Jonathan Feist

Ten Thousand Hours and Tortoise Reform

Jonathan Feist

Pascal the Tortoise

There’s no denying the math. If you compose just two measure of music every day, which doesn’t seem like a lot, in a year, you’ll have completed dozens of songs, or a symphony, or perhaps half of an opera. If you write one page of words every day (not very much), in a year, you’ll have written a significant book, or four practically sized music method books, or developed the curriculum for a 12-week college level course. Call it the power of plugging away.

In his book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell discusses how it takes about ten thousand hours of experience to become a master musician (or exceptional at any skill). If you can’t play guitar right now, but today, you start practicing two hours per day, you can expect to be a fantastic guitarist in fourteen years. That’s a long time, but within reach, for most of us. If you practice eight hours a day, obviously, you will dramatically crunch that schedule, but you also greatly increase your risk of career-ending injury, so the math isn’t completely indicative here.

While achieving true mastery within a college degree program might be a full-time, body and soul exhausting aspiration, achieving basic competency and a clear future path will happen much sooner than the ten-thousand hour mark. You’ll need to play/practice about seven hours per day to come out swinging. But a few dozen hours, total, can give you a basic capability at an instrument (perhaps, fulfilling enough for an amateur), and after a few hundred hours (an hour a day for a year), you’ll be able to make some decent music. It’s amazing what a focused year can bring to a dedicated student. On the other hand, practicing bass for just an hour a week probably won’t be enough for you to make Victor Wooten break into a cold sweat. At that pace, it will take you a century to catch up him (by which point, Mr. Wooten will also have a century’s worth of additional experience, so you’ll still be cooked).

Now, again, this math isn’t precise. Some people progress faster than others. Some are lucky enough to want to play an instrument that is well suited to their hand size and shape, and they will have an easier time of it. Some styles are more exposed, some instruments are more difficult, some practice strategies are more effective and efficient. Nobody just writes two measures a day. We write sixteen measures, then revise it, then write lyrics, then go back and reimagine the chords…. You might write an average of two bars per day. An hour of thoughtful study with an excellent guitar teacher will facilitate more efficient progress than will eight hours of aimless strumming along with your favorite Justin Bieber track. The point is, though, that achieving any of these goals will require time to create those words or notes. For the endeavor to reach completion, somehow/sometime, a certain number of synapses need to fire and the work has to get done. There’s no escaping the math.

After watching hundreds of authors work to complete their books, here at Berklee Press, I have noticed two things about productivity. First, you have to work at it constantly, almost every day and certainly every week, to get anywhere. Our books require between 60 and 400 hours or so for an author to create a first draft, and somehow, that time has to be found inside busy schedules. Hours simply need to be devoted to it. It’s like dieting or exercise. Once it becomes a regular habit, the drudgery becomes easier, and we start to see results. That’s the conventional wisdom. The tortoise. Slow and steady wins the race. It’s true, and there’s no escaping it, especially for long-term goals such as developing muscle memory.

The other side, though, is that there’s nothing like a deadline to inspire a burst of productivity, and I have come to respect the speedy, frantic running of the hare as well. Summers end and semesters begin, and suddenly, there is no longer an easy hour a day to find. So, we have to avoid Facebook and work into the wee hours, or else our upcoming textbook won’t be published by the start of the school year. Or the album won’t be ready before the tour. Or our band won’t be rehearsed enough before we go into the studio.

While an eleventh-hour, panicked, monomaniacal effort isn’t typically considered best practice, I’ve found that it can be remarkably productive—often actually necessary—because it inspires heroism that might otherwise be elusive. Burning the midnight oil comes with great risks, and details can suffer, but the momentum and the caffeine-fueled fun of a late-night charrette carries us forward and brings us to places that well-behaved, constant, respectable plodding often does not. Many personality types require that kind of excitement in order to actually bring a major project to conclusion. The fire helps crystallize ideas, make it easier to jettison the debris, and let us see the overall work as a whole.

So, to truly be productive, you might need a combination approach, between the tortoise and the hare. Mostly, realistically, it’s regular, constant work that advances our efforts. But the plodding might need to be punctuated by goal milestones and delivery deadlines that you will do anything to achieve.

If you are managing a project, you need to find the right balance. It’s your job to make everyone aware of deadlines, and prod them to deliver slightly ahead of the critical dates, so that you have a buffer against bad luck. Musicians’ careers are increasingly eclectic, and people have a greater number of simultaneous projects in their lives, as well as a host of distractions. They often need assistance in structuring their time, understanding how delivery points affect the overall project timeline, and getting reminders of deadlines well in advance of the critical dates. This is a reason why frequent communication is necessary for schedules to work out; it just keeps the ball rolling.

You may need to light some brush fires, in addition to regularly raking the leaves. Just keep your eyes open for the mistakes that likely creep in, during these intense efforts, balancing mad dashes with particularly careful quality checks. This can help you keep your project on track, avoiding it dragging out indefinitely, and finally bringing it to a successful conclusion.

Jonathan Feist
Jonathan Feist

Jonathan Feist is editor in chief of Berklee Press, where he has been bringing hundreds of music education products to a worldwide market since 1998. He is the author of "Project Management for Musicians," among other Berklee Press books and Berklee Online courses. He holds a bachelor's and master's degree in composition from New England Conservatory of Music, and tends to various farm animals and a sweet little orchard in his backyard.