The Diminishing Returns of Practicing

They say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master something – chess, neurosurgery, piano, what-have-you. If you practiced your field three hours a day, that would equal roughly ten years. If, like me, you practice closer to 10 minutes a day, you might never actually master anything in your lifetime.

The thought occurred to me the other day as I was playing some Beethoven, and wondering why it seems so freaking difficult. I’ve been playing piano since I was eight, so by rights I should have crossed the line into mastery by now, but I most certainly have not. I achieved Grade 8 piano (a measure of skill in England, the highest grade for students there) at around age seventeen, and I would argue I’ve not improved much since then. I struggle to play simple pieces accurately, and I struggle to play difficult pieces entirely.

Now in fairness, I haven’t had access to an actual piano for the past 12 years since moving from England (a problem that I’m hoping to remedy this summer as we convert our garage into a music studio), and I’ve only had a fully-weighted, full-size digital keyboard for about six months or so. To that extent, it really means there’s been a huge gap in time in my ability to actually practice playing piano, and one could argue that I’ve probably regressed significantly in my performance ability.

Another component is my inability to recognize that I’m no longer as good as I used to be, and that it will take some time to get back to that place – never mind get better. I’m diving right back in to Mozart and Beethoven’s difficult piano sonatas, when I should probably be trying to learn a few newer, but easier, pieces.

Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling overwhelmed by this idea that there’s only so far practice is going to get me. I’m never going to be Alfred Brendel, or Glenn Gould, no matter how much time and effort I put into practicing. I feel like a hack, with a better understanding of technique than an ability to put it into practice. And ultimately, I feel like the returns of intense practice are diminishing, to the point where there really just isn’t much point; hours and hours of practice are going to result in smaller and smaller improvements in my skill, until the point comes where I simply will not get any better.

I fear I may already be there.

I don’t think this means I’ll stop playing piano altogether, because at the end of the day I enjoy the art itself, even if it’s just for myself. But whereas once I used to believe that I could play anything if I put enough time and effort into it, now I feel like there’s a hard limit to what I’ll ever be able to achieve. It’s not like this is my profession, or my academic career; I literally just play for fun. But maybe there’s a point where I have to recognize that certain pieces will forever be out of my reach.

Oh well.

For those of you who do a thing that requires practice – whether it’s a musical instrument, or a sport, or a job – what’s your perspective on practice? Do you think you can become the best in the world if you only practiced enough, or is there a point where you’ll be the best you can be, and no amount of further practice will significantly improve you beyond that?

Album Review: Anno 1696 by Insomnium

Those of you who’ve been following me for a while will be well aware of my love for all things heavy metal, and one of my favorite bands is Finland’s Insomnium – a long-standing staple of the melodic death metal their homeland is known for.

Insomnium have been releasing top-tier melodeath for over twenty years, starting with their debut LP In the Halls of Awaiting back in 2002. They rapidly struck a formula of balancing brutal riffs with melancholic, haunting melodies and harmonies, and have rarely deviated ever since. In fact, if there is a complaint to be lodged against Insomnium, is that each album doesn’t really feel like much of an evolution for the band. They tend to open every album with a intro track that blends seamlessly into an upbeat pop single, followed by a series of more forgettable, if more challenging, longer songs.

They changed this up in 2016 with the album Winter’s Gate, which took the form of a seven-part sequence of songs that actually form one massive 40-minute track. To date, this represents their most adventurous and progressive attempt, but they returned to their tried-and-true formula with 2019’s Heart Like a Grave (which actually contains, beyond the intro and pop single Valediction, some of their best and most accessible music to date).

So where does that leave their most recent release, Anno 1696 – a concept album based on a short story by bassist and vocalist Niilo Sevänen? Like Winter’s Gate, it eschews the standard album structure that Insomnium have used since 2002 in favor of eight slabs of equal-quality melodic death metal (although the opener, 1696, has the feel of an intro track, despite being over six minutes long). Two songs – White Christ and Godforsaken – mark the first open collaboration with vocalists outside of the band, with the first featuring Rotting Christ’s vocalist Sakis Tolis, and the second bringing a haunting melodic performance from Finnish folk singer Johanna Kurkela (also known from her collaborations with fellow Finns Sonata Arctica).

Each track is, as has always been the case with Insomnium, exceptionally well-produced and composed, and with the longest track clocking in at around eight and a half minutes, none of them outstay their welcome (in the past, some of their longer songs have felt a little overbearing). Blast beats are balanced with more tempered drumming, acoustic guitars blend well with heavy riffs, and melody – as to be expected – is paramount to each song. As the album progresses, odd time signatures and longer acoustic passages are a welcome break from the standard 4/4 heaviness that often drags this sort of music down.

However, for all of this, no one track feels terribly memorable, and whilst each is certainly distinct from the other, the album feels missing that one standout hit that Insomnium have been able to produce in the past. At 51 minutes, it’s also one of their shortest albums (only Winter’s Gate, the one-song album, and Across the Dark are shorter), and feels like it could have afforded an additional 4- or 5-minute track that really “pops”.

