How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

It takes 10,000 hours of practice to turn talent into top performance, according to a German study. Researchers at Berlin’s Academy of Music analyzed a group of violin students who started at age five.

. . . by the age of 20, the elite performers had each totalled 10,000 hours of practice, while the merely good students had accrued 8,000.

“It seems it takes the brain this long to assimilate all it needs to know to achieve true mastery,” lead researcher Daniel Levitin was quoted by the British newspaper as telling BBC’s ‘Focus’ magazine.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice.

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  1. Sister Howitzer says:


    Not causation.

  2. Sister Howitzer, I’m am curious. Do you not believe there is a correlation between more practice and doing better? Or do you not believe the study proved the causation? Or something else?

  3. Sister Howitzer says:

    Definitely there’s a correlation. And it’s obvious that practice makes you better. But this report is assuming that those extra 2000 hours of practice makes the difference between good and great, which is a faulty assumption. Those with more talent, ambition, motivation, and who knows what else may just be more likely to spend more time practicing. If the groups being compared differ on other characteristics besides the variable being studied (amount of time spent practicing), you have to consider that those other factors contribute to the differences.

    The best way to determine causation is to randomize the subjects to two different groups first, so that the groups should be similar on characteristics like talent and motivation.

  4. One of the reasons this study was viewed as so interesting (and is still often cited about 15 yrs after it was published) is that it goes against many people’s conception of musical ability–people think that talent plays an enormous role. But Ericsson and colleagues found no one who was really talented, yet had not needed to practice much. There are other (experimental) data on the importance of practice, but naturally enough you can’t conduct a randomized experiment that entails people practicing for 10,000 hours.

  5. Sister Howitzer says:

    I haven’t looked at the original study, and I don’t know much about music. I’m curious about how you measure innate talent. If you had a good test for measuring talent before the kids started playing an instrument, that would be helpful.

  6. Cardinal Fang says:

    So according to this study, nobody becomes an elite musician without thousands of hours of practice.

    What I want to know is, what else is necessary? Could anyone who practiced 10,000 hours be an elite musician? Could a child with average musical ability (however we measure that) become an elite musician with 10,000 hours of practice? Are there 10,000-hour musicians who are not elite?

  7. Wow.

    It makes me tired just thinking about it.

  8. Cardinal Fang
    the guy who did this study (and lots of other excellent work on this problem) likes to take an extreme position on this, claiming that it’s really all about practice. I believe he’s even claimed that you aren’t born with perfect pitch–it’s all about practice.

    Most psychologists take a more middle-of-the-road position (which is always the easiest) and agree that there is such a thing as innate talent. More and more think that the size of differences talent is relatively small, BUT these small differences in talent encourage people to seek different environments. That is, if you’re good at something as a toddler, you are likely to enjoy it and to be encouraged to do it. That leads to practice, which makes you better at it. . .and so on.

  9. For the guy to believe it’s all practice makes it sound like he doesn’t have children.

    seriously, being around a toddler 24 hours a day, or better, more than one, makes it obvious that people have differing talents. It also becomes obvious that a toddler’s interest in something is enough to lead you to do 10,000 hours–that’s just 2 a day for 15 years, so even a 20 year old could get there if they loved something like art or music or hockey.

    the issue is how often someone who wasn’t talented would be of a mental discipline to do 10000 hours, and how talent leads to optimism and confidence so that you keep studying your field/hobby.

    But the elite performers still aren’t Mozart, because no study of even a few thousands “elites” will find you a Mozart who isn’t alive in this century. What makes THEM is really what lots of us want to know.

    I think a study that compared competent and elites who picked up hobbies in their 30s and 40s to those who were younger would be interesting, because you could still accrue 10k hours at those ages, but you’re less likely to have had the innate talent (or you’d have nurtured it earlier.)

  10. Natural ability does make a difference. It’s not all practice. My son has perfect pitch which was clearly defined very early on. He does things naturally on the piano that I can’t explain. He can automatically transpose pieces. This natural ability and success does provide motivation to work harder, but it can also have the opposite effect. That is, he can work less to get to the same point. This is a common problem, from what I understand.

