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  • Nick Drozdoff

You Can Achieve Anything You Set Your Mind To: Age Is Meaningless

This article is as much about learning and goal setting as it is about trumpet playing. I will approach the blog from the point of view of a seasoned professional trumpeter, but these ideas can be applied to any area of endeavor.

I have posted discussions about this or interacted with other posts on the subject. The subject is that of so called prodigies. A similar topic is that of "being gifted." Finally, the concept of "genius" is needed to round out the discussion.

I have come to some conclusions, personally, based on things I have read and experienced. I know many folks may disagree in part or completely with these ideas. I personally choose to just go with the evidence gathered by experts. Some of their conclusions seem counterintuitive, but the evidence they gathered supports their findings or they certainly wouldn't have published.

There are two books I've read on the subject: "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell and "Peak" by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. The more rigorous is "Peak". Gladwell actually cites the work of Ericsson and Bloom in his more popular book.

It is from the work cited by the above researchers that we hear of the so called "10,000 hour rule" - a so called rule that says if you put in at least 10,000 hours working to develop a specific skill you will become a world class expert in that skill. This is grossly oversimplified, but in essence, this is backed by their research.

The oversimplification is in the notion that just by mindlessly repeating some action for 10,000 hours you will join the ranks of the world class elite. THAT is not true. Particularly Ericsson and Bloom go into great deal of detail about "focused practice." Let me summarize what they mean by that.

When you practice trumpet, for example, in order to properly apply the ideas you must make sure that your practice is undisturbed, undistracted, and specifically goal oriented. It should be highly organized. If you make a mistake or hit a road block, you must think through the techniques you need to develop to get past them and then assiduously and carefully address those techniques. In music, much slow practice and much repetition is involved but with controls introduced to enhance development.

I have read that Rafael Mendez (on of the most brilliant technicians of the trumpet) used to practice things at half tempo with a metronome and wouldn't the metronome up a notch until he had played it many (legend has it at 100 repetitions) times flawlessly at that slow tempo. Then he'd move the metronome up one notch and repeat the process. Itzhak Perlman has been quoted similarly. Clearly this is a very focused and concentrated form of practice with a goal of perfection in mind. Once you embark on this routine, you'll quickly find that you get totally drawn into the work and will be total focused on all of the tactile kinetic requirements to achieve the goal.

In practicing trumpet, there are form issues about the use of embouchure, use of air and body in playing. These will need to be addressed in a focused manner, as well. A good example of a book that addresses this is Carmine Caruso's "Musical Calisthenics for Brass." Another example is Robert Glasel's "Trumpet Relaxation Studies." These books force you to focus very specifically on adjusting your form and using your body in specific ways to achieve a goal.

The point is, random non-directional practice, even if done over 10,000 hours isn't likely to advance you to world class status. Your practice must be totally goal oriented with a clear plan on achieving those goals. Furthermore, record keeping about your hours and practice will help keep you on target, as well. I keep an Excel Spreadsheet on my computer and iPad with 64 specifically targeted exercises I strive to cover each week. I have embedded timings into the spread sheet so that I can keep careful track of how much time I devote to any one exercise.

Now, I want to interject something I picked up from jazz piano educator, Alan Swain. He pointed out to me that, sometimes it is a good idea to focus on only one or two things, as opposed to many, and get those down pat, before adding more. I totally agree with this. However, in my current work I take a slightly different, yet parallel track. I have many facets I am working on. I've just accepted that my progress will be slower on any one aspect, and may not be evenly distributed across the spread sheet. That is OK. Patience as well as persistence is part of this way of thinking.

So to get back to the topics suggested in the opening paragraphs. I do't like the word "talent." I don't like the concept of "gifted." Ericsson and Bloom researched many so called gifted violinists in European conservatories and compared them to "just ok or good" violinists. The only difference they could find was the amount of FOCUSED PRACTICE done by the so called brilliant talents as opposed to the ordinary.

Furthermore, there is no evidence to any sort of "genetic gift" for making music, or in any of the areas they studied (including mathematics). It is simply a matter of hard work.

So how does this apply to the concept of "genius?" I would argue, that "genius" is just another facet of "gifted" or "talented." The legendary physicist, Richard Feynman, in his own biography and in the James Gleick book, "Genius" is known for his brilliance in problem solving. Well, he WORKED at it. He is cited as always working more problems than required in his classes; if his teacher assigned the odds, he'd work ALL of the evens as well. He PRACTICED it, just like a musician. He even taught himself Portuguese and how to play percussion instruments in a similar fashion.

There is a scene in Clint Eastwood's biopic, "Bird" where an alto player is in a club hearing Charlie Parker just tearing things up in weaving a be-bop tapestry of notes. He walked out of the club and over to a bridge and tossed his own saxophone into the Hudson River in frustration as if to say, "I could never achieve that, so I give up."

This is where the work of Ericsson and Bloom gives us ALL hope. Once you properly control variables (an important concept here) ANYONE can achieve ANYTHING at a world class level simply by embracing hard work and highly focused practice.

The good news gets even better. This is NOT AGE DEPENDENT! We are all aware of you kids achieving amazing things. Often folks mistakenly call them "prodigies" and "gifted" but when you actually dig down into their experiences (as Ericsson and Bloom DID), you find that these kids, in fact DID put in thousands of hours of focused practice. On the other end of the spectrum, being older does NOT exclude you from the same abilities. One of their case studies was a senior citizen who was determined to get his black belt in Karate. He successfully applied the ideas of focused practice.

To summarize the "good news portion:" There are no limits to what you can achieve if you work diligently at a goal - none. Your age is not a real limitation. Your gender is not a limitation. It is all a matter of hard work. To that somewhat apocryphal player tossing his horn into the Hudson after hearing Bird play, I would say, "Hey, man! Don't do this. Rather than be discouraged, be inspired! You can do it, too. You just need to work as hard as Bird does, but there is nothing to stop you from doing just that." Don't forget, Charlie Parker DID work at it.

I want to circle back to the age thing for a minute. I am now officially a senior citizen. I have run into peers who say "I'm getting to old for this," or "This is a young man's (or woman's) game." They then use this as an excuse to hang up their efforts. I have peers who have let their playing atrophy as they "gain seasoning." To all of you who might think this way: STOP IT! This is the epitome of a self fulfilling prophecy. Like the senior Karate student of Ericsson and Bloom, keep practicing and most importantly, keep striving to make PROGRESS! No matter how good you are there are still things to learn. That is what makes all of this music study so exciting. It should never get old.

Finally, instead of saying a brilliant musician is "talented" or "gifted," I wold say they are "accomplished." I don't think we do them justice to just chalk them up as being somehow lucky enough to have a 'gift.' I know folks personally who are truly world class players and every single one of them works at it. It doesn't just come out of nowhere and I feel it pays them more respect to recognize their hard work.

Just don't forget: we all can do this!

Here are the books referenced.

Now, if you are reading this, you made it through the post. Thanks! I hope you'll consider subscribing to my blog. If you found this interesting, please read the blogs in the archives. I also hope you'll consider supporting my work. As the blog evolves and as I get ready to launch my podcast later this summer and as I continue to record audio and video, please remember, I am totally self funded. If you enjoy my music and have benefited in some way from reading the blogs and or watching the videos, please consider a donation to the cause. I am seeking advertisers and backers, but every individual can contribute in some way. No donation is too small, and no donation is too large! ;-) This is tantamount to digitally passing the hat on a no cover gig, but so be it. If you wish to make a contribution, just use and send your tip/donation to me via Paypal.

Respectfully submitted:

Nick Drozdoff

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