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.
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?