    This is not just about 25% more practice. I can’t believe it’s a linear relationship. Raw practice has a bigger effect in the early stages of development. You need something else to get to the “elite” stage. (of course, these terms are not defined) This something may include factors other than what some would call natural talent. As my son’s piano teacher says, you have to have the ability to perform on stage. But, perhaps this considered to be a natural talent. Also, the best musicians get the best teachers and learn how to practice more effectively. All practice hours aren’t equal.

    Natural talent is not just an aid to motivation. Some of the kids I’ve seen at piano competitions are awe-inspiring. They do a huge amount of practicing, but that’s just not it.

  11. As a musician, I’m going to jump in here. It’s definitely not *all* practice.

    I’ve seen people, including a former friend of mine who was very dedicated to the piano, practice and practice and practice but they just lacked what it took to get beyond a certain level. In the case of my friend, he lacked the ability to interpret the sounds he heard well enough to improve his own playing, instead relying on others to tell him what he had done right or wrong. That lack of aural sensitivity was a hard limit placed on him by his body, and could not be overcome. It wasn’t deafness, as he could hear soft things quite well, it was his brain’s ability to sort out the sounds.

    Others have physical limits on the side of execution. Certain people have reflexes that are only so fast, or have difficulty with certain types of tasks. Not everyone has the reflexes to hit a major league fastball, and not everyone has the reflexes to play virtuoso violin. That’s just a fact of life.

    Now, do I believe there are folks who missed out on becoming virtuoso musicians because they did not practice enough? Absolutely. But practice is clearly not all there is to it, and to say otherwise is to encourage people to be unrealistic about what gifts and talents they do have.

  12. As a side note, Carnegie Hall has several venues and is quite busy. Lots of people can claim that they have performed there. Go to their web site and see how you too can rent a hall. They even promote it for business meetings.

  13. I agree that there is a ceiling on the level of expertise one can achieve (and someone like me with small hands unable to reach an octave won’t ever be even a decent pianist), but I wish I heard more from the education establishment regarding the need to practice/work in order to be a successful student. Kids who want to succeed in athletics or music recognize the need and it is no different for academics. Too many ed school faculty/k-12 faculty appear to believe that learning should always be fun; a natural process, rather that the result of sustained effort and practice.

  14. I have always found it interesting that many parents and teachers see nothing wrong with pushing mastery of basic skills and competition in sports, but get very fuzzy when it comes to academics. They are afraid that if they push at all, bad things will happen. I also see the same sort of difference between art classes and music (band and chorus) classes. All art is good, but anyone can tell when you can’t play an instrument. There is never any art homework on basic drawing skills or graphic design, but in music, you have to fill out a time sheet for practice and you are tested in front of everyone else. Lots of kids (non elite types) do very well with strong music programs. This is not true in art.

    Once, when my son played at a piano competition at the university, we wandered around in the hall outside of the auditorium and looked at art work created by some of the college students. There was an embarrassingly bad display of art created out of swizzle sticks. One object was a very poor rendition of a grand piano. However, inside the auditorium, younger kids, who had spent an enormous number of hours practicing, gave mature interpretations of pieces by Chopin, Beethoven, and Debussy. From memory. These were not rote performances.

    The science teacher at my son’s school thinks it’s fine for kids to spend hours, several times a week, playing and competing in sports, but can’t bring himself to expect much of anything from kids who meet once a week to prepare for the Science Olympiad. He says that he wants science to be enjoyable for them, as if high expectations and hard work will have a negative effect on their psyche.

    A few years back, my son’s piano teacher turned to him, held his hand low, and said that he was trying to have too much fun down there. He then held his hand high and said that if my son practices very hard, he will have much more fun up here.

  15. Cardinal Fang says:

    It’s frustrating when you try to learn something new and work at it for a year or two, only to see another beginner come in and surpass you in a few weeks. I’ve been on both sides of that– I’ve been the hapless hacker who couldn’t improve despite years of trying, and also the talented beginner who picked something up quickly– so I have to believe that practice is not the only determinant of success.