Sunday, February 10, 2013

What Does it Take?

  Have you ever wondered what it takes to become a professional pianist? Are the astounding musical feats of Horowitz, Kissin, Argerich, Rubenstein and others written in their DNA? The surprising answer according to modern research seems to be a resounding no.

  No one can question that some people's brains seem to be better at small motor coordination, at understanding the spatial relationships necessary to become a fluent musicians, and even at hearing and understanding the relationship between pitches. Some individuals are better at handling the unique pressures of performance than others because their personalities seem to make them so. However, it seems that the overriding factor in achieving high levels of success is a bit more mundane than all this: practice.

  Yep, just practice. A good teacher spends the majority of lesson time training students for what is essentially a repetitive and solitary process. We guide the hand into a position we want students to mimic at home. We train phrasing, articulation, and even note reading so that the student can repetitively practice these elements when we're not around. We try with all our might to minimize boredom by inventing unique approaches to what is essentially repeating a correct motion over and over again. Every note a student plays either fixes a habit or forms one, so practice is the most essential aspect of musical fluency.

  Kayla Liechty Paulk quotes an interesting source in her article, "Playing Well With Others," published in the February/March issue of American Music Teacher magazine, page 28:

"In Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers, he references a study in the early 1990's by K. Anders Ericsson and two colleagues at the Berlin Academy of Music. In this study, a group of young violinists were divided into three groups by the Academy's professors: those with the potential to become world-class soloists, those judged as merely 'good,' and those who intended to become music teachers in the public school system. Students from three groups had begun playing at the same age: roughly 5 years old, and in the first few years,  practiced the same amount: about 2-3 hours per week. As you can imagine, as time passed, those who are now at the highest level of performance began to spend more hours practicing than the others, until, by the age of 20, they they were practicing well over 30 hours per week. By the age of 20, the elite performers had each totaled 10,000 hours of practice, with the good students totaling 8,000 and the future music teachers just over 4,000 hours. Ericsson did a similar study with pianists and found the same results. He could not find any 'naturals,' just students who practiced more than others."

  Very interesting! The students who all began their practices at 30 minutes a day in young childhood went through various stages of growth and interest by the end of high school. Some no doubt remained at that level for the long term and learned to play for enjoyment. Others spent an average of one hour a day (for 4,000 accumulated hours), others two hours (for 8,000 accumulated hours), and the cream of the crop made piano the equivalent of a job (4-6 hours per day.) Not all of us have the desire (or the time) to become world class musicians, but most of us can become proficient or even very good. So the next time you're surfing YouTube with aspirations of playing like one of the greats, make a little extra time in your schedule for practice. It really does make perfect!

 ( If you want a sneak peek into the wild world of the concert pianist, this cool documentary from the BBC is a fun watch!)