One of the big questions asked at last night’s Tiger Mother discussion was, “how many hours should my child be practicing?” That depends on 1) the level of proficiency you want them to achieve and 2) how quickly you want them to reach that level.
Vague enough for you?
I’ve put together some ideas below to help parents make that decision. I can poke holes all over these guidelines because so many stars need to align for certain outcomes. I think, however, even if this guide is not accurate, it is much more helpful than an attitude of “let’s practice however long Hudson will sit still for today and just see what happens.”
Research shows that achieving mastery at a skill takes approximately 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Much of the time spent in rehearsals, performances and games cannot count as “deliberate practice”, though lessons generally do. Deliberate practice is focused practice in which you’re improving technique and/or getting stronger. Deliberate practice is full of finite goals and skill drills rather than mindlessly playing “Go Team Go” over and over again with one eye on the clock, then adding ten minutes to however long you’ve played and asking your mom to write you the practice note–to herself, the band teacher. (Yes, folks. That is how I became an indifferent trombonist.)
But what does that 10,000 hours figure mean?
One hour of practice each day of your life = mastery achieved in a little less than 30 years.
Two hours of practice each day = mastery achieved in about 20 years.
Three hours of practice each day = mastery achieved in about 10 years.
One hour per day
If you start practicing an instrument or a sport at age 5 and give it one hour per day of deliberate practice, you could master the skill by age 35. That’s way too late to be in professional sports since your physical body peaks much earlier. Thirty-five is also usually too late to start a musical career for most instruments, though not impossible. Also, how likely is it that you’re going to keep up the hour-per-day pace during college, a mission, or as you’re starting your career and family? Chances are, if you practice one hour per day, you will crap out well shy of mastery.
Let’s be honest though, an hour a day is a lot of practice. Even if you don’t become an expert or a master, you can do some pretty amazing things if you practice an hour per day. Here are just some of the many possibilities for someone who practices an hour a day from early childhood through highschool (let’s guess 3500-5000 hours of practice):
- play varsity highschool sports
- play college sports
- play the lead in a highschool musical
- be cast in college shows and operas
- sing in a great college choir, even be a soloist
- play in a great college orchestra, even be a soloist
- be an excellent ward pianist or organist and a bang-up accompanist
- play or sing for weddings
- play or sing for sacrament meetings, activities and other church performances
- coach amateur teams
- teach beginning students (You’re not going to make millions, but this is definitely a marketable skill.)
- play or sing in community choirs, orchestras, and theatrical performances
- coach or teach your children
- eventually become a Grand Master at Chess
- win on Jeopardy
Two hours per day
If you start practicing at this pace at age 5 (usually there is a slope of starting with a shorter time when very young and gradually building up to more than 2 hours per day), you could master a skill by age 25! (And that’s when people start saying, mastery is only the beginning…sigh.) Again, this is still too late forelite professional sports, but many, many musicians reach their professional careers at this pace. Some even go on to be stars. You may or may not achieve mastery, but you could do some spectacular things, especially if you keep practicing through college. In addition to everything above, you might find you could:
- get a music or sports scholarship to college
- sing and/or dance on Broadway
- join a professional orchestra or chorus
- teach intermediate and advanced students
- coach higher level amateur teams
- play in the Minor Leagues
- concertize as a soloist
- be hired by a composer who has signed with a label to record his music
- make money at Scrabble tournaments
- make a career out of your skill
Three or more hours per day
This is the pace that produces prodigies, people who have banked their 10,000 hours of deliberate practice while still in their teens. It is also the level of commitment most athletes need to make in order for their skill level peak at the same time their body does. This is the investment that the Tiger Mother made to get Sophia from her first piano lessons as a toddler to Carnegie Hall at age 14. This is the pace (4-6 hours per day, actually) at which Kent’s father worked from age 5 to age 16 when he became a concert violinist touring South America as a soloist. If you are blessed with a high level of natural ability and you practice at this pace, you might:
- make the Olympic gymnastics team
- play Carnegie Hall
- sing at the Met
- be a professional ballerina
- teach professionals
- play professional sports
- coach professional sports
- be a conductor
- compete in the National Spelling Bee
- be a professional video game player
A note on practicing singing: you cannot practice your arias 4 hours a day or you won’t be able to sing the next day. As a professional singer you will need to know music theory as well as French, German and Italian. Generally, you begin serious vocal training only after going through puberty, so you have a lot of early years to be learning musicianship that you will later apply to your voice. Your daily practice routine as a singer will include a whole lot of non-singing activities such as language study, ear training, speaking in rhythm, practicing the piano, memorization, translation, mental practice, and active listening.I’m told that training in other instruments and in sports is similarly varied. Each activity that makes you better at your target skill counts toward deliberate practice.For more information, see the research of K. Anders Ericsson on the acquisition of excellence in the arts, sciences, sports and games. You may also have heard of Gladwell’s popular book, Outliers, which explores the same ideas in a very accessible way. And if you really want to tear the mask off those geniuses, prodigees and phenoms to expose them for what they really are–practicers, studiers, and worker bees!–read Colvin’s Talent is Overrated.One final note on practicing: the average American watches four hours of TV per day. I’m just sayin’.