11 January 2009

I can still play a mean “Clair de Lune”

A few weeks ago I read an absolutely amazing book. “Outliers” is the latest from the incomparable Malcolm Gladwell – the man responsible for “Blink” and “The Tipping Point.” In “Outliers,” Gladwell looks at what makes people successful in their respective fields.

What makes a man (or woman) successful, Gladwell says, is not so much where he was born, if he got good grades, what school he went to, or even his God-given talent in his area of expertise. Gladwell relates story after story to prove that what matters is as arbitrary as the month a person was born – or quite frequently the year – and how much time he or she puts into his work.

Gladwell cites what he calls the 10,000-hour rule. The idea here is that regardless of natural ability, what is really necessary for mastery in a given area is 10,000 hours of practice. Here’s an example: Music students were divided into two groups – one group of children with a natural musical ability, and another group of children who simply enjoyed playing. Over time, it became clear that the students with the natural ability had *nothing* on the other children if they didn’t put in the practice. Less-talented children who practiced did just as well if not better than the children with natural ability who practiced sporadically.

The Beatles, in their early years, had a gig in Germany that required them to play for 8-hour stretches. Bill Gates had access to computers at a time when such a thing was unheard of, especially for a 13-year-old boy. “Outliers” gives example after example of successful people who had the right opportunities in front of them to make them great. I know I’m not doing this book justice; I couldn’t possibly do it justice. This is one of those instances where I’m afraid I must insist that you read it for yourself. It will blow your mind to bits. But there is a point to my story lurking on the horizon, and I’m getting there.

I took my first piano lesson at the age of three. I loved playing and I had a knack for it and in particular for sight reading. I took lessons every week from age three to age … fourteen, probably. And even after I quit I continued to play at home for my own enjoyment – and still do. I had good instructors – great instructors, themselves gifted musicians. And I practiced at home, I really did. But I find that, at the age of twenty-five, I’m simply not that good. There are a number of twelve-year-olds out there playing as well as I do. I don’t mean to put myself down; I can tackle Rachmaninoff and Debussy with the best of them. But twenty-two years after my first lesson, I am not a concert pianist. It used to bother me, and I used to get depressed when I heard a piano played well. But no longer, for I now know why.

I’ve calculated that over the years, I’ve practiced 6,000, maybe 6,500 hours. Quite a lot, but not enough. It isn’t that I lack the talent or the skill set. I simply never spent enough time at the piano. My gift for sight-reading meant that more often than not, if I didn’t like a song I was assigned, I’d glance at it on my way to my lesson, and play it for the first time for my teacher (and I got away with it about 75% of the time). Had I really applied myself, practiced the piano instead of reading or turning cartwheels, I could easily have gotten to 10,000 hours, and I’d be at a concert hall somewhere, dazzling a well-dressed crowd.

I knew I didn’t practice enough. But I didn’t just want to play the piano. I wanted to be a kid. I wanted to play softball and read and dress up my Barbie dolls and color and swim and laugh and play. So many times I’d set a timer for the hour of piano practice I’d been prescribed, only to succumb to soul-sucking tedium after thirty-five minutes.

So I’m not a concert pianist. You know what? I’m okay with that. My vanity is such that what matters is not what I have achieved but what I could achieve if only I’d apply myself. I’m okay with that.

Particularly since I was born in the wrong month for ice hockey.

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