Ask Charlie...

10,000-Hours

Hello Troubadourians! I’ve been busy. Very, very busy. And not with my playing either, much to my disappointment. No, I’ve been working the “day job,” putting in lots of hours. And I’m salaried so there’s no overtime either. Why am I telling you this? Because I worry a lot about my playing. And when I don’t have time to play I worry even more. What am I going to sound like when I do have a chance to practice? Will I have “lost it” and not be able to play at the level that I’m accustomed to? If I get called for a gig will I have time to get my chops back together, especially since I had been away long enough for my callouses to go soft (well, as soft as mine ever get…)? When I finally got, rather, made, the chance to play again, I expected that it would be easier to play my electric guitar than my acoustic guitar so I limited my initial foray to the electric. To my surprise, my chops weren’t so “off” and I could play pretty much whatever I wanted. A little rust, and certainly less endurance, but not nearly as bad as I worried… Still, I practiced more than a week before picking up the acoustic. When I finally broke it out, I was pretty much where I was on the electric. What made that more surprising was how well both guitars played. Often, when a guitar goes un-played, they feel stiff and the strings are shot. So, finding both guitars so playable and still having my chops was an unexpected pleasure. But will I still worry during long droughts in playing? Definitely. I’ll always worry if I’m good enough, if my playing is good enough, if I still “have it” and am I “professional” enough? Always…

So, do you worry about your playing? Does it bother you when you go without playing for a long time? I’d like to say “you should” but that’s completely up to you. How much does your playing mean to you? Do you know about the 10,000-Hour Rule? Look it up for full details, but the basic premise is based on a study by Anders Ericsson.

From Wikipedia: In his book Outliers, author Malcom Gladwell claims that greatness requires enormous time. He uses the source of the Beatles’ musical talents and Bill Gates’ computer savvy as examples of the 10,000-Hour Rule. The Beatles performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time, therefore meeting the 10,000-Hour Rule. And Gladwell asserts that all of the time the Beatles spent performing shaped their talent and quotes Beatles’ biographer Philip Norman as saying, “So by the time they returned to England from Hamburg, Germany, ‘they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.’” Gates met the 10,000-Hour Rule when he gained access to a high school computer in 1968 at the age of 13, and spent 10,000 hours programming on it.
I believe that an additional byproduct of the 10,000-Hour Rule is that you don’t lose your skills as quickly—if at all—as compared to others who haven’t put in the same number of hours. I know I’ve put in the requisite hours but I still worry about losing skills because it’s human nature to do so. It’s definitely my nature to do so.

So, where are you in your 10,000-Hour journey? Remember, this means actual, productive time practicing and playing your instrument. I don’t think casual strumming applies. I understand that not everyone aspires to excellence, and not everyone who achieves excellence achieves greatness. The music industry is far too fickle for every good musician to attain greatness. Or even make a living playing music. But, for me and for most of the musicians I know and play with, we strive to attain—and maintain—excellence because it’s how we’re wired. Music in general and our chosen instruments in particular, are as much a part of our lives as breathing. Music is in our DNA.

But returning to your journey, musicians are notorious for comparing themselves to each other and to famous musicians. And judging other musicians’ playing is a favorite pastime. A nasty bunch we can be for sure. But is there any merit to all this judgement? To any of it? Actually, yes there is. But only if the one doing the judging has put in their 10,000 hours and the message is meant to instruct not ridicule. Sometimes for the one being judged it can be difficult to know the difference. I have been on the receiving end of this type of “instruction” many times, especially when I was young and full of myself, and far short of my 10,000 hours. The occasional ass kicking from your fellow musicians who are more experienced—especially from a member of the 10,000-Hour Club—is essential to the growth and maturity of any musician who aspires to excellence. I have also been on the giving end of the instruction, especially when necessary in the course of writing this column. Here, I keep it as gentle and non-accusing as possible. That’s the best approach. In person, I do the same. But… sometimes I’m sure it doesn’t seem that way. All I can say in that case is that I’m telling you what I’m telling you because I care and I want you to get better. I you have potential, I want you to develop it as much as is humanly possible. I know that the players who counseled me back in the day did so because they recognized something worthwhile in me and wanted me to be the best I could be. Sometimes it was a simple suggestion offered almost as an aside. Occasionally, it was full humiliation on stage (musicians can be real assholes sometimes). But most often the instruction would come in the form of correcting something I was or wasn’t playing correctly or was or wasn’t doing correctly. I was usually embarrassed—and occasionally pissed-off—but I listened and, more important, I learned. And I got better. Much better. I’m all about positive reinforcement and rewarding good practice and performance, but the occasional ass kicking from someone you respect is good motivation. So, ask yourself, where am I on my journey? What are my practice habits? Do I aspire to excellence? Do I listen to the advice given to me by better, more experienced players? Or do I walk away?

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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