J.S. Bach and 10000 Hours

This is one of those weeks where tasks at hand are from a smorgasbord of offerings. An exam, a grant proposal, interview and class observation for the award, a student defending a senior project, preparations for multiple projects this summer, papers to write . . . the list goes on. All fun things. Culminating the week is the physics open house, so that I found myself at the grocery store at 6:00 AM this morning buying dish detergent, corn syrup, glycerin, and pickles in bulk amounts. Today I used the self checkout, but usually I watch the gears in the cashier’s head when I’m buying supplies like this, wondering what kind of fetish they’re imagining.* In the meantime I’m figuring out what this year’s “Circus of Physics” will look like; how to get my 6-year-old daughter to lie on a bed of nails and whether or not it will be safe to fill a 5 gallon jug with flammable fumes.

But these aren’t the things that are worrying me the most. Rather,

  1. My co-authors on two different papers are wondering what the hell I’m doing.
  2. I’m not sure if I should lead 6-year-olds in soccer practice tomorrow, in the snow, right before I’m supposed to be getting ready for the open house an hour later.
  3. Anna’s playing violin for a recital on Saturday morning and need accompaniment on the piano.

It’s #3 that’s been the most stressful of all, a combination of awful timing and the fact that I need to play Bach. Oh, Johann Sebastian, you asshole. Why have you ruined my life with baroque stylings and fingerings that are just tricky enough for me to mess up as I run a simple scale from the right down to the left hand? I like to play a big chord in the right hand with a clunky bass line in the left hand; baroque calls for meticulously articulated lines that run back and forth, one note at a time, from one hand to the other. It’s tedious and frustrating; and I just got the music yesterday. Yes, yesterday I started practicing, and now after about 2 and a half hours of practice I think I have it just barely well enough. We’ll see on Saturday, especially since I’ll be doing physics all day tomorrow and tomorrow night; no other time for practice.

The reason that this all made me think hard enough to write something down is because I’ve been reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and just finished the chapter about the 10,000 hour rule. What’s that? We learn that people who become expert, virtuoso at some skill generally do so after about 10,000 hours of practice. To me this is both intimidating and a reason for hope. It’s a lot of work, but it’s basically saying that if you have the opportunity and the perseverance to stick with something long and hard enough, you could get really good at it. The thing is, I’m pretty good at piano, but when I think back on all my practicing and playing and just goofing around, I’ve probably put in about two or three thousand hours of time sitting on a piano bench. Plus the two and a half hours I’ve been working on Minuet #1. The reason this relatively easy little piece is difficult to sit down and learn immediately is not because I’m not capable, but because I’m not expert.

On the other hand, I was wondering why I wasn’t more stressed about facing hundreds, maybe thousands, of people and teaching and “doing physics” for them all night tomorrow. (A real party!) While in the shower, I did a rough calculation: Since I started graduate school, I figured I’ve put in about 40 weeks per year and 20 hours each of these weeks thinking and/or doing physics teaching. That’s (sadly?) maybe a low estimate. That’s 800 hours per year, and at that rate it would take me about 12 and a half years to reach that point which will happen . . .

. . . right before my sabbatical last year. So I’m now on the other side of that 10,000 hour mark as a physics teacher. And, when I think about it, most days I never look at my notes and many days I just craft something as I go along and it all works out just fine. Maybe this 10,000 hour rule has something to it after all — I was pretty skeptical at first.

At any rate, I haven’t reached that point with my piano playing. And J.S. Bach is laughing at my expertise in physics — a lot of good that will do me on Saturday morning.


*I’ve been tempted to replace the glycerin with some other glycerin-based “personal lubricants,” as they’re called, based on some other bubble solution recipes I’ve seen. But I can’t imagine the response I’d get for this. “Yup, all 12 bottles you’ve got there on the shelf . . . unless you’ve got more in the back?” I also can’t imagine what the accountants and auditors who check and reconcile my university accounts would do with this. It’s difficult enough for them already.

One thought on “J.S. Bach and 10000 Hours

  1. I’m laughing so hard that tears are running down my cheeks at the line, “Oh, Johann Sebastian, you asshole.” Thank you for that bright spot in my day.

    I hope the items on your list go well. I need to get that Gladwell book. Sounds great.

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