Most of us have heard or read Malcom Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers in which he lays out his “10,000” hour “theory” claiming that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. I’ve read this book and I have to say that his theory, at least in the way it’s presented, is convincing. I’ve also heard other teachers refer to the “10,000” hour rule specifically. So much so that over the last several years I’ve made regular mental notes to myself noting that it seems to be catching on, this theory of his.

Many, many times, I’ve talked to my students about the importance of practicing… a lot. Blaming practice, and a relentless work ethic for a good part of the success I’ve had. But more recent research is debunking this theory (for some individuals). And, thanks to Greg Zuber for posting this article in my Facebook news feed, drawing attention to a New York Times piece drawing a similar conclusion.

To quote this article directly: “Driving another nail in the practice coffin, a different recent study suggests that even years of work may not make up for tone-deaf genes.” I think it’s common knowledge that there can be some genetic component to successful musicians (my Mother, Father, brother, and yes, 1st cousin are/were all professional musicians). This we’ve always known as being mostly true. But, as an educator charged with mentoring college level students I think it important to ask a few questions.

As educators charged with building up and teaching the next generations music performers and educators how can we better identify students who are more likely to be successful? This would surely involve evaluating not only talent (the main way we audition/evaluate currently), but work ethic and family history as well. All of us know how important a good balance of talent and worth ethic is, but, is there a better mechanism that we can use to judge a students overall work ethic and artistic family history? Don’t we as educators need to take more responsibility for supporting (or not supporting) a students future in music? It’s a can of worms, but I often struggle with the college freshman in Texas who has been so involved in band in high school and knows “that world” so well that that defines what being a musician is. When that student learns in college that he can’t necessarily make a living performing in marching band, drum corps, or a concert band his reasons for doing music often have to be redefined. But, when this happens, this individual is already knee deep in an expensive college experience.

Perhaps the system as it stands is somewhat self regulating; meaning that those who are really meant to perform or teach music find a way to sift through the murkiness of the high school and college system and those who aren’t simply drop out. I’m simply asking, based on more recent research (and theories), can we do our job better to help serve these students? What is the balance between talent and work ethic and family history? What, if any importance, do you put on these theories and studies? Leave your thoughts to the many questions below the post.

Dave Gerhart

Dave Gerhart

Dr. Dave Gerhart, Product Manager, Percussion for Yamaha Corporation of America and Lecturer of Percussion at the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music at CSU, Long Beach, is a nationally recognized performer, composer, and educator. Dr. Gerhart, originally from Fairfield, California, holds a D.M.A. from the University of Southern California, M.M. in Percussion Performance and Instrumental Conducting and a B.M. in Music Education from California State University, Long Beach.
Dave Gerhart

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