Jazz musician Charlie Parker practiced his saxophone some ten hours a day for four years as a teenager. Mythologist Joseph Campbell read nine hours a day for five years. The Beatles played together every night in Hamburg for two years. These are the kind of details the romantic bios don’t show and most of us are left the impression that God-given talent is enough— you either have it or you don’t. And if you don’t, be content to read their books, go to their concerts and buy their records. But what about practice?
The given wisdom is that it takes a minimum of 10,000 hours of focused practice to achieve mastery in any field. Even in the spiritual world, enlightened Zen masters are not tapped with a wand from Buddha, but commit to a Zen practice (the word Buddhist use) of rigorous and disciplined meditation to break through to their Original Nature. Divine inspiration is a convenient fiction, but as Michelangelo once remarked, “If you knew how hard I worked, you wouldn’t say ‘Wonderful!’”
In my own little field of music education, I’ve put in some 40,000 hours over 45 years teaching kids, another 10,000 teaching adults in workshops and summer courses and at least another 10,000 planning classes, preparing classes, practicing music for classes, reflecting on classes, reading and writing about the ideas behind the practice. That’s at least 60,000 hours invested in my craft. If I’m pretty good at it, it’s no mystery why.
And yet I don’t want to entirely dismiss God-given talent alongside painstakingly crafted talent, divine inspiration alongside the perspiration. Because if it was a simple as putting in the hours, we might surmise that anyone could randomly pick a field, put in the allotted time and emerge a genius. Not so. I’ve put in countless hours on piano practice, but you will never hear my name next to Vladimir Horowitz or Hazel Scott. There is some mystery as to what we choose to practice and why and how long we stick with it. There are small and big signals that let you know that this is the practice for you, signs of notable progress, affirmation from the world, pleasure in the undertaking even when working through the hard spots. Scientifically speaking, you could say that we each have a unique neurological wiring that steers us to this sport over that one, this field of study instead of the other, the first road diverged in a yellow wood over the second one.
And it can get very specific. The extraordinary virtuoso pianist Art Tatum studied violin for two years, switched to piano and played better after two weeks than in the two years of violin. And more specific yet. John Coltrane started out on alto sax, but felt he only found his true voice when he switched to tenor sax.
If you telescope out to a larger mythological perspective, we each are endowed with a particular genius that needs us to bring it out into the world. It doesn’t particularly matter if things come easily for us or are difficult, if the notes are dictated from beyond as they seemed to be by Mozart or painstakingly tried out, crossed out and re-composed as they did for Beethoven or Ravel. The point is simply that we commit ourselves fully and put in the time, even when our friends invite us out to the party or there’s a good movie on TV.
It also doesn’t matter if it’s a sexy talent like acting in movies or playing ball in the NBA that brings fame, fortune and the need to wear sunglasses in public or a hidden gift to the world like teaching music to kids. It demands to be brought forth and the hours of practice await you.
And what have you spent your time doing?