The Frontal Cortex

Deliberate Practice

This kid is a poster child for deliberate practice:

Marc Yu, a 9-year-old piano prodigy from Pasadena, Calif., recently played at a benefit for victims of the earthquake in Sichuan, China. And he didn’t play “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” He played a piece that Chopin wrote for victims of the Polish-Russian war, the composer’s “Nocturne in C Minor.”

“My legs are long enough for the pedal, but still my legs aren’t straight,” Marc says. “I sometimes have to sit close to the piano or stretch my legs.” He says his left hand can reach an octave, but his right hand isn’t quite there yet.

Marc says he can only vaguely recall beginning to play the piano. He says his mother has told him over and over that he was 2. He does remember his recital debut, when he was 3. He played a G major sonatina by Beethoven.

That same year, he asked his mom if he could become a pianist. These days, he practices up to eight hours a day, depending on his schedule and his mood. “Practice makes perfect,” he says. “You don’t want a Beethoven piece to sound like something else. That’s disrespectful to the composer.”

Virtually every psychological study that investigates expert “performers” – from chess grandmasters to concert pianists to brain surgeons – concludes that what separates these individuals from their peers is the amount of “deliberate practice” they are willing to endure. If there is an innate difference between Yo Yo Ma and a mediocre cellist, or between Tiger Woods and your golfing uncle, it is a willingness to practice, and not an innate aptitude for the cello or the 9 iron. As K. Anders Ericsson, a cognitive psychologist at Florida State University, wrote in his influential article “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” “The differences between expert performers and normal adults are not immutable, that is, due to genetically prescribed talent. Instead, these differences reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance.” Ericsson estimates that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” before a person can become a world class expert. If Marc Yu puts in an average of 1500 hours of practice per year (probably a lowball estimate), and he began practicing the piano at the age of two, then it’s possible that he’s already crossed the 10,000 hours threshold.

This is a deeply counter-intuitive idea. Although we pretend to be egalitarians, we really believe that the talented are naturally “gifted”. You and I can’t become chess grandmasters, or brain surgeons, or concert pianists, simply because we don’t have the necessary anatomy. Endless hours of hard work won’t compensate for our biological limitations. When fate was handing out skill, we got screwed.

But there is virtually no evidence that expert performers are born with extraordinary brains. In fact, the average IQ of people at the top of their field – whether they are surgeons or politicians, pianists or painters – equals that of the average college student. In other words, their expertise is very specific, confined to a particular “cognitive domain”. Mark Yu might be able to make Tchaikovsky look easy, but I bet I could take him in Guitar Hero.

Comments

  1. #1 bwv
    July 22, 2008

    Is not the other ingredient this sort of practice at a young (pre-adolescent) age where neuroplacticity is at its peak?

  2. #2 Anibal
    July 22, 2008

    That alleviates me! though prompts me not to procastinate too much and exercise a webberian ethics of work attitude.

    But what about those authors who defend (i donĀ“t know if they change their minds now) not only individual variations in performance, but that some races differ genetically in the average talents and temperaments.

  3. #3 Adrienne
    July 22, 2008

    Hmm, not sure I buy this totally. I’ve read stories about people whose parents tried to turn them into chess grandmasters and so on by training them from early ages and forcing them to practice many hours a day, but it didn’t work. I’m sorry, I think there has to be some sort of natural aptitude there. Also, this same article mentioned that Yo Cheng Ma, Yo Yo Ma’s sister, started studying music as early on as he did and practiced just as much, but never ascended to his heights of talent.

  4. #4 Whistler
    July 22, 2008

    This research seems to directly contradict this other research I read about via the BPS Research Digest, which says that amount of practice does matter among those with inherent talent, but that if one does not have this inherent talent, it doesn’t matter how much he practices. I think that the type of practice (“deliberate,” whatever that means) matters a great deal. I wish someone would research practicing technique – it’s something people do all the time and there is probably a much better way to practice a musical instrument than playing hours of scales and etudes.

