The shrink who claimed practice makes genius

The shrink who claimed practice makes genius


norman lebrecht

July 05, 2020

The death has been reported of Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, who prescribed a hard slog of ‘deliberate practice’ in order to reach genius level in music and sport. He was 72.

His most famous study, published in 1993, claimed that 10,000 hours of violin practice would turn an average teenager into an international virtuoso. Educated at Stockholm University, his seminal work was titled Protocol Analysis: Verbal Reports as Data.

He worked very hard to achieve 15 minutes of fame.




  • John Borstlap says:

    I don’t believe for a second that this man was right in his claim about reaching ‘genius level in music’. As every thinking member of the music world knows, there is always the factor X: inborn talent, which cannot be acquired through work, not even through very hard work over a long time. The many virtuosi we see around who play absolutely brilliantly but sound musically empty, they are the product of Ericsson’s advice – music as an olympic sport. The ‘inside’ understanding of music and the ability to project it outwards, is not something rational or a product of training, it is part of the make-up of the personality.

    • Bone says:

      As a US public school teacher, I can assure you that at least the intent of what Prof Ericsson believes is critical: students are being told that diligence, timeliness, and effort are hardly required to be exceptional. Homework is passé and grading standards are such that lack of effort rarely results in consequences.
      I understand the 10,000 hour mark is likely not factual, but at least it gives me something to help motivate students to put down their phones/games and give some time to exploring their instrument.

      • John Borstlap says:

        You are absolutely right. Hard work is the key to achievement for everybody, including the people gifted with genius. They are the rare exceptions but I can’t think of any truly great artist who did not work hard and persistently.

        Hard work can deliver excellent results, only not ‘genius’, that is a bonus – and not an excuse for laziness.

        Now we are on a music website, the case of Beethoven comes to mind, who certainly had genius, but who worked with a furor and patience all his life. Also Mozart worked very hard, in spite of his ‘easier’ talents. And concerning a composer like Debussy who got the reputation of being slow and lazy, and produced not very much, it has been discovered that in fact, he worked intensily but turned every note many times before he thought it was the right one, which got him so frustrated that he got depressed in his later years. Same with Ravel. And these were people of genius – and always over-critical of themselves.

        • Nathaniel Rosen says:

          As a great philosopher once said, “Talent is being able to hit a target that others cannot hit; genius is being able to hit a target that others cannot see”.

    • SVM says:

      Bortslap’s argument is too simplistic. He is right that 10000 hours does not guarantee the attainment of ‘genius level’. But he is wrong to argue that what he describes as “The ‘inside’ understanding of music” “cannot be acquired through work”.

      In my view, what Bortslap calls “factor X” involves a strong and *independent* intellectual engagement with music both consciously and unconsciously. Unfortunately, the focus of music education at all levels is usually either far too narrow or far too superficial, and the coherence is usually compromised by obsession with short-term targets without regard for long-term artistic development. Most music teachers tend not to encourage the aforementioned intellectual engagement, and even fewer guide their pupils in cultivating it independently (assuming that pupils have the patience for such an endeavour). The result, as Bortslap observes, is people “who play absolutely brilliantly but sound musically empty”.

      The musicians who do reach ‘genius level’ are the ones who have practised a lot *and* have managed to cultivate intellectual engagement with music despite the deficiencies of the system. In other words, not just lots of practice, but lots of *effective* practice.

      • John Borstlap says:

        I don’t think any ‘independent intellectual engagement’ comes into play with the truly gifted. With music, all things rational / intellectual are an ‘extra’ which is a means to an end, and may greatly help musical development, but given that there are so many people with great independed-minded intellectual engagement in music life who have no understanding of how music ‘works’, it is very unlikely that the intellect in itself is a key to truly great music making. That is because in music (at least, in classical, art music), all the rational elements are mere means and are NEVER independent, they are totally dependent upon the musical vision which is emotional and intuitive. Art is not purely intellectual. Where rational elements become independent, you get Schoenberg’s 12 tone ‘music’, or the Boulezbian pretentious sound art, or – in the visual arts – concept art which is about ideas and not about artistry and aesthetics and expression.

        Sometimes even the great performers suffer from too much independent intellectualism like Brendel, who sometimes sounds academic and stiff and inhibited. The HIP circuit (Historically Informed Practice) sometimes shows a particular type of players who know everything about how ‘old music’ should be played, but when you hear them, they clearly lack musicality, like Ton Koopman who has made a big name for himself as baroque specialist but has no feeling for musical rhetoric, just racing through the score:

        I know of some young players who demonstrate an amazing profound musical sensitivity and understanding, also stylistically, with only a superficial rational knowledge of all the surrounding stuff of the music (biography, history, culture). So, an intellectualism which is independent of music, is useless in music.

