10,000 Hours or 22,000 Days?


This week, I have been observing our students in a myriad of performance situations:  playing recitals; performing year-end performance juries; taking final exams.  The practice rooms and libraries are filled.  The stress level is high.  Everyone is pressed for time, trying to squeeze in one more precious hour.

Recent research and a popular book have theorized that it takes 10,000 hours for a human to become proficient and considered an expert at something.  It seems so easy:  Put in the Time, Collect the Dime.  I think most adults can see some truth in this theory based on their own experiences.  Driving a car is a great example.  While we are learning, we are cognizant of every movement, every decision, every possibility.  After time, we become very natural at it.  It almost becomes a reflexive action.  (For example, when’s the last time you thought about—really concentrated on—operating the turn signal?)

What makes it interesting is that it could apply to anything, from knitting to playing the violin.  The implications for an art form are obvious and the research pointers are fairly sound.  However my question is: Is it enough to make good art?

There is certainly something to be said for putting in the time.  Repetition breeds confidence, and in the case of music, there are time honored traditions for putting in the right kind of practice.  This is why etude books and good teachers are invaluable. But to reduce music making to craft status is missing the boat.  A true artist looks beyond the technique (which can be learned) to a deeper core of understanding (which is more intuitive).  Certainly good technique must come first.  But deftness merely functions as the key to unlocking the real doors that lie ahead.

Art reaches beyond good craftsmanship.  Seasoned musicians transform it into artistry. A Bach Cello Suite can be played perfectly, without mentionable flaw and still not quite be ready.  This is why I still make suggestions to already excellent students—and why I reflect deeply when my colleagues make suggestions to me about my performances.  While I am secure with the craft element of my art (always subject to tweaks, of course), it is the deeper wisdom that continues to amaze me.

“Cherish wisdom as a means of travelling from youth to old age, for it is more lasting than any other possession.”—Bias of Priene, 6th century B.C.

The “Aha!” moments still come after practicing, studying, rehearsal and performance.  They will continually come if we remain open, alive and inquisitive.  And that goes far beyond the nuts and bolts of our profession.  Far beyond our 10,000 hours spent achieving.  It reaches to the very core of life itself—if we allow it.

Note: the 10,000 Hours Theory is a theme of Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers, and is well supported by the research of Anders Ericsson.  22,000 Days is a title of a Moody Blues song from the 80s.  “It’s not a lot. It’s all you got. 22,000 Days.” That’s about 60 years worth of getting anything truly worthwhile accomplished—get to it!

Copyright, 2013, Robert Baldwin.

45 thoughts on “10,000 Hours or 22,000 Days?

  1. You’re absolutely right – and, as strange as it may seem, here’s the first thing your post made me think of. The refrain of the song seems to contain both aspects of performance: “Take your passion (art) and make it happen (craft, discipline, practice). Wonderful, evocative post.

  2. 10,000 hours will gain you fluency in the language. Then, it’s up to you to decide what to say.

    When you hit the end of those 10,000 hours, you don’t see a checkered flag. You see a GREEN one. It’s the point at which you finally get to the starting line, not the finish line. You’re READY to make music, at last.

    It’s also important to remember that you don’t need fluency to say something worth hearing. It will expand the scope of what you can say, but some of the best speechmakers in the English language were not fluent in English.

  3. I absolutely agree – as a music college graduate and now a music teacher myself this is the lesson that I try to teach my students daily… Excellent post!

  4. As a visual artist drawing and painting in plein air , people sometimes talk to me, and a lot of them think that talent is God given. I always tell them you can do it if you practice. The more you practice the better you get. As people get older and their life experiences shape them, their own interpretation of a beautiful scene or their interpretation of music takes on an intangible quality from their life and personality. Others see it and think its magic or from God. When they try to explain it or when art is intellectualized too much I lose interest. Artist statements are usually meaningless but important sounding. I don’t know if musicians have to write them, but so many times I’m in a gallery and try to read the statement and find it hard to believe an artist who should have no problem communicating, wrote something incomprehensible to me.
    Thanks for the great post. It makes sense .

    • It depends on the modality of communication sometimes as to how well the artist can get their message across. I can say things on a piano that I’d never say in words, and vice versa. I remember hearing an interview with a woman who had survived the Holocaust who was talking about some of her terrible experiences, and one person who was present and listening to the interview asked her, “How can you even manage to talk about these things?” The woman said something I never forgot: “I can only talk about it in English. I tried to give a talk in German one time, and I couldn’t do it. I broke down.” Some languages, some means of communication, enable us to say things that we can’t get across in others. Whatever that artist had to say was said in the painting; words were the wrong medium for it.

    • You are most welcome. I agree that life experience has a lot to do with the establishment of meaning. Even for me, I see and understand differently when I do a piece that I haven’t conducted or played in years. It is always richer, and sometimes quite amazingly takes me by surprise.

  5. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. Your writing is invigorating and so deserving of being spotlighted on WordPress.
    You have an authentic voice that is rare on this forum. Keep up the good work..you have a fan in me and I will be following your blog closely. Bravo! Dennis http://www.dlmchale.com

  6. This is something I think about a lot, actually. And no, I don’t think 10k hours makes someone an artist. Or even 100k hours. Proficiency is one thing, artistry is quite another. 🙂 Loved your thoughts on this! Oh, and congrats on being FP’d!

  7. I’ll be blogging something similar soon and appreciate your astringent point of view. I write for a living and my husband is a photographer and photo editor, two professions in which we’ve worked and won awards and judged awards that people now assume is theirs as well because they can so quickly and easily hit a computer keyboard and “publish” or snap a pic with a cellphone. We can fulminate, ignore — or write lucid posts like yours. Thanks for this!

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  9. What an amazing post! I just recently joined wordpress and I am very fortunate enough to have read your post. Your post inspired me to practice even harder in playing my violin. There are times when I become discouraged and envious after hearing my fellow students and ensemblemates play their violin because theyre VERY VERY good already. However, your post sparked up a bit of encouragement in practicing even harder! 😀 Thanks a lot!

  10. When I play the piano, there’s definitely something I have to add into the mix to make it sound “real”. Not sure what that is, exactly, but it’s something more than plain proficiency. Even listeners who can’t play music at all can tell the difference between a passionless performance and one where the player is really feeling it.

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  12. Thank you for this! The whole 10,000 hours thing has been bouncing around in my head since January. While for me it doesn’t apply to music I so appreciate your words and thoughts. I’m filing this away to return to again for my own journey!

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