Wednesday, April 11, 2012

10,000 hours to expertise

Around this time every year, college music teachers are in touch with students who are trying to decide which school to attend in the fall.

There are many factors to consider, but expense is becoming more and more of an issue.  Perhaps I'll write about this problem in another blog, but for now I'd like to focus on a question that has come up more than once this spring in my discussion with prospective CIM students.

The question is, "Do you think I can get an undergraduate degree in performance and get a job, thereby avoiding graduate school?"

I imagine the main driver of this question is that most music schools, CIM included, are becoming more and more expensive and parents are (rightfully so) becoming more and more debt-averse.  Families are looking for ways to get a quality education for their talented musician without incurring a crushing load of debt.

One solution might be going to a top school like CIM and hoping the student will, in four years, come out ready for the job market. Does this regularly occur?

The answer is almost always, "No".

It is rare that a 21 or 22 year old wins an audition for a full time orchestra job.  Most positions are won by people in their mid-20s or older.

Here's why:

In many disciplines in which expertise is crucial, it takes human beings about 10,000 hours of accumulated practice to achieve expert level.

This has been studied thoroughly and written about in various books.  The first studies of chess players and musicians took place decades ago by researchers A. D. de Groot, (chess) and K. Anders Ericsson

These studies and others like them have been cited in scholarly journals many times.  There is a growing consensus now that "talent" in the sense of innate advantage in a particular skill is overrated by society and that the role of deliberate practice in developing that talent is vastly underrated.

The myth of Mozart sprung from his mother's womb as a perfect musical genius makes a great story, but upon investigation falls apart. Yes, people are born with individual strengths and weaknesses in certain areas prized by society, but it is in the development of those strengths that real differences appear.  

Here is a good summary of the attributes of deliberate practice

For great books on this topic that have mass appeal, I can recommend three:

Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin
The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

All three quote the same studies and develop the theme of deliberate practice with the idea that it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert.

So, how did the 10,000 hours theory work for me?  Let's see. . . I started playing the bassoon when I was 11 and won my first job when I was 22, so that's 11 years. 

Now, if I practiced six days a week for 11 years (accounting for vacations, sickness, days off, etc.) that would be about 3400 days of practicing.

Assuming I practiced more like 5 hours per day when I was 20 and more like 1 hour or less when I was 12, maybe I averaged 3 hours a day during that 11 year period.

That comes to just over 10,000 hours total!

However, as these writers say, that's not enough.  This does not mean practicing with the TV on or with other music playing or just playing through things.  The practice needs to be deliberate, with focus, concentration, evaluation, feedback and other attributes.

And, in the audition process, there needs to be a bit of luck, as well!

Therefore, the answer for students and parents hoping that there could be a short cut to employment in this demanding field, is unfortunately, no.

Could you just take time off from school and continue working on your playing by yourself?  This is a very tough route to choose.  I tried it myself for three years after leaving that first job (I quit).  In order to support myself I worked full time in a record store and tried to free-lance.  I believe my playing stayed on a plateau during this period.  It was a time of stagnation for me.  I didn't get worse, but I also didn't get better.

For most people, graduate school is the better route.

Graduate study, by the way, can be much less expensive than undergrad, with teaching assistantships, fellowships, etc.  For the performance major it is also a chance to study with a different teacher and make more connections in an environment different from that of the undergraduate school.


  1. Mr. Stees,
    Based on your final comment, would you recommend to the average performance major to attend a different college for their masters degree, or vice versa?

  2. Mr. Stees: Thank you for a wonderful blog. It's always nice to read your thoughts about bassoon playing.

    Stuart: I do not wish to hijack mr Stees' blog, but more input isn't necessarily worse if you are smart enough to sort through it. I got my first job just over a year ago when I was 22, and I don't think it would have been possible if i hadn't had lots of lessons with different people. The most important thing an education gives you is not being a good bassoonist, it is the tools to be or become a good bassoonist which are quite a different thing.

    When you have reached a certain maturity in your playing and how you solve problems, having lessons with different teachers (during my time in Stockholm, I had one main teacher and two whom I met about once a month) is a good thing. Just make sure your main teacher is ok with that you meet them.

    Now, before I went to college I had been doing some pretty serious amount of practising in high school (a school for classical music). My teacher was great in every way, so I had done much of what most people do during their first year or two in college when I started it (shameless self-promotion: ).

    Four years is quite some time to study with one teacher, but if you never meet other teachers you will never know if you're missing out. But if you, after four years, still feel curious about what might be coming up in your lessons, staying with your teacher might not be a bad thing.

    Greetings from Sweden!

  3. Linus, good comments. I agree with what you say.

    As you problably know, here in the U.S. it's more common to have just one teacher for the duration of a degree program.

    I think at the Paris Conservatory it's the case that you have a teacher for lesson material and one for technique (someone correct me if I'm wrong).

    Was this true for you in Sweden as well?

    At any rate, it's more common in Europe to have more than one teacher simultaneously. Quite often the two teachers have a senior/junior status or work together anyway.

    In addition, lessons are often given in a group format. Everyone plays lesson material in front of their peers.

    In the U.S. we accomplish this through studio classes and master classes, but I've often thought that the group lesson format adds a level of seriousness through peer pressure to the lesson. In addition, those listening can learn repertoire vicariously while someone else is playing it.

    I have done this with my students from time to time.

    I rarely recommend that my undergraduate students continue with me in graduate study. I know I'm a good teacher, but I certainly haven't cornered the market on great teaching!

