10,000 hours - as told by jazz musicians

4 minute read


In a 1993 paper by Anders Ericsson, he was one of the first to make the claim that mastery of a skill took around 10 years (about 10,000 hours) of deliberate practice.

In most domains of expertise, individuals begin in their childhood a regimen of effortful activities (deliberate practice) designed to optimize improvement. Individual differences, even among elite performers, are closely related to assessed amounts of deliberate practice. Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years. http://projects.ict.usc.edu/itw/gel/EricssonDeliberatePracticePR93.PDF

Whilst most people reading this will probably be fellow computer programmers clicking around from my other posts, I’m also a jazz guitar nut and have been for some time. I thought it would be fun to look at quotes from jazz players to see what they can tell us about getting better at something.

Whilst lots of people subscribe to the “talent” theory of development, that dream for me died a long time ago. Instead I feel like the stories of excellence (particularly in jazz) almost always have these common themes:

  • starting young
  • taking lessons with a good teacher early in their development
  • some period of intense practice, especially for those with great chops (technique)
  • lots and lots and lots of gigs

Let’s see some quotes to back that up!

Joe Pass

Was guitar playing easy for you in the beginning?

I guess it came sort of easy for me; I have certain difficulties, not a lot. But you’ve got to remember that I grew up playing the guitar. I started when I was nine, and by the time I was nine and a half or ten, I was doing seven or eight hours’ practice every day. I did two hours’ practice at six o’clock in the morning before I went to school, and another two hours as soon as I got home from school in the afternoon. Then I did four hours at night before I went to bed.

I did that until I was fourteen or fifteen. I didn’t like it - I hated it, but my father was very firm about it; he saw a little something happening, so he figured he’d just push. I don’t remember too much how I felt about it except that I’d rather be outside playing ball and things. I never could ride a bike, like even today I can’t do these things. Joe Pass Interview Guitar Magazine in June 1974

8 hours a day for five years, all before the age of 15!

But one wouldn’t recognise any resemblance between your playing and Django’s,

Well I never copied him. I don’t remember that I copied any guitar player note-for-note. But I remember copying Charlie Parker note for note.

I’ve transcribed one Charlie Parker solo for guitar, and that stuff is hard!

George Benson

I’m writing this in 2014, a year that, professionally speaking, was pretty much the same as 2004, which was pretty much the same as 1994, and so on all the way back till the 1950s. And I don’t mean that in a bad way - it’s more about the magic of consistency. See, I’m a creature of (jazz) habit: I practice every day, I gig a lot, and I record almost every year. I keep going.

From “Benson: The Autobiography”

I also remember reading a quote in a YouTube comment, possibly on a Jack McDuff video, (so sad that folk histories are locked up in there, mixed in with vile trolling etc. completely unsearchable) that someone had a friend who knew Benson in the early days. They claimed that he could sing around 20 (or 21 or 22, can’t remember exactly) Charlie Parker solos from memory when he was around 18.

Charlie Parker

I put quite a bit of study into the horn (saxophone), that’s true. In fact, the neighbours threatened to ask my mother to move once… She said I was driving them crazy with the horn. I used to put in at least 11 to 15 hours a day.

As quoted in Chasin’ the Bird: The Life and Legacy of Charlie Parker

He was around 15 at the time as far as I can tell. The same book describes him learning Lester Young solos note-for-note.

Pat Metheny

and of course, you HAVE to practice like crazy. during the years between when i was 13 til 19, i would guess i averaged around 10 to 12 hours a day with the guitar in my hands or sitting at the piano studying harmony.


That’s enough for now but I’ll add more here as I find them.