Preparations for convincing my most gifted cello students to get started on their 10,000 hours

Since many gifted children don’t tolerate boredom well, how can we convince them that they should persevere through the long slog to mastery of any subject or skill? I succeeded with my cello students, but only after I had stumbled into the benefits of accumulated effort in my own musical development.

Although at the time I didn’t know about Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion of the 10,000-hour rule of proficiency in his book, Outliers, the force of my discovery was compelling. My cello playing had just leaped forward in one of the most important areas of technique: tactile knowledge of the fingerboard. After years of what felt like groping, I could suddenly see where to put my fingers. In my mind’s eye, I saw lines going across the four strings or sometimes dots or flashing lights where the notes were.

With this graphic guide, I played much better in tune; could read music faster; and maneuvered around the cello more easily. In addition, almost every other sector of my technique improved, whether directly connected to fingerboard knowledge or not. I soon saw the cause.

By that stage in my development, I’d been playing about thirty years. For that entire time, I’d been placing my fingers on the fingerboard, attempting—and often failing—to play the right notes in tune and on time. This effort, saturating my musical life, included rehearsals, practice sessions, performances, and numerous recreational chamber music sessions. Dictated by conditions far less controlled than those in a practice room, a high percentage of this finger-placing activity was random, or at least unorganized for the purposes of learning the fingerboard.

Nonetheless, I saw in hindsight how effective it had been. A finite number of attempts to place my fingers had led to those clear mental pictures. True, that finite number was huge, but I was impressed by two obvious facts about the process: 1) it had been effective despite the absence of a systematic procedure 2) I could devise a simple method for accelerating it.

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A natural law of learning

As teachers and parents of the most highly gifted students, we often wish for an “answer manual” to guide us through the puzzles these children present us with. Fortunately, there is one answer we can count on, apparently universal and immutable. Therefore, it might actually apply to all gifted people. It leaves other, more ambiguous, questions unanswered, but at least we have this one rock to stand on.

This important fact is a natural law of skill acquisition, discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, his fascinating book on high achievement. He devotes a chapter to the proven phenomenon that rather than the level of talent, the number of hours a person practices any skill determines their level of achievement. This is true of such diverse fields as athletics, music performance, and computer programming. Gladwell states, “Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.”

Even the most highly gifted have to cross that 10,000-hour line before they gain full proficiency. This corroborates what I’ve observed in my most talented cello students: those who show sudden, huge spikes in ability; those who can correctly perform a component of technique the first time while most others are struggling through many attempts; those who can see the fingerboard with almost no practice.

All these students, including even the ones who have the best intuitive feel for music-making, struggle with the inconsistent pattern of their spectacular abilities. There is no remedy for this except hours of practice; the same 10,000 hours everyone else has to put in.

I find this reassuring. It’s a straightforward path of work, work, and more work. Although it may be difficult to convince gifted students, whose learning paths are so often eclectic and self-directed, that they need to log in their 10,000 hours, it is one certainty for us in a minefield of ambiguities.

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Nurturing talent: not always an easy task

As we have seen, Joseph missed the opportunity to develop good work habits during his formative years. At age 17, he could still have learned to work hard, though this probably would have been difficult for him. As it was, the only way his talent showed itself was in the few areas of his cello playing that rose above the other portions of his technique: a classic case of having talent but not developing it.

Younger students, I’ve learned, might temporarily resist hard work, however, they are much more likely to establish consistent practice patterns than a student of Joseph’s age. What happens when a talented person works hard and regularly? I’ve been surprised to discover that their progress is often not spectacular at first. I’ve seen dazzling spurts of ability, seeming to come out of nowhere, that settle into a battle to recapture those glorious but elusive moments.

An emotional roller coaster can follow, until student and teacher realize that the same hard work, the same slow, persistent practice, is required for greater talent as for lesser. The difference is that less gifted students usually struggle harder and have to wait longer for spectacular moments, achieve fewer of these spikes, and their spikes are often shorter in height. But the general pattern of musical progress seems to be about the same.

The jagged shape of the most talented students’ learning curves surprised me before I’d taught enough of these high-ability people to observe what they actually need to do. I’d begun my career thinking that the lucky few who display quick facility with one or more components of cello technique possessed that same level of specific ability every day. Therefore, I assumed they just wouldn’t have to practice as hard as do the rest of us.