With that said, what is here is atmospheric, well-written, and fits the bill of a concept album about a witch perfectly. There’s no argument that Insomnium are at the top of their game musically, and the album’s structure does form a welcome break from the standard format that they’ve typically restricted themselves to. Although it can’t be said that it contains their best individual song to date, taken as a whole it is still one of their best albums, and for fans of melodic death metal is well-worth a good few listens to really appreciate the depth that it has to offer.

If you’re new to Insomnium, or want to explore melodic death metal for the first time, you’d be better off starting with Heart Like a Grave, or 2014’s Shadows of the Dying Sun, but if you’re familiar with the band already, then dive right in and enjoy another solid effort by Finland’s premier melodeath act.

4/5 stars

We don’t learn music anymore.

It’s no secret I love music. From my background as a pianist and composer to the wealth of songs from rock and metal artists around the world, it’s rare to find a moment when I’m not listening to music of some kind. From Beethoven to Behemoth, and Mozart to Mastodon, music is a central, fundamental part of my life, and I don’t think I could survive without it.

To that extent, the evolution of music consumption has been fascinating to me over the past few decades. To a large extent, I think the change from physical media to online streaming platforms has been a positive one, allowing far more artists to disseminate their music than ever before, getting their creations into the hands – and ears – of their fans. The ability to distribute music over the internet has revolutionized entire music scenes, never mind the industry as a whole, and where once young bands had to pawn their homemade tapes and CDs at gigs to the same crowds over and over, they can now see their music heard literally the world over with almost no effort whatsoever.

The ability to make revenue from record sales, of course, has diminished drastically, with streaming companies paying out fractions of pennies to starving artists, whilst keeping the bulk of their subscription costs to themselves. There are always two sides to every coin, and in this case the ability to distribute content globally means far less revenue per sale, or in most cases, per stream.

But there’s another aspect to streaming that I think has perhaps diminished our ability to truly enjoy and appreciate music, and it’s the overwhelming quantity of music available. With great quantity comes, if not a reduction in quality, a reduction at least of our ability to absorb the music and truly grow to know a song or album inside out.

Let me give you an example. Back in the early 2000s, I would frequently visit a local CD store to discover new music. Whilst there were a handful of bands who I knew, and would eagerly purchase each release the day it came out, I was also interested in discovering music from artists I had perhaps heard less of – or never heard of at all. To this extent, I would spend hours browsing albums, looking for album art, band names, and lyrics that spoke to me – all before ever hearing the music at all.

There was a lot of junk I discovered this way; artists who, had I been able to hear their music before purchase, I would likely have never spent money on. But there were some true gems, too – albums that stayed on heavy rotation, and which I grew to know like the back of my hand.

This lack of abundance – the fact that I could only afford to purchase a few albums a month – meant that I would spend those months listening to the same albums on repeat, over and over again, until I knew intimately which song came after which, exactly when the chorus was coming up, and was even able to sing along (to those songs that weren’t death metal) to the lyrics. I know Opeth’s masterpiece, Blackwater Park, better than I know some of my own compositions. I could sing along to ever single track from Sentenced’s brooding goth rock albums – especially Crimson and The Cold White Light.

The point here is that I learned these albums. They became a part of my subconscious, due to no other reason than I had nothing else to listen to. I might have listened to album 2-3 times a day back then – close a hundred times a month, until another album came out that I could afford to buy, and then I’d listen to that one a hundred times over as well.

This just doesn’t happen anymore. In the past few weeks, two of my favorite bands released new albums: Katatonia’s Sky Void of Stars, and Insomnium’s Anno 1696. I’ve listened to them a handful of times, certainly, but before long I get distracted, listen to some other new music, or have Siri play random songs ‘picked just for’ me. In the past, I would have been listening to these albums on endless repeat.

The worse part of this is that, in order for a song or album to truly qualify for that now-unattainable “endless-repeat” status, it has to be of absolute stellar quality. And not every band, every time, can produce that level of quality. Even Opeth, arguably my favorite band of all time, have released albums recently that I’ve only listened to a handful of times. It’s not because they’re bad albums; it’s just because the choice of infinite other music means that unless I’m utterly blown away at first listen, I’ll eventually drift off to other new entertainment.

In the long term, I think this may lead to another musical detriment: the absence of strong, thought-out albums. Sure, there will be some artists that will continue to write just what they want to write, but for many, this mentality of having to come up with “instant hits” may mean that they sacrifice long-form integrity for the sake of a quick success. Albums that contain one or two killers tracks, and the rest is hot garbage.

Of course, the concept of “filler” tracks isn’t terribly new. But I do fear that we may, over the coming decades, even see the death of the album altogether, as it becomes physically and financially easier to just release individual songs as they’re recorded. Even Slipknot have done this recently, with tracks such as All Out Life, and more recently Bone Church, not being intended for an album at all.

In any case, this is the evolution of music consumption. It isn’t inherently good or bad, but I do miss the days when I would “learn” an album simply because I would have no choice but to listen to it over and over again. I don’t think I can say I truly “know” an album released in the past fifteen years.

I hope that one day, someone will release an album that I’m so taken with, I only want to listen to it, and nothing else, for a month straight.

We shall see.