’t have to deal with the baggage of being a “child prodigy” or wondering if I am one.  I’m not, and won’t ever become one.  But it doesn’t matter – I can become all the musician I am capable of being in the life I have left.  Whether or not I perform at Royal Albert Hall in London, I can chase my personal artistic potential.  Even if I started as a small child, I could do no more, and there still would have been very long odds on becoming an international superstar.  The value is the journey, not the result, and the journey is as open as it ever was.  My musical adventures to date make it clear that I can expect to perform at a very high level.  Provided that I maintain good health, I should have every expectation of playing advanced repertoire well.  I can be happy and fulfilled without performing Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto with an internationally famous orchestra.  (Truthfully, unless I was already a national-level musician, this wouldn’t even be a valid goal -just an idle dream).  My goal is to explore, master and perform the pieces that challenge and invigorate me, and that lead me forward in my artistic journey.  Succeeding at becoming the best musical me is a different journey than setting Alice Tulley Hall as the only acceptable measure of success.  I can honestly look at the pieces that define musical success on my list and plan to achieve them.  This is likely true for you as well.

Ultimately, the choice is to chase personal potential, not a particular concert stage.

Developing Expertise – What it actually takes

The ideas in K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely Harvard Business Review paper have been widely disseminated on the internet.  Author Seth Godin and others have popularized the “it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert” idea, and it has been applied to many different areas of endeavor.  I found it quite instructive to read the original article, as it presents several rich insights for anyone looking to become more than “good”.  Reading the full version of the paper linked above is highly recommended.

After making an extensive study of chess players, athletes and others who attained a world-class level of competence, they summarized their findings, with this introduction:

“The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient”

Their key findings include:

1. Expertise is always measurable, specifically through competitions and expert assessment. Even in the arts there is wide agreement on levels of technical and artistic development:

“Real expertise must pass three tests. First, it must lead to performance that is consistently superior to that of the expert’s peers. Second, real expertise produces concrete results. Brain surgeons, for example, not only must be skillful with their scalpels but also must have successful outcomes with their patients. A chess player must be able to win matches in tournaments. Finally, true expertise can be replicated and measured in the lab.  As the British scientist Lord Kelvin stated, `If you can not measure it, you can not improve it’.”

2. It takes at least 10,000 hours of “deliberate” practice to become an expert (a decade of effort):

Our research shows that even the most gifted performers need a minimum of ten years (or 10,000 hours) of intense training before they win international competitions. In some fields the apprenticeship is longer: It now takes most elite musicians 15 to 25 years of steady practice, on average, before they succeed at the international level.

3. Deliberate practice is not just spending time with your instrument:

“Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.”

4. The practice must be systematic, using the scientific method to identify, isolate, and fix issues:

“Deliberate practice involves two kinds of learning: improving the skills you already have and extending the reach and range of your skills.”

“We’ve observed that when a course of action doesn’t work out as expected, the expert players will go back to their prior analysis to assess where they went wrong and how to avoid future errors. They continually work to eliminate their weaknesses.”

5. Quality counts for much more than Quantity when it comes to practice:

“The enormous concentration required to undertake these twin tasks limits the amount of time you can spend doing them. The famous violinist Nathan Milstein wrote: `Practice as much as you feel you can accomplish with concentration. Once when I became concerned because others around me practiced all day long, I asked [my mentor] Professor Auer how many hours I should practice, and he said, ‘It really doesn’t matter how long. If you practice with your fingers, no amount is enough. If you practice with your head, two hours is plenty’.’”

6. Elite teachers and coaches are necessary, not optional – you don’t “self-coach” to world-class levels

“Arguably the most famous violin teacher of all time, Ivan Galamian, made the point that budding maestros do not engage in deliberate practice spontaneously: `If we analyze the development of the well-known artists, we see that in almost every case the success of their entire career was dependent on the quality of their practicing. In practically every case, the practicing was constantly supervised either by the teacher or an assistant to the teacher’.”

7.  There are several errors that must be avoided when studying expertise:

a) Relying on Individual accounts: There are always exceptional accounts of extraordinary people who did it earlier, later, faster, or slower.  These cannot take the place of well-researched conclusions.  In other words, it is better to work the ideas presented above than to try and believe you can be an exception.

b) Intuition will lead you astray:

The idea that you can improve your performance by relaxing and “just trusting your gut” is popular. While it may be true that intuition is valuable in routine or familiar situations, informed intuition is the result of deliberate practice. You cannot consistently improve your ability to make decisions (or your intuition) without considerable practice, reflection, and analysis.

c) You don’t need a new instrument (unless your teacher is telling you it is holding you back):

…Golf players may think that they can lower their scores with a new and better club. But changing to a different putter may increase the variability of a golfer’s shot and thus hinder his or her ability to play well. In reality, the key to improving expertise is consistency and carefully controlled efforts.