I was mostly wrong. Even prodigious ability comes and goes; waxes and wanes at first; until steady work hammers it into place. Where talent seems to “tell” is in the ultimately faster progress and greater depth achieved at a younger age by the genius who works hard.

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Good practice habits alone could have helped Joseph to develop his musical talent

Joseph, my talented high school student, went on to college before I could get him to change his deficient work habits. His undeveloped musical talent showed itself in the widely varying levels of skill within his technique: for example, his quick mental grasp of the fingerboard made music-reading and etude-learning easy for him, but his tone production lagged far behind. Overall, his playing was not nearly as good as it could have been, and did not reflect his superior innate ability.

What might have happened if Joseph had learned how to work hard? Through a mere two hours of practice per day—a lot for a high school student, but not much for a serious performer—he could have dedicated a small percentage of that time to consistent work on bow technique (tone production), another segment to shifting (moving the left hand from one place to another along the fingerboard), and yet another to drilling finger patterns.

These and other skills would have been difficult for him to master at first, as they are for all cellists, but his talent would probably have helped him to synthesize his technique more rapidly than other students could. Then the superior ability he’d obviously been born with would have shone clearly.

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Undeveloped talent: “I can’t remember the last time I had to study for a test.”

Joseph, the student who could easily see the cello fingerboard in his head after hardly any practice, came to my studio when he was a high school junior. With only two years in which to influence him, I always felt like I was observing his talent more than I was teaching him.

I quickly learned that he had no idea how to practice. This is fairly normal, but when high school-aged students don’t know how to practice, it’s usually because they lack experience, coming to private cello lessons somewhat late in the game.

Joseph’s problem was different. He had no practice skills because he had no work or study habits of any kind. He clearly had a high IQ, and his teachers, fellow students, and parents knew it. He’d probably been ready for college-level work by his early teens, but had never skipped a grade. Once, when we were talking about his school experiences, he told me, “I can’t remember the last time I had to study for a test.”

That was when I saw a likely reason that he couldn’t buckle down and practice. More than eleven years of academic coasting had robbed him of his birthright to be challenged, and to struggle to master worthwhile concepts and skills.

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Having talent versus developing it

Talented people display innate ability, often from an early age, for an activity or academic subject that most others struggle with. Through years of cello teaching, I noticed these students because they could do certain things much more easily than their peers.

For example, most of my intermediate and advanced students labored over etudes by David Popper, a standard part of the cello curriculum designed to teach and reinforce “fingerboard geography.” With this skill, cellists know where the notes are on a given string—and which notes are in similar locations on the neighboring strings.

One young man in particular, Joseph, seemed to have an image-making machine in his brain that showed him the notes all over the cello fingerboard. He grasped these spatial relationships much earlier in the process—perhaps twenty to fifty times faster—than did my other students. This outstanding raw ability is a classic example of talent.

Next: What did Joseph do with his musical talent?

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What might have helped Writer B?

My acquaintance with Writer B taught me that a gift such as his must be guarded, nurtured, and if possible, developed with the most special care a parent or mentor can give.

Had things been different for Writer B, his path might have been influenced by early, sustained guidance of the right sort. A wise and trusted mentor, if Writer B had found such a miracle soon enough in his development, may have succeeded in guiding him, or at least convincing him that brilliant flashes did not preclude “homework.” In Writer B’s case, we will never know, but for other such writers, found or noticed at an earlier stage, there is hope.

Unlike my realization of what could have helped Writer A in the current moment of his struggle, I saw no present solution for Writer B. He was in his late fifties when he took early retirement, and his habits and thought patterns were probably set. They appeared so to me, at least in regard to his writing life. I could never convince him that journal writing or practice writing might propel him into the momentum that possibly could have launched him into the flow of his novel and kept him going.

It was obvious to me that Writer B’s total output was likely to remain small: How many flashes of inspiration can one person expect in a lifetime? The stress and intensity of too many, too close together, could burn the writer out.

I began by feeling like Writer B was way ahead of me, in talent and also in creative process. His writing was much better than mine. His moments of brilliance outshone and outpaced my few sparks a hundred-fold. However, late in my acquaintance with Writer B, I began to feel that his gift was in the process of becoming a crippling handicap.