        • SVM says:

          When I say “independent”, I did *not* mean “independent of music”; I meant “independent of other people (and especially one’s teachers)”. Some musicians’ intellectual engagement (musical or extra-musical) appears to have been spoon-fed. Of course, a musician will be influenced by the ideas and paradigms of his/her teachers, but I think it is essential he/she develops the capacity to think for himself/herself.

    • Nathaniel Rosen says:

      Well put.

  • Jackie says:

    Ericsson claimed that limitations in one’s ability are not set in stone, and that there is no clear innate wall that is impossible to overcome in what one can do. Ericsson thought the right kind of attitude, combined with constructive, goal-oriented learning and first-class information, combined with a ton of work, can help bring many people to high levels of skill. He also talked about what really good practicing is, as something that has clearly stated goals, immediately available feedback, opportunity to learn from a master, and so on.

    As far as the 10,000 hour rule, all he did was intensely interview and follow violin students at Hans Eisler and he concluded that the best ones practiced significantly more than the lesser ones, without exception. He calculated that the best ones will have practiced about 10,000 hours by the time they graduate.

    • John Borstlap says:

      All very wise advice. It will definitely help most people. But it cannot create or compensate for the innate talents of musical understanding.

    • Nijinsky says:

      Thanks for clearing that up, the opening for my knowledge being only what initiated this blog. I listened to this blog, and he’s a very thoughtful quiet presence which actually is called “Dismantling the 10,000 Hour Rule,” among other things saying that Malcolm Gladwell may have misinterpreted Ericsson’s research on the 10,000-hour rule.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    The idea that anyone can become a genius violinist, or anything else, with 10,000 hour of practice is consistently ideological (socialist). However, it is very difficult to disprove, since most people is lazy and cannot dedicate 10,000 hours to productive, significant activity (unsocial media excluded).

    • Malcolm James says:

      Ericsson’s argument is specious, but it is not ‘socialist’. If anything it feeds into the right-wing argument that, since you can achieve anything if you try hard enough, failure is your fault and society has no obligation to you.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Musicians, or music students, who spend most of their time on practicing, leave-out other very important experiences which are necessary for the personality to develop and thus, help the development of the musical personality. For instance, imagine an adolescent who practices and ignores the emotional drives of his/her age, how could that develop an authentic musical understanding of music which expresses amorous feelings? Think of the repertoire for voice, or opera.

      • SVM says:

        By Bortslap’s logic, only a singer (and accompanist/conductor/orchestra) who has lost a child can “develop an authentic musical understanding” of /Kindertotenlieder/! And only a singer (and accompanist) who is a mother with a son gone to serve in the military overseas can “develop an authentic musical understanding” of /Danny Boy/! And only a good Christian composer can write church music! Really?!?

        When a singer goes on stage, there is an element of acting, of impersonation, involved (especially in opera). Each person’s life experience is unique, and it is *not* necessary for a person to have experiences identical to what is described/evoked in a musical work (whether with words or without) in order for him/her to be able to interpret the work meaningfully. One can interpret “music which expresses amorous feelings” without having been in love.

  • tomtom says:

    This statement about 10,000 hours = genius has been discredited so many times. It is painfully obvious that many of our present and historic virtuosos did not put in that amount of graft. Mysterious though its origins may be, there is an innate ability in any craft which, no amount of practice by the average performer will equal.

  • Nijinsky says:

    What is music supposed to be? Does it make any difference whether a person cares to honor what music is more than whether or not they can use it to be an international virtuoso, which then is made out to signify genius they acquire after….

    “This composer has spent MORE THAN 10,000 hours composing music, which accounts for its quality.”

    I think whether you allow music to be what it’s meant to be, like so many other innate parts of the human experience, I think that might have something to do with how far you get with “practice.” It’s like saying if you spend 10,000 hours in the kitchen making addictive junk food, and have acquired supplicants for that, that you ALSO can be the genius of fill-in-the-blank-junk-food-franchise.

    I mean the whole emotional body, that part of yourself that’s involuntary, that the music (or any art) resonates with and nurtures, and gives legroom, and brings your subconscious thoughts into a whole other nebulous area that possibly gives perspective on life when the ego would disrupt it; whether a person cares to see that basic innate part of music (of art, of being human) as worth investing in isn’t even stated. And I think that’s more than just 10,000 hours. That’s how a person lives their whole life.