    It's really important for a young person to have the opportunity to work with other respected teachers.

    This can happen during summer study at a music festival or in graduate school or both.

  4. Having "open lessons" where other students are allowed to listen is a fantastic concept. When I studied in Mannheim we always listened to eachothers lessons, and just by hearing bassoon being played and taught well you become a better player.

    I believe that the concept you have of bassoon playing shapes your playing in just as much as practising does. I had the great pleasure to meet Frank Morelli. He tried my setup and sounded just as he did on his, and I completely loved his setup as well. The recording of the event is quite remarkable, since we both sound like ourselves on eachother's bassoons - and our sounds couldn't be more different. (and not in a good-bad kind of way, more like american - german).

    There is a different kind of relation between students than that of a teacher and a student. Being able to relate to a student, even if just through the fact that he isn't as good as the teacher, can work wonders. We were 12 in the class in Mannheim, and everyone there had something I hadn't. A girl in my year had a magnificent vibrato, a guy in the class above had a double tongue to die for, the exchange student played phrases that made my soul weep.

    Hearing their lessons gave just a many clues to their "sectret" as my own lessons would do, even though my teacher was fantastic by just about every measure.

    As far as i know, hardly any wind instrument class in sweden has more than one teacher, at least not on bachelor level. In mannheim we had 2 teachers on bassoon (professor and assistant), one reed making teacher (an old student that worked wonders with reeds), one bassoon ensemble teacher (the old professor in Mannheim) and a contra bassoon teacher. So, yeah... you can easily get spoiled.

    The professor also had "teacher exchange" where he taught another class, and we got to have their teacher. And since Germany is absolutely crammed with fantastic teachers that was a great opportunity to get extra input (among others Gustavo Nunez, Sergio Azzolini and Eberhard Marschall). The distances in the States are somewhat different (I played there this summer, and Hollywood has a tendency to make you underestimate how vast your country is), so it might be hard to get it done, especially since many professors also work in orchestras (the german system is a bit different).

    1. Linus,

      I'd be interested in hearing what you think are specific characteristics that make European (German bassoon) playing different from American, since you've had some interaction with American players.

      I have my own ideas and am interested in developing this thread. Anyone else out there care to comment?

  5. Just wondering, as bassoonists we are also craftsmen (or women) of reeds, so would that be considered another 10,000 hours to expertise of reed making, so 20,000 hours total?! Maybe there is some crossover while you practice during reed making sessions?

    Also, re: the Graf curved knife from your more recent post, do you find it difficult to sharpen a curved knife? I have no idea. Sounds like a great knife!


    1. Hi, Anthony,

      You're right! I think the 10,000 hours theory also applies to reed making. There's something about just practicing the motor skills in processing and scraping cane that takes time to learn.

      There's a great story about Sol Schoenbach regarding reed making. He spent a summer in Germany studying reedmaking with the famous reed maker Knochenhauer.

      Knochenhauer's shape was copied many times and used by countless American bassoonists. Its basic contours and dimensions are what we have today in most shapes.

      Anyway, after finishing his study with Knochenhauer, Schoenbach went to the train station with him to begin his journey home. As he was about to depart, he asked Knochenhauer, "Mr. Knochenhauer, when will I make a great reed?"

      Pointing to a large basket nearbby, Knochenhauer replied, "When you fill this basket with reeds, the next one you make will be a great reed!"

      Intuitively, Knochenhauer knew there was no short cut to expertise!

      To answer your other question on how to sharpen a curved knife, the answer is "very carefully!"

      I use ceramic sticks that are embedded in a wooden block at 20 degree angles to vertical. Holding the knife with the blade perpendicular to the table, I swipe the tip of the blade against each stick.

      For the curve, you have to angle the tip of the knife down, holding the perpendicular angle.

  6. What a great story! I think I am getting close to filling a basket full of reeds so I guess we'll see it it's true!

  7. I have been following your blog for a little bit and I love this article! It has really opened my eyes. I did an estimate for myself and am shocked (and slightly embarrassed) about how much more work I need to do. I'm a horn player finishing her master's degree in performance with one more year left. I'm at the point where I'm telling myself, "Oh yeah, I need to figure out what I'm going to do with my life!". Aside from scaring myself half to death, I'm trying to decide if I should go for the DMA or not. It would give me more time to fine tune my playing and get a chance to play with another teacher. What are your thoughts on this?

    1. Hi, Melissa,

      Thanks for the comments. Here are my thoughts:

      The DMA used to be thought of as a "holding pattern" of sorts sometimes helpful before landing a playing job. Indeed some DMA programs today are more set up that way -- CIM being one of them.

      Now, however, the DMA is quite often a much more thorough-going program that really can prepare you for college teaching. In fact, it's just about essential to have a DMA before any school will consider inviting you for a job interview.

      It sounds like what you really want to do is find a place where you can put the blinders on and really go for it for a couple of years to realize your potential as a horn player. In that case, maybe the first type of doctoral work would be best or someplace that offers a professional studies program like Manhattan School of Music or CIM (Artists Diploma). You would certainly know better than I where the best horn programs are.

      Unfortunately, these kinds of degree programs cannot be parlayed into a true doctoral degree, so buyer beware if you should decide to pursue a teaching career.

      I'm sorry some of this is probably obvious, but I try to write for a wide audience, including non-Americans who have music education that differs from ours in some ways.

      I'd like to recommend you read my article, "So You Want to Be a Professional Bassoonist" on my website

      I hope this helps! Good luck!

    2. Thank you very much for your insight! I appreciate it!