ARE YOU JUST BORN WITH NATURAL TALENT OR CAN ANYONE BE A GREAT SINGER BALL PLAYER OR CHESS MASTER?

My voice teacher always spoke about how anyone can become a great singer with good training, practice and passion. This was particularly inspiring to me since when I started I had what many would consider no natural talent for singing. I was a songwriter and really just wanted to be able to sing my songs well and didn't even know if that was a possibility. Many years and thousands of hours of obsessive practice later I sing at a professional level, get paid to sing every week, and have a back catalog of original music that has gotten very good reviews by publications as well as international fans thanks to the technology of internet radio. After struggling for years slowly and arduously going from bad, to less bad, to passable, to actually pretty darn good, one comment I now hear regularly is, "you're so lucky, you obviously were born with talent and a voice". And I kind of laugh because, little do they know. When I started I was told by detractors, you are born with "it" or you aren't and you just weren't. You can imagine how deflating this can be. I had to go on nothing but pure faith that maybe they are wrong but having no way of proving it, at least not for a few years of giving 100%. But when I did practice and give 100% I did notice that I saw improvement. Miniscule very gradual improvement. But I did the math. If I keep doing this and it keeps getting a little better, well eventually it has to get good. Eventually may be a frustratingly long time but I was truly determined and passionate so that didn't matter. All that mattered was that it was possible to achieve and if it was I would do whatever it took. And I'm still always trying to get just a little better. It's a wonderful feeling to know you can perform something today they you couldn't last month, or perform something better now than you did a year ago. It's an exciting journey. I don't see anyone getting very good without this perspective of constantly wanting to improve. 

The good news is anyone can be great. The bad news, if you want to call it, that is most people that say they would do anything to be able to play for the Yankees, or sing like their favorite singer really wouldn't do what it really takes when the chips are down. But for those who truly mean it, there is hope, and hard evidence. 

My voice teacher's point was not just some anecdotal comment to inspire confidence. In Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers" he looks at several studies as well as well known masters in a wide variety of fields to determine what really makes the difference for one person to be truly exceptional and stand out from the merely very good. 

He references one scientific study that looked for these factors in excellence in all areas including academics, sports, music, etc. (The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance - K. Anders Ericsson American Psychological Association 1993) Contrary to much traditional wisdom the results of the study found virtually no correlation between achieving excellence and innate talent, heredity, etc. None. 

The single significant and consistent factor that resulted in mastery in a field was consistent, deliberate practice. The correlation had no exceptions. None. Even more specifically it found that all those at master level had consistently about 10,000+ hours of practice. In a study of musicians, those that were merely good but had careers as performers had about 8,000 hours of practice, and those that were mediocre and didn't perform for a living had about 4,000 hours. They then expanded the study to other areas and found the correlation again and again. 

The study could not find Any "naturals", musicians who floated to the top effortlessly while practicing a fraction of the time of their peers did. Nor could they find Any "grinds" people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn't have what it takes to break the top ranks. The findings were very consistent and incontrovertible. 

The only major factor that separated those at various levels of ability was amount of deliberate quality practice, without exception. 

One neurologist, Daniel Levitin, wrote "... Ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert-in anything" "In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again.. but no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery". 

But certainly there are some exceptions such as child genius prodigies like Mozart or Bobby Fisher, right? Wrong. In "Outliers" Gladwell notes that even Mozart who is often cited as a legendary musical "genius" and "child prodigy" was no exception to this rule. He states that Mozart's early works were essentially arrangements of works from other composers and his earliest work to actually be considered a masterwork was composed at the age of 21, only after he had been composing concertos for 10 years and well past the 10,000 hour mark. Mozart didn't produce his greatest works until after he had been composing for 20 years! Technically this might even qualify him as a late bloomer. 

Bobby Fisher another "child prodigy", remarkably, a chess grand-master at 15, might sound like an exception, a "prodigy", or a "natural". But he started very early at age 6 so by the time he achieved grand master level he had been playing obsessively for 9 years. One could estimate this would add up to the golden number of 10,000 hours of practice time. 

Here's another even more musically appropriate example as referenced in the Gladwell book. The Beatles, as teenagers between 1960-1962 played in Hamburg regularly. To clarify "regularly", they would play 7 nights a week 5-8 hours a night for a total of 270 performances in a year and a half. By early in their success 1964 they had already been together for about 7 years, and had performed about 1200 times. By the time they had created Sgt. Pepper, arguably their greatest work, they had been together for 10 years. One biographer noted, "They had to learn an enormous amount of numbers-cover versions of everything you can think of, not just rock and roll, a bit of jazz too. They weren't disciplined onstage at all before that, But when they came back, they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them." This is a far cry from your typical local artist performing 45 minute original set a few times a year and expecting to make it big somehow. 

So next time you are whining about why have I not been discovered yet or think that waiting on line for hours for some audition qualifies you for stardom do the math. How much time have you spent not singing into the mirror with a hairbrush, or jamming to the radio. But real practice. I met one renowned classical pianist and when I mentioned practicing 8 hours a day, she laughed and said "8, try 12." Playing was her life, not just what she did. That dedication only comes from true burning love and passion for your craft, no other motivation comes close. So, "Either you have the passion or you don't" is really what the conventional wisdom should espouse. If you don't then find the field that you do have it for. It is the only way you will find greatness, because it's the only way you will have the motivation to do what is necessary to become great. Do you want it this bad? Few are willing to put in all the real hours, but for those that do, be sure, they earned it. If you truly do have that burning desire then what are you doing here? Start adding up your hours!

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