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Twelve Hundred Hours

How long does it take to get good at something?

I read somewhere that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become good at something. I would respectfully suggest that “good” is relative. I doubt that I have that many hours of practice on any musical instrument, including piccolo and flute, which I played professionally for four years as a Navy musician. After four years of playing several hours each day, was I good? Yes. Was I a world-class musician? Not by a long shot.

All of this thinking came about because I have recently (like for the past week or so) been trying to get my oboe “chops” together well enough to make it through several short, easy passages in a Cole Porter show I am playing, You Never Know. There is one ballad that opens with an oboe solo. I played it on flute, but it hasn’t the same impact as it would if I could play it on oboe. So I have been working at it for a couple of days.

And I got to asking myself, how many actual hours of practice do I have “under my belt” on oboe? I am going to use my professional engineering judgment and say maybe one hundred hours. (As professional engineers, we learn early on in our career never to say, “wild-ass guess”; always use the phrase “engineering judgment”.) So then I got to wondering , REALLY, how many hours have I spent practicing flute? I started flute in the fourth grade. We were supposed to practice daily, for one half hour per day. That would be about one hundred eighty hours a year. But, like most kids who are not internally driven to excel, there were days I skipped. So I probably averaged about one hundred forty hours a year. By the time I graduated from high school, I was competent on flute, but not what I would call good. (Even though I thought I was.) So, in nine years, or about twelve hundred hours of practice, I became competent on flute.

Having started saxophone the summer following eighth grade, I wasn’t nearly as good on sax as I was on flute. That didn’t occur until several years after I was released from active duty in the Navy. So off-hand, I’d guess it was about the time I had hit the twelve hundred hour mark for practice time. Saxophone went more quickly than flute, because there are many fingerings that are the same. I suspect it took me about the same length of time to reach a reasonable level of competency on clarinet, though I'd be the first to admit, my clarinet playing is definitely marginally competent.

Okay, I say to myself, it takes ME about a twelve hundred hours on an instrument to become good enough to suit ME. That’s good to know. I’m sixty eight. