The Dark Side of Mastery

Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell, most of us have heard of the so-called “10,000 hour rule,” which posits that an individual must invest approximately 10,000 hours of deliberate, focused practice in order to master a complex skill (i.e. trumpet playing). Visit the business section of any major bookstore and you’ll find titles such as The Talent Code (Daniel Coyle); Talent is Overrated (Geoff Colvin); The Little Book of Talent (also Daniel Coyle); Mastery (Robert Greene); The Sports Gene (David Epstein) (which contests the 10,000 hour rule); and, of course, Gladwell’s Outliers, which popularized Anders Ericsson’s original study on this topic.* Clearly, our society is interested in mastery and how to achieve it.

Most people’s idea of mastery goes something like this: “Wow, that performance was stunning! I wish I could sing/play/act/paint/write/vault/figure skate like that!!” Some of these people are young enough, optimistic enough, wealthy enough, or desperate enough to take immediate steps in the service of such a goal, and some will actually achieve mastery in the areas that capture their interest–perhaps with the help of the aforementioned books. But then they will encounter a looming question: now what? Having finally achieved mastery, what comes next?

In some art forms, this answer is a matter of inspiration. A master photographer, artist, or writer casts a wide net in search of stimulating new subject matter, but might deviate from her chosen path for a time in order to come back refreshed. But a musician–particularly a classically-trained musician–must discover new inspiration without the benefit of a sabbatical. Here, mastery depends upon fine motor skills requiring the coordination and conditioning of an athlete, and these skills require daily reinforcement. Yet unlike the athlete who retires at forty, most classical musicians attempt to sustain this intensity over the course of a lifetime, without allowing their performances to become uninspired. In many ways, therefore, the musician who does not constantly seek to progress beyond his current level of mastery is, in fact, regressing.

This realization represents the most significant lesson I have learned after a semester at Ball State. For the first year, or maybe two, I could probably manage my job without incident on the strength of what I already know. But to sustain an entire career–to educate class after class of students who will pose basically the same sorts of pedagogical problems–to accomplish this feat without sliding into mindlessness, I must find ways to challenge not only my students but also myself.

There is at least one question that every music student, and particularly every high school senior who wants to major in music, should consider: what is it about this field that will captivate your interest for the duration of the time you want to be involved in it? I used to think that mastery would be enough, because after all you can never master the trumpet, not really. But then I reached the point where I realized, not that my playing was perfect (far from it), but that the process of acquiring mastery was no longer mysterious. This bothered me. I could see the long string of practice sessions that would lead to, say, more vibrancy on a high C, and I found that the process of acquiring that vibrancy no longer interested me on an intellectual level (though it certainly still mattered to me on a musical level). So the process of figuring out how to play the trumpet was no longer a compelling reason to practice.

For many years (including most of my doctorate degree), I wrestled with this issue. I had realized that I loved the problem-solving aspect of practicing, but I was running out of problems for which I didn’t have a solution. (Again, this doesn’t mean I had fully executed the solutions, just that I had studied the road maps.) My biggest problem was, in fact, my lack of nice, juicy puzzles.

I worried that this paradox would compromise my teaching, especially because college professors face tremendous temptation to skimp on their practice sessions. (After all, we have complete control over most of our repertoire choices, and can choose not to program anything that might expose our shortcomings.) But when I got to Ball State I started noticing something strange: the more hours I taught, the deeper my appreciation for great recordings. And while I have always appreciated great trumpet playing, I suddenly found myself much more interested in the precision of the orchestra, the composer’s use of timbre, the shifting harmonies and the colors they evoked. Did this mean I would rather listen than practice? No. Quite the contrary.

Music can be its own inspiration. There is a kind of big-picture puzzle that has started to occupy my interest: what is the sweep of our industry, over time, and how does the trumpet fit into that tapestry? And what music do I want to advance in my own lifetime that will contribute to this progression? It turns out that a large portion of this music is, for the moment, collaborative; a good rehearsal with the Da Camera Brass Quintet or the Muncie Symphony suddenly feels like a drink of cool water. And this realization makes me see that perhaps the quest for mastery has been, for me, a rather self-serving quest. Perhaps self-centeredness is endemic to the process; indeed, there would be no mastery without those 10,000 lonely hours. But perhaps mastery has layers. And perhaps the next layer depends upon the inspiration that comes from other people.

I do not mean to imply that collaboration is the fount of all creativity. As an introvert at heart, I tend to side with Susan Cain’s wonderful book Quiet, which speaks to the power of solitude and private contemplation. But each of us craves collaboration or solitude to differing degrees in different stages of life, and perhaps my musical life has reached a stage that requires increased interaction with my colleagues. Regardless, I offer these reflections not to suggest that my students should draw the same conclusions or even ask the same questions, but to suggest that mastery is but a frail goal on its own. It needs to exist in the service of something greater than itself, or it will be short-lived. And for this reason, perhaps we would all do well to step back from time to time to consider our work on the macro level, to prioritize the questions that are substantial enough to sustain us through decades of practice and performance. I am not particularly interested in the vibrancy of my high C for its own sake, or mine, any more. But great music is meant to impact an audience–and sometimes this impact requires a particular type of C.


* Of this batch, my personal favorite is Coyle’s Little Book of Talent, though I have not read the Greene or Epstein books.