You might have heard the maxim that with 10,000 hours of practice you can become an expert at anything. Well, according to a new study of 39 violinists, that might be too optimistic.
You see, that 10,000-hour 'rule' was first proposed by another study of musicians – including violinists – back in 1993. It concluded that "many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years".
The idea again came to the fore in Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 book Outliers, in which he described the 10,000 hour mark as "the magic number of greatness".
Psychologists Brooke Macnamara and Megha Maitra, from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, decided to put this to the test with their own group of violin-playing volunteers – but they found practice didn't have as much of an impact as we might think.
"The idea [of 10,000 hours] has become really entrenched in our culture, but it's an oversimplification," Macnamara told Ian Sample at The Guardian.
"When it comes to human skill, a complex combination of environmental factors, genetic factors and their interactions explains the performance differences across people."
The researchers organised three groups of 13 violinists each, based on whether their tutors rated them as the best players, good players, or less accomplished players. The participants were then asked to complete a diary of their practice habits for a week.
The less skillful violinists were found to have banked an average of 6,000 hours of practice by the age of 20. For the good and the best groups, though, the average was about the same – 11,000 hours.
Most of the "best" violinists in the study actually practised less often than the average practice time for the "good" group, the study found.
Overall, the differences in the amount of time spent practising equated to about a quarter of the skill difference between the groups, the researchers suggest.
As for the authors of the original 1993 study, their take is that the new study doesn't necessarily invalidate the older one – especially if the "best" and "good" groups are considered together.
"Do I believe that practice is everything and that the number of hours alone determine the level reached? No, I don't," psychologist Ralf Krampe from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, who worked on the 1993 paper, told The Guardian.
"But I still consider deliberate practice to be by far the most important factor."
The two groups of researchers are in agreement that practising will almost always help you get better, whether it's at music, art or sports. The debate is how much of a difference it can make, especially at the elite level – an extra 26 percent or so, suggests the new study.
That is significant, but doesn't quite match what the 1993 paper (and Malcolm Gladwell) proposed. The original study identified "complete correspondence between the skill level of the groups and their average accumulation of practice time alone with the violin".
Macnamara and Maitra also looked to distinguish between private practice alone and teacher-led practice, finding that practice alone had slightly more of an impact on accomplishment than teacher-led practice.
With relatively small sample sizes (39 violinists in the new study and 30 violinists in the older one), as well as variations in approach (the 1993 study recruited all its violinists from the same institution, whereas the 2019 study used two places), it's fair to say we're still waiting for a definitive answer on the practice-versus-talent debate.
What the new research does suggest, though, is that you should think twice before devoting 10,000 hours (or more than 400 days) of your life to practice at something – it's maybe not guaranteed to make you any better at your chosen discipline than those who aren't committing quite so much time to refining their skills.
"Once you get to the highly skilled groups, practice stops accounting for the difference," Macnamara told The Guardian. "Everyone has practised a lot and other factors are at play in determining who goes on to that super-elite level."
The research has been published in Royal Society Open Science.