Music Teacher's Helper Blog

1000 Hours to Competence

1000By now, most of us are familiar with the idea, given a broad audience through Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of work to achieve an expert level at various high-level activities: some sports, chess, and of course, music.

I used the 10,000 hours idea in a group class a few months ago to help persuade my students that the more time they spent per week at the piano, the faster they would accumulate knowledge and skill. We discovered that it would take 10 years of practicing 20 hours a week, 20 years of practicing 10 hours a week, and with the average of 2 hours a week it would take 100 years of practicing to achieve this nebulous “expert” level. We all laughed, especially those of my students who struggle to get more than two hours of practicing in a week, but it left me thinking: while achieving expert level is certainly important to some of us, it is not the goal of most of my students or their parents. What is important to them? Being able to play a song from Frozen, accompanying a friend in a school performance, playing for church…in other words, they want to be competent pianists.

In the area in which I live, many parents choose to have their children take piano lessons with the idea that one day they will be able to use their skills to be volunteer church musicians, able to play hymns or childrens’ church songs with ease. Parents are surprised to learn that playing a four part hymn with good solid pulse and an ability to accompany a congregation is considerably more complex than they imagined. Hymn playing has become one of my measures of piano playing competency.

Some of my other measures of competency for my students: scales and arpeggios in four octaves, a basic ability to play simple songs with chordal accompaniment by ear, solid sightreading, and an ability to play late intermediate piano repertoire without much preparation.

As I have thought about competency, and how long it has taken many of my students to reach these and other benchmarks, I have seen more correlation between hours of solid work than with years a student has studied, and I think that the magical number is approximately 1000 hours of practice.

What does that mean in the real world? It means that if a student begins piano lessons at 6 and practices a couple of hours a week, he can reach 1000 hours in 10 years, so competency could be reached by his sophomore or junior year. If a student practices an average of 4 hours a week, she could reach competency in 5 years, or by fifth or sixth grade.

And what does that mean for these hypothetical students?

In my experience, if competency is reached by junior high school, students have more excitement about music lessons and are motivated to reach for higher levels of knowledge. If they have not yet reached competency by then, motivation dips and they find it harder to keep pushing forward on their long quest towards identifying themselves as musicians.

I think that communicating the necessity of solid, regular practice to the parents of my new students with these terms may help increase the probability of dedication to finding these hours in their busy busy weeks.

Is this a hard and fast rule? No. There are differences in quality of practice time, differences in teaching styles, and of course differences in basic ability. But I have seen many students who seem to show that there is some truth behind the hypothesis.

I’d like to know your opinions. Is it different for the instruments you teach or play? What are your benchmarks for competency? How could this idea affect our teaching and our students?

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