In Part One, we looked at theories proposing that 10,000 hours of practice is required to become an expert in almost any field.   So is that all it takes?  In a word: No.  Quality counts; it’s not just the hours, but the way those hours are spent that determines the benefits of practice.

Practice > Play > Perform

An important source for both Levitan and Gladwell is Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State University, and one of the authors of “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” which includes the study of violinists cited by Gladwell in Part One.

Ericsson and his colleagues acknowledge and agree with earlier studies showing that maximum performance “is not attained automatically as a function of extended experience.”  However, they claim that “the level of performance can be increased even by highly experienced individuals as a result of deliberate efforts to improve.”

We have shown that expert performance is acquired slowly over a very long time as a result of practice, and that the highest levels of performance and achievement appear to require at least around 10 years of intense prior preparation.  However, the relation between acquired performance  and the amount of practice and experience was found to be weak to moderate in the earlier review.  We propose that the reason for this comparatively weak relation is that the current definition of practice is vague.

Practice >

Ericsson, et al refer to the activities proven most effective in improving performance as deliberate practice.  Here are the conditions for deliberate practice:

  1. The subject must be motivated to attend to the task, and exert effort to improve their performance.
  2. The tasks should be designed to take into account the pre-existing knowledge of the subject, so they can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction.
  3. The subject should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of the results of their performance.
  4. The subjects should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.

Although these conditions were not established specifically for practicing music, they can be easily adapted:

  • Pay attention to what you’re doing and focus on improvement; don’t play like a robot or mindlessly noodle
  • A teacher should organize and sequence practice materials so they challenge the student; but are not so difficult as to be counter-productive
  • Results should be reviewed by an instructor who can diagnose problems, give productive feedback, and suggest methods and strategies to overcome obstacles
  • Material should be repeated: first slowly with a focus on accuracy, then increasing speed while maintaining focus on accuracy and musicality

Play >

The authors compare deliberate practice with two other domain-related activities: work, and play.  Play is defined as activities that have no explicit goal and are inherently enjoyable.  Play may result in a state of “flow” when you are completely immersed in an activity, similar to “peak experiences” in sports where players report an enjoyable state of effortless mastery in the execution of an activity.  According to Ericsson:

This state of diffused attention is almost antithetical to focused attention required by deliberate practice to maximize feedback and information about corrective action.

Perform >

Work is defined as “public performance, competitions, services rendered for pay, and other activities directly motivated by external rewards.”  The authors use the game of baseball as a an example to differentiate work and practice: “During a 3 hour baseball game, a batter may get only 5 – 15 pitches (perhaps one or two relevant to a particular weakness), whereas during optimal practice of the same duration, a batter working with a dedicated pitcher has several hundred batting opportunities, where this weakness can be systematically explored.”  They conclude:

We claim that deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable.  Individuals are motiviated to practice because practice improves performance.  In addition, engaging in deliberate practice generates no immediate monetary rewards and generates costs associated with access to teachers and training environments.


We have been reviewing an academic paper that is inherently chin-strokey and implies that “play” is the only one of these activities that a musician may find enjoyable.  While it is understandable that work, play, and practice need to be separated for the purposes of a scientific study, I believe in the real world they often overlap.

Performance isn’t always about the money — peak experiences can be enjoyed onstage and in the recording studio.  Play can definitely contribute to improved performance, especially when improvising and playing with other musicians.  And practice does not have to be penance.  In his foreward to the The Art of Practicing by Madeline Bruser, Yehudi Menuhin writes:

More and more we realize that practicing is not  forced labor; more and more we realize that it is a refined art that partakes of intuition, of inspiration, patience, elegance, clarity, balance, and, above all, the search for ever greater joy in movement and expression.  This is what practice is really about.

~ Yehudi Menuhin

Part Three will take a closer look at other factors that contribute to, or impede, success.  And later, we’ll ask another question:  Why do you want to be an expert anyway?

photo credit: David D’Agostino