I have been browsing Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Outliers due to some excerpts that had been left in the copy room next to my teacher’s studio. These excerpts cite a study where researchers studied music students at a major conservatory. They estimated the number of hours they had practiced since first picking up their instruments, and in general, the star players had practiced much more than their good player fellows and “much, much more” (his emphasis) than those who had decided to be music teachers in public schools.
The number of hours for those star players hovered around 10,000. How many hours is 10,000?
It’s about 40 hours a week for 5 years.
It’s about 3 hours a day for ten years.
One year contains 8760 hours.
One year with 8 hours/day subtracted for sleep is 5840.
The thesis of the book overall is that our perception of “talent” is false. Perhaps there are some innate faculties within individuals that make them slightly better than their peers, but these are not so great than can be overcome with hard work and positive outside influence. He defends this in this case by citing data from this study that had ruled out two extreme possibilities:
- There were no people who somehow did not have to practice as much and yet achieved a high level of mastery.
- There were no people who slaved away and yet never reached their goals.
What are the implications of this for singers?
First off, it confirms that any feeling of envy and jealousy is totally irrational. If one is not where one needs to be, then one needs to practice much more. That’s it.
It also confirms that any sense of pride due to inherent superiority is utterly unfounded. One is only superior in dedication to the practice room and perhaps in the positive conditions that help them attain their 10,000 hours, such as a good economic situation, a good education, or supportive family, for which one should be thankful and humble.
The book also confirms the need for regular immersion within “vocal culture” and”music culture” for want-to-be singers. We must rack up our 10,000 hours in whatever ways we can since we, unlike instrumentalists, have a limited daily time frame to practice phonating. We must attend recitals, operas, choral concerts, symphonies, master classes or whatever it takes to experience singing and classical music in general. We must also become more well-rounded in the other skills on which classical singing depends like poetry comprehension and language study.
As I have expressed to students as I have introduced this idea, I find these ideas both terrifying and inspiring. They are terrifying insofar as it reminds me of my own deficiencies in work habits and how far I have to go. They are inspiring in that I know that I can, if I choose to, do whatever I want.
“I find these ideas both terrifying and inspiring.”
Yes indeed. And these ideas arouse serious questions for me as to how much of my life I want to dedicate to music. I aspire to be good, not a star, primarily because I doubt that I should devote all my efforts and energies to the work of becoming a star. On the other hand, I do want to be good and strive for excellence. Thanks for making me think!