  5. #5 Julie Stahlhut
    July 22, 2008

    I think we have to remember that “deliberate practice” is an action, and one that’s more or less measurable. In order to do it, you have to have motivation, and in actuality that’s a more complicated and less measurable thing than number of hours per day spent at a piano.

    Marc Yu seems to have that perfect storm of personal desire and parental support, and I hope he continues to get the credit he deserves, and to progress as a musician if that’s what he eventually wants to do professionally. I also hope that if he decides, in adult life, to do something else as a primary occupation, the people around him are equally supportive.

  6. #6 Marc
    July 22, 2008

    While practice is undoubtedly essential for people to reach their own personal peak, I’m not convinced that the same maximum potential is available to us all.

    Is it not possible that an underlying factor behind the patience is actually at work here? It has been shown again and again that levels of attention underlie performance in a whole host of cognitive tasks. I would imagine that those who practice a lot have heaps of it, because otherwise, well, they’d move on to something el . . . is that a butterfly?

  7. #7 Cherish
    July 22, 2008

    There is an excellent counter to this argument atBeautiful Minds.

  8. #8 Todd
    July 23, 2008

    As more anecdotal follow up to your post, think about professional athletes who have thrown out the “first pitch” at major league baseball games. If being a professional athlete was mostly about natural talent, you would think that an NBA player would be able to throw a baseball with something resembling above average results, but what do we see? Balls thrown in the dirt. Balls sailed 10 feet over the catchers head or the baller throwing like a squid. Sure it helps to have the natural “talent” of being over six feet tall if you want to be in the NBA, but after that it comes down to practice and luck.

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=8FTLLLQi9Cg&feature=related

  9. #9 DCBob
    July 23, 2008

    This raises the question of why some people appear to be able to focus on deliberate practice and others don’t, and why individuals vary in what they can focus on so deliberately. The ability to attend endlessly to something is a pretty fortuitous event in my experience, which has led me to conclude (perhaps incorrectly) that it’s at least partly a matter of genetics.

  10. #10 Winawer
    July 23, 2008

    @Todd,

    The fact that a skill requires practice does not mean that it requires only practice. Your argument of practice being necessary and doesn’t follow from your examples.

    Besides, I’m amazed at your implicit definition of “natural talent” which seems to say that being able to throw a baseball makes you a natural expert at just about any conceivable motor skill.

  11. #11 Winawer
    July 23, 2008

    Hmm, the statement in the previous comment should be “Your argument of practice being necessary and sufficient…”. Teach me to preview before posting.

  12. #12 jb
    July 27, 2008

    At an brain and art event in New York earlier this year, a neuroscientist had 3 percusionnists hooked up to EEGs and had them demonstrate various aspects of the brain and musical performance. One of the things he mentioned in passing was that humans have an inate propensity for music making, singing and dancing,as well as speaking, just as a lot of birds have a propensity to sing, some? most? of which
    connected to mating behavior. He went on to imply that learning these skills must happen before puberty to really become perfected, just as humans must acquire language before puberty or they never become really proficient. See Oliver Sacks’ book “Seeing Voices” about the deaf and their learning of language.

  13. #13 Michael Redstone
    July 30, 2008

    Whistler, you might be interested in http://members.aol.com/chang8828/contents.htm . It’s a scientific approach to practicing piano; based on what you wrote it might be exactly what you’re looking for.

    And to the author of this blog, thanks, lots of very interesting content, keep it up – I’m definitely adding you to my regular reading list. There’s a pretty good book, Genius Explained, by Michael Howe, that covers today’s topic well – if you haven’t seen it, you might like it.

  14. #14 Eric
    December 17, 2008

    Whistler, you might be interested in http://members.aol.com/chang8828/contents.htm . It’s a scientific approach to practicing piano; based on what you wrote it might be exactly what you’re looking for.
    Sad that the website seems to have disappeared. I’ve uploaded the pdf of the book to my website at: http://www.ericflin.com/fundamentalsOfPianoPractice.pdf

  15. #15 OrinninaphLix
    August 16, 2009

    y’r really nice guz

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