I wrote often or regularly and expected little from a given writing session—even after I became a published, paid writer. I just wrote. Sometimes it was fun; at others, homework. I’d felt like a plodder most of my life, in music as in writing, so I didn’t know another way to move forward.

If my hopes or expectations were out of line with reality, I discovered this, became discouraged, and eventually resumed plodding. Years of this habit trained me to a high tolerance for my slow pace. In the final analysis, this may have put me ahead of Writer B, although his was the greater talent.

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What was holding Writer B back?

Writer B’s desire for fun in his writing was entirely legitimate, I felt. Fun was my own primary motivation for both cello playing and writing—my lifelong passions. Furthermore, if these activities are nothing but drudgery, your audience will sense it and disappear.

Therefore, I thought I understood why Writer B didn’t want his writing process to feel like homework. However, I had not learned to play the cello well by devoting all my practice sessions to fun. My skill in writing was also hard-won, requiring years of work—often unrewarding in the short run.

Writer B and I had discussed the hard-work element of the creative process many times and agreed it was unavoidable. Just to deepen the mystery from my perspective, Writer B was no stranger to “grunt work;” he’d done the work of at least three people in his job, and was always first in line to accomplish the most undesirable component of any volunteer project he was involved in.

Therefore, why did he resist the grunt-work he must have known his novel would require? Was it because a high percentage of his past writing had been, as he termed it, “taking dictation?” I had no idea; I could only speculate.

If writing, to Writer B, meant sudden brilliant flashes; a whole poem, nearly a whole short story, to be captured at the moment or not at all, how could he have developed a tolerance for hours of drudgery? Maybe he hadn’t. There appeared to be little or no precedent in his writing life for any chance to develop this valuable, if prosaic, skill.

If this was in fact the reason why Writer B couldn’t get going on his novel—more than seven years after he retired—was there any hope for his project?

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Writer B: A case of writer’s block?

The years rolled on; Writer B typed his notes; researched the historical setting of his novel; and sometimes—not often—filled in little written patches of the whole picture. As I listened to this saga of detours, or so it seemed to me, I saw that these preparations were necessary to Writer B. But I couldn’t help noticing how little he was writing.

I felt that the projected length and scope of the story required intensive writing and revising, and that this work alone would take years. I struggled to understand and respect his unique work process, but finally I said, “Hadn’t you better just start writing? Sure, it’ll feel chaotic, and you might have to put your beginning through multiple drafts. But eventually you’ll see which way to take your plot, and then you’ll get some momentum and be able to keep on going, beginning to end.” I decided not to point out that the first draft of the whole book would also require multiple revisions.

I half-expected him to reply with his usual description of his work process: “filling in [the picture] here and there.” Instead, he said, “Yeah, but if I go at it that way, it’ll feel like homework, and I want it to be fun.”

After weeks of pondering this answer and other traits of Writer B, I finally saw a possible connection between his self-imposed delays and those wondrous flashes of inspiration that were nearly the sum of his writing life.

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Writer B’s lightning bolts of inspiration: hindrance or help?

As my conversations with Writer B progressed, I began to see how his lightning bolts of inspiration could hinder as well as help him. His few poems and stories were almost all little gems, and I was happy for him that he could apparently pluck excellent work out of the air.

Furthermore, when he wasn’t writing (“taking dictation” was his description), he was often being blitzed by ideas and insights. These were miniature lightning bolts, which he worked diligently to capture.

After he retired, he first began to organize his voluminous handwritten notes—all those ideas and insights—by typing them into his computer so that he could quickly search them. This huge task required years, however, he thought it should precede most of his writing on the first draft of his novel.

This seemed logical to me, since he’d often told me that the novel was to incorporate his lifetime’s worth of reading and thinking. Two or three years went by, and the only progress Writer B reported on his actual writing was, “I see things all in a whole, like a painting, so when I write, I fill in a little here, and a little more there.”

Occasionally he mentioned that he didn’t yet see how to start, nor how to escape mere “talking heads” that weren’t characters, but a thin cover for his message. This stage continued so long that I began to wonder if he was ever going to progress beyond it.

Then came the conversation, similar to my moment of revelation about Writer A’s central struggle, in which I began to understand what was probably holding Writer B back.

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