There’s no doubt that mastery of a musical instrument requires many, many hours of practice over a long period of time. The 10,000-hour rule, which states that it takes roughly 10 years, or 10,000 hours to achieve expertise in a field, became a quite popular and generic metric; however, it doesn’t explain how out of a group of people working toward the same goal over the same period of time, some individuals accomplish more and get further. In order to understand this, it’s better to dive deep into Anders Ericsson’s concept of deliberate practice.
What promotes practice to be deliberate (i.e. – structured, methodical, strategic)? Are there any other factors that help certain players stand out? Here are five key ingredients that distinguish top performers.
In order to grow, it’s best to spend lots of time practicing on the edge of one’s current abilities. Think of it as keeping one foot within the comfort zone circle and the other foot testing the waters, and eventually stepping just outside of that circle. The daily practice regimen that stretches this comfort zone circle consists of just-manageable challenges.
“There’s an optimal gap between what you know and what you’re trying to do. When you find that sweet spot, learning takes off.” – Robert Bjork (Coyle: The Talent Code, p. 19)
On the surface, breakthroughs may appear to be like a light bulb going off; like a one-time event that makes people ask, “What is the ONE THING that was different this time?” What many people seem to forget is that a triumphal moment (whether it’s winning an orchestral position or learning how to shift in tune more consistently) is thanks to all the small tasks and tweaks that took place over a long period of time, creating a cumulative snowball effect. Albert Einstein called compound interest the “8th wonder of the world” and this concept from the financial world can also be applied to the long-term investment of mastering a skill.
Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the famous term “flow” to describe the experience of 100% presence and deep concentration. When someone is “in the zone”, outside distractions don’t penetrate through as easily. Two key actions that help one enter and stay in this state are meditating and single-tasking.
To grow as musicians we must balance and segment our practice into different parts (ie – technical work, interpretation, score study, performance practice, sight reading, etc). In addition, it’s also very important to balance all the work with an adequate amount of break time. With experience and good self-awareness, we can learn to sense when a good practice session begins to roll downhill or out of control (perhaps due to waning concentration or physical exhaustion). This is a clear signal for a break. Breaks are more than just for recovery; the subconscious mind takes over in this phase, creating long-term retention.
“Stress + Rest = Growth” (Stulberg and Magness: Peak Performance, p. 28)
Aside from deliberate practice, learning how to nurture a healthy growth mindset (as opposed to a fixed mindset) and psychological well-being separately from one’s craft can be the “X-factor” of continuous success and retention. This is a complex topic, especially when the energy of one’s surrounding environment and other external factors (ie – family, teachers, colleagues) come into play. Autonomy, determination, gratitude, self-compassion, and contributing to the community are some of the components toward mental wellness.
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