Overall, their work provides an important base upon which one can plan a course of study.  Specifically useful to the earnest amateur is the idea of 10,000 hours of focused practice taken in 2-5 hour-a-day chunks for a decade or more, regularly checking in with a quality teacher, and testing oneself with competitions and public performances.  Absent these items, attainment of a high level of artistic development is not possible.   For those of us who desire to move beyond “decent” or “good” to “outstanding” and “superlative”, this is critical information.  This is the shortcut.  There is no quicker path.  If the desire is to become an expert musician, the path is clear.  For the typical adult or teenage beginner, the path will be strewn with complexity, but the work to be undertaken is clear and obvious:

  1. Execute 2-5 hours of dedicated, systematic, and highly focused practice per day for 10 years – noodling does NOT count
  2. Study with a competent teacher and move to higher levels of instruction as needed
  3. Measure, quantify and evaluate everything with strict standards of excellence – involve experts via competition and masterclasses

That this will be difficult for most of us who begin late is a given, but it is also possible.  Practice can be split into morning and evening sessions.  Other adults spend this much time “going back to school”, or “getting a Master’s degree”, so the ambitious, serious, and devoted student can find a way to accomplish this.  The only question left is our individual response to what must be done.

Happy “deliberate practicing”!

Babbage Difference Engine #2

I got to see one of the most impressive bits of intellectual accomplishment that I’ve ever seen in my life. Born approximately 200 years ago, Charles Babbage was a brilliant mathematician. He created a computing device capable of solving 7th degree polynomials to 31 decimal places. This is tedious work with a modern scientific calculator! The amazing thing is that it was invented about 60 years BEFORE electricity was being commercialized. It runs entirely by hand crank. I got to see this machine explained and demonstrated this evening, standing just feet away from it.

Charles Babbage understood that if mathematical tables weren’t accurate (and they weren’t in his day due to manual errors), then bridges, navigation, industry, and commerce would all be negatively affected. He spent his life trying to fix that state of affairs, while also chairing the mathematics department at Cambridge.

Though he never saw his machine built to full scale, the plans were perfect, and have been built in the modern age. The degree of mental energy required to accomplish this is staggering. Head over to Wikipedia for a bit of history, or come down to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View to see it. Just across the room is an old Cray supercomputer. A very cool place if you are in the technology space, or appreciate applied mathematics.


As I continue to wrestle with the questions that Lisitsa’s playing raised for me, I today came into contact with Seth Godin’s new book “Linchpin – Becoming Indispensible”. Strangely, I paid more for the Kindle version than the paperback version – but I don’t have to carry anything extra, no shelf space, and instant delivery to my laptop.

While the title might suggest a book on personal productivity ala, “Getting Things Done” by David Allen, it is actually a manifesto on making art and doing work that matters! Unpacking all the great content of this book would be much to long for this blog, so you should just buy a copy. I have been reading it and then flipping to a text editor where I am taking notes and processing the ideas in real time – reinterpreting them for myself and who I am. (Getting back to the Kindle delivery – this alone is worth more than the paper copy – I vastly prefer to take notes and think into my computer – it takes no space, is pretty much always with me, and I can instantly retrieve anything.)

His discussions around “the resistance” that comes up when trying to make art is worth the price of admission, as well as his thoughts on gifts and their place in the life (and economy) of the artist. The entire book is practical, and like Lisitsa’s playing demands something of the reader. You should not read it if you want to remain comfortably ensconced in your status quo. But if you want to break out of whatever rut you are in, or explore your personal potential, I highly recommend it. It is especially gratifying that he extends artistry to the whole output of humanity that is trying to make a difference. Contrasting this against the many “factories” that mindlessly churn out work, he points out the great opportunity that everyone has to make art in any profession or calling.

This is a book that, if you honestly wrestle with the ideas in it, you will not leave unchanged. Highly recommended if you wish to make art that makes a difference. Ideal for thinking people who want to move forward in their calling but who are having a hard time understanding why they are struggling with doing the next right thing. Definitely recommended reading.

Defining World-Class – Valentina Lisitsa

Her playing is of the highest level, and yet goes so far beyond technical mastery that it demands answers to much larger questions:

Do I care this much about life, my art, and my craft?
Do I feel this deeply? about what and why?
To what am I that dedicated? that passionate?
How do I define excellence? and do I truly mean to achieve it? Really, really?
What in my own life could I offer of equal value?

Without her saying a word, this is one of the most inspirational, challenging and demanding pieces of artistry I have been exposed to. It moves me deeply, and insists on a response; the artistry simply must be acknowledged. The music, musicianship, performance and artistry are of the highest caliber and command immediate respect, honor, and accolade.

Highly recommended on the best audio system you have available. Click on the 720p version for best viewing full-screen.

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