10,000 times and counting

October 6, 2010 at 10:10 pm | Posted in Short Blogs | 4 Comments
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I was working with a piano student this afternoon, going over a passage that challenged her fingers a little.  “Just practice this section about a million times!” was my prescription.  We laughed.  And suddenly I remembered how, years ago, our family explored what it is to do something a million times.

We were driving in the car and someone must have said something about a million – maybe it was Chloe wondering what it was like to have a million of something she wanted, or perhaps a character from one of our books-on-tape said something about a million.  I will have to ask Chloe, because she may remember.  (Rachel was too young at the time.)  Anyway, we set about figuring out how long it would take to count to a million.  I have to admit that the math was way beyond our two daughters at the time, but it was a fun exercise nevertheless.  I have no memory of even a wild estimate.  But I do remember that we had to time ourselves counting pretty far in order to come up with a guess.  And of course it is way faster to say “one” and “fourteen” and even “seven hundred twenty-three” than it is to say “eight hundred seventy-six thousand five hundred eighty-one,” and there are definitely more of the latter than of the former.  So we had to take that into account, and somehow we arrived at our version of an answer.

Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, who developed the Suzuki pedagogy for violin, said that knowledge alone does not equal ability.  “Knowledge plus 10,000 times,” he claimed, is what produces ability.  Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Outliers says that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to develop extraordinary ability.  So though my recommendation to my student is obviously an exaggeration (and goodness knows how long it would have taken her to follow it to the letter – but I’m not going to go there!) it is more on track than off.

It makes me wonder how many hours I have actually put into violin or piano over the course of my lifetime.  And what else have I repeated enough times to be able to put it in the category of expertise?  What internal tapes have I replayed that many times?  What knee-jerk reactions?  And what have I cultivated, as opposed to enacting by default?

I will have to get back to you on this one.




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  1. Someone has figured (I checked the math and think they are right) that if you had begun counting one, two, etc, one number per second, at the start of recorded history, you would not yet have reached a number as large as our national debt. Maybe the Republicans have a point about that. I just don’t like the ways they want to fix it. I’m not paying enough taxes — it is not enough that my children (if I had any) are adequately educated, or that I have adequate health coverage that I can afford. We have to find a way for everyone to have that. And we have to maintain our infrastructure — it is the foundation of the economy. We can’t recover economically or prosper without it. Maybe we are spending money on frivilous stuff like studies of ground squirrels, but proportonally, if we eliminated all of it tomorrow, it wouldn’t buy us very much. I think I read somewhere though that we could provide a college education to every high school senior for the cost of one stealth bomber.

  2. Hmmm… you have me thinking about all of my bad habits here, and how many times I’ve practiced them! I wonder if this means that I’ll have to put my shoes away in the hall closet 10,000 times before I’ll actually be any good at it!

  3. I’m so glad I didn’t know about the 10,000 hours figure when I started learning to play. It’s pretty daunting if you break it down into hours per week that you can practice, then work out how many years it will take….


  4. We used to do “mental math” on car trips with our sons, calculating without writing anything down, how many seconds are in a year.
    Or how many inches are in the Chesapeake Bay coastline (which is over 700 miles – longer than California’s!).
    It’s great practice!

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