Practice Makes Perfect

Last Friday, while everyone was hitting the pub to drink two or ten pints in preparation for St. Patrick’s day, there I was stuck in traffic, trying to get to my usual guitar lesson. Some of my friends ask me “You’re teaching guitar?”. I reply “Ehm… no, I’m taking guitar lessons”. And then they go “I thought you already played well…”. To which I reply “Maybe, but I’m working to improve my skills and become better”. This type of reaction is quite common in society. If you’re already good, why continue studying? Why spend money on it? Well, maybe you don’t want to just be average like everyone else. Maybe you want to be exceptional. And exceptional is a long way to go.

Just to give you some context, I studied 6 years of classical guitar at the Music Conservatory in Portugal. However, I have also stopped playing for a long time (artist’s drama!). So, my brain needs to mend or awaken all those neuro connections it has previously built. Besides, I’m focusing on electric guitar now, which implies learning and applying different techniques that I wouldn’t use in my classical guitar playing (for example, blues bends). I am writing this article because my teacher, Hector, asked me this Friday — “How many hours do you study a day?”. I was embarrassed… Between work, college, and blogging, I haven’t practiced much lately, to be honest. Which led me to think that I need to change my ways.

Practice makes perfect (so I’ve been told).

Outliers

A friend of mine recommended me a book called Outliers. In statistics, an outlier is anything that sits outside the normative curve, usually on the extremes. In this book, the author Malcolm Gladwell talks exactly about that — all of those who do not fit into our normal understanding of success. He studies the phenomenon in which only very few of us become math geniuses, or exceptional musicians, or empire building business people.

After analyzing different studies, Gladwell concluded that success follows a more or less strict formula that combines factors such as family, culture, friendship, but also others as, for example, talent selection criteria in sports, natural talent or abilities. However, none of these have such a big impact as practice — the number of hours you put into your craft. This is the real differentiator. Of course your family environment, where you grow up, and the opportunities you have along the way are also important. But they do not make you a genius on their own. As with everything in life, you have to do your part.

The number of hours you invest in studying and playing your instrument are what makes you really good, and I dare say exceptional, at it.

10,000 Hours

Ask any professional musician how many hours they’ve played to get to the point where they are. Most of them will tell you between 6 to 8 hours a day. At least most great classical musicians I know do. And the world’s greatest have claimed the same.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says that 10,000 hours is how much it takes to be amongst the world’s top prodigies.

That’s around 3.5 years of studying 8 hours per day, every day. Or around 7 years if you can only study 4 hours per day. It’s a lot!!! It’s a big part of your life. That’s probably the reason why most great musicians we know will have started really early on, while they were still children. And the ones that started in their teenage years, probably dedicated huge amounts of time to get to a top level. Check metal guitarist Merel Bechtold — she started at 15.

It’s not just random practice either. It’s a combination of practicing:

  • Technique
  • Style / Genre
  • Songs
  • Playing with others
  • Creativity

So, when people ask me why do I still take guitar lessons? It’s because I want to get better at it. I want to know the tools to take my creativity further. I want to become the best that I can possibly be.

It takes time. Dedication. Getting physically and mentally tired at times. Overcoming frustration very often. It takes soooo much patience (which comes really hard for me). It might take giving up on a lot of things (like drinking pints on a Friday evening if you like it).

In the end, it’s all down to what you want to accomplish, and how much you are willing to give to achieve it.

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