    And if you really have that interest, you’re going to spend the time that encompasses the blossoming of it, that happens by itself without adding up the hours or needing the motivation of then being seen as reaching “genius,” level.

    Go outside and look at the simplest flower, that you might call a weed, that came by completely unexpected, maybe the wind blew the seed or a bird dropped it down from on high, who knows; but take a real look at what happened all by itself without needing to have spent 10,000 plus hours to be called genius, and you might see what natural genius really is, in that flower. Give any art the same legroom, and you might find something more from life than you find on the shelf stating “world famous,” or “top quality,” or “grade A.”

    • John Borstlap says:

      Brilliant! I agree completely.

      • Nijinsky says:

        John, Thank you

        But, I don’t know how to express this without sounding like I’m lecturing, but I wish you’d realize that what Schoenberg did was completely his own, as was Webern’s and neither of them ever wanted Boulez and fanatics to take their niche and try to force ANYONE on what Boulez and fanatics extracted out of it to take out the whole essence leaving it basically dead. Schoenberg and Webern would have given anyone the space to find their own materials, which if you listen to their music you hear. That’s not the case with Boulez and fanatics.

        Such behavior, whether it’s limiting the creative process to these materials or those materials, is like people with consensual reality deportment going around acting like: “Yeah, we sacrificed those goats and a few Virgins, see, the Gods find favor with us,” as if reality is “consensual” in such a fashion. Or statistical based norms blinding people.

        And if you’re really listen to Schoenberg or Webern there really is still functional harmony there, still tangled up in there, maybe mangled and disembodied like a dissolving memory losing it linearity, but it’s still there, whole phrases of it sometimes. And that says something about the time and emotions encompassing that period.

        To me it has its place. Boulez is another story…. I have no idea why David Fray would devote himself to such a militant onslaught….. Pollini?

        Like feeding Chickens Gravel or something…

        Why did the Chicken cross the road?
        It mistook the Gravel for feed….

  • Cubs Fan says:

    In my experience, to play any instrument at the “genius” level you must start at a very early age. You cannot pick up the violin at 12 and expect to be a world-class virtuoso. I don’t care how many thousands of hours you practice. Old dogs can learn new tricks, but not to the genius level. Every genius performer I’ve ever played with or met, on violin, piano, cello, harp…they all started when they were still in kindergarten if not before.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The real genius players start in the womb, to great discomfort of the mother.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Wasn’t Sviatoslav Richter 15 when he began to study piano? There are exceptions to any rule, whether Ericsson’s or Cubs Fan’s. 🙂

      • Nick says:

        Richter was known to put in much more than 10.000!!! He was known to spend 9-12 hours daily at the instrument. He was one of those workaholics. Only later in life he lowered his working hours considerably.

  • marcus mauger says:

    As I understood it, the claim was that those virtuosi he studied had one thing in common-i.e. 10,000 hours practice, not that 10,000 hours could or would turn a lesser talent into a world class player.

    • Bill says:

      Yes, everyone under the sun misinterpreted his research, to the point that he wrote another book where he tried to set the record straight. But the straw man was just too attractive, apparently…

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    ==10,000 hours of violin practice would turn an average teenager into an international virtuoso.

    Complete rubbish. I’ve had students who practise like crazy people. Doing 5.5 hours per day for just five years already passes the 10k hours mark

  • David K. Nelson says:

    The only example I can think of that at least partly supports this theory is Willy Burmester (1869-1933), a talented but not (by most accounts) exceptional violinist whose solo career was not getting him anywhere until he had the idea of practicing Paganini showpieces with an repetitive intensity that is astonishing and rather unnerving to rad about and by some accounts, physically damaging. His legendary Paganini recital that resulted put him on the map and seemingly he made whatever career he could from the fame, but it does not appear from published accounts that he ever played to that sort of acclaim again. It was a mechanical gift that was fleeting and in the end, not sufficient, but resulted from genuine hard work. So one recital of genius for all those hours. hmmm

    Oddly Burmester became best known for a large series of encore type works arranged from the Baroque and Classical repertoires by rather obscure composers, pieces that were so easy to play that just about anybody could play them, and thus the published editions were very popular. They were so heavily arranged that I suspect in part they helped make people ready to accept the “fakes” that Fritz Kreisler composed in quantity, claiming to have a collection of rare manuscripts that only he had access to, and when he finally revealed the truth decades later, reissued them as “in the style of” the various composers he had previously attributed them to. But the Kreisler pieces are harder to play than the Burmesters.