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21 August 2019, 17:38 | Updated: 21 August 2019, 17:48
Want to get better at your instrument? Practice isn’t everything, according to a new study of violinists.
A decade ago, Malcolm Gladwell argued in his book Outliers that the key to becoming an expert in any skill is to practise in the correct way, for a total of around 10,000 hours.
“Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness,” he said.
But the seminal study behind the 10,000 hours theory has now been debunked. According to a study of violinists, published in Royal Society Open Science, musical virtuosity isn’t all about practising hard.
The new study found that average players practised as much as, if not more than, better players, leaving other factors at play including quality of tuition, learning skills and innate talent.
“The idea has become really entrenched in our culture, but it’s an oversimplification,” said Brooke Macnamara, an author of the study and a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland.
“When it comes to human skill, a complex combination of environmental factors, genetic factors and their interactions explains the performance differences across people.”
Macnamara and her colleague Megha Maitra set out to replicate a 1993 study by Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Römer on deliberate practice, which was the catalyst for the 10,000-hour rule.
In the 1993 study, which looked at violinists and pianists, the three authors found that accumulated practice time rose with musical prowess. On average, the best violinists had practised for 10,000 hours by the age of 20. The authors rejected the idea of natural talent, arguing that differences in ability, even among top musicians, were largely down to how much they practised.
In Macnamara and Maitra’s 2019 study, they interviewed three groups of 13 violinists, rated as best, good and less skilled, about their practice habits. The violinists also completed daily diaries of their activities over a week.
The less accomplished violinists had practised for around 6,000 hours by the age of 20, and there was no huge difference between the good and best musicians, who had clocked up more like 11,000 hours. All in all, the amount of time spent practising accounted for only a quarter of the difference in ability across the three groups.
“Once you get to the highly skilled groups, practice stops accounting for the difference,” said Macnamara. “Everyone has practised a lot and other factors are at play in determining who goes on to that super-elite level.
“The factors depend on the skill being learned: in chess it could be intelligence or working memory, in sport it may be how efficiently a person uses oxygen. To complicate matters further, one factor can drive another. A child who enjoys playing the violin, for example, may be happy to practise and be focused on the task because they do not see it as a chore.”
But a co-author of the 1993 study, Ralf Krampe, a psychologist at the Catholic University of Leuven, said Macnamara’s paper didn’t make him question the original findings: “Do I believe that practice is everything and that the number of hours alone determine the level reached? No, I don’t. But I still consider deliberate practice to be by far the most important factor.”
Macnamara said it was mostly important to remember practice isn’t everything.
“Practice makes you better than you were yesterday, most of the time,” she said. “But it might not make you better than your neighbour. Or the other kid in your violin class.”