“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success
Have you ever met one of those people who seem to have that “gift?” They are confident musicians and seem to play or sing effortlessly. They appear to put in fewer practice hours, always know the right chord progressions in a last-minute jam session, and seem like total prodigies.

Maybe they were born with it, or maybe they just worked for it – maybe they worked really, really hard. While we’re all trained to believe that it’s pure talent that makes the best musicians, we often fail to remember that our favorite musicians are not perfect and still make mistakes that require hours of practice to master.

Talent is just one part of the picture.

Sure, most things take a bit of talent. Whether it’s playing an instrument, writing novels, painting, playing sports, or having academic aptitude, anyone who is good at anything will probably admit to feeling as though they had a natural “gift” for it. Chances are, though, if you asked those people about their sharp skills, they would likely tell you about how much they worked to reach goals in their chosen discipline.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the myth of talent. According to Gladwell, people throughout history we view as successful didn’t become that way purely because of an innate predisposition. Instead, they became successful through something much more modest than that. For example, Bill Gates spent hours of his adolescent years practicing programming, starting when he was just 13 years old. We know he went on to co-found Microsoft and lead a successful career.

Gladwell asserts that The Beatles became successful for a similar reason. Before hitting it big in their native Britain, the young band members played more than 1,200 times in Hamburg, Germany over the course of four years. That’s a lot of performances and even more practice time.

So what do the Beatles and Bill Gates have in common, according to Gladwell? It’s simple, really: time.

The “10,000-Hour” Rule

…“The thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”
Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

Gladwell argues in his book that people others view as having achieved world-class success are successful simply because they put in the hours – 10,000 hours, to be exact. While you don’t need to put in 10,000 hours to become a more confident musician, the basic principle can certainly be applied to practicing your instrument.

Unlike the romantic and lovable storylines great books and novels feed us, the reality is that “everyday” piano players don’t get “good” at piano because they were predisposed for it. They get better because they spend time practicing. The people who excel at playing music spend nights and weekends glued to their instruments. While they may not have 10,000 hours to spare, they’re passionate about playing music. To these musicians, practice outweighs talent.

Good musicians listen, work on technique, and work on scales and chord progressions. All those people that always seem to be naturally “gifted” and better than you only appear better because they’ve put in the time.

Time Trumps Talent

Talent can offer a good head start and possibly even keep a musician on top for a while, but eventually, someone else will come along who has put in the work. To become a confident musician, you don’t have to have 10,000 hours, you simply need passion to improve.

The moral of the story? Talent doesn’t make a musician – practice does. If you want to master your craft, forget talent and dedicate yourself to putting in the time. After all, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard” (Tim Notke).

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