Have you ever heard of the 10,000-hour rule? It is commonly (and misleadingly) paraphrased as claiming that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in something. The idea originates with the work of psychologist Anders Ericsson but captured the public consciousness with Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers.
Many people took the idea this way: as long as I put in 10,000 hours of practice, I will become an expert. This description oversimplifies the research in several ways. The most common nuance that people leave out is that it is not just practice, but Deliberate Practice that is required. Deliberate Practice is a specific type of practice that Ericsson found to be common among experts in many well-defined fields such as chess, tennis, and classical music.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that putting in the time is not necessary, but that it isn’t simply about “time served.” What the jazz musician needs to focus on is not the number of hours of practice, but the quality of those hours.
Here are some of the characteristics of Deliberate Practice. In fact, if you ever have the opportunity to observe one of your heroes or mentors practice, it is quite likely that you will see most of these in play.
Clearly Defined Stretch Goals—We need to be pushing ourselves to the edge of our ability, striving for a specific goal that is just out of our reach. The more clearly that goal is defined, the better. As Byron Stripling said last year when he was in Winnipeg, “Clarity is power.” Second, you need to be able to measure your progress towards that goal. (How many times did you play the passage correctly?) Third, the goal needs to be attainable. There is no use in aiming for a target that is completely beyond your reach at that point in time. It should be possible, but challenging. The goal needs to be relevant. Rather than learn the changes to a jazz standard, learn the changes to a tune that will be called at the Wednesday Night Hang next week. And finally the goal should be time-bound by a deadline: “I intend to reach my goal by…” In short, make SMART goals.
Full Concentration and Effort—This is the one that many of us find the most difficult. It is so easy to find our mind wandering or going through the motions of practicing our scales without total focus. To paraphrase Steve Kirby, talent is the ability to focus on a very small thing for a very long time.
Immediate and Informative Feedback—The most immediate and informative feedback we can get comes out of our instrument but it is too easy to play without really listening to ourselves. Recording ourselves practicing can be invaluable. Don’t be judgmental yourself but do assess. When you make a mistake or hear something you don’t like, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, say to yourself, “Fascinating” (credit to Robert Taylor at UBC). Of course the feedback we get from our teachers is invaluable but I know I, for one, have been guilty of not making the most of it. Do you ever find your teacher saying the same thing to you lesson after lesson? Hmm…
Repetition with reflection and refinement—“Don’t do it over and over, do it better and better” (Clinton Marshall). I would add that you must clearly define what “better” means before repeating the exercise.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone—Wow, am I often guilty of not doing this one! Think of a time when you did something that was challenging or scary. In most cases I suspect you found you learned, and learned quickly.
There will never be enough time to do all the practicing that we want. If we use the time we have efficiently, we will see better results. With that, I need to stop writing and go practice—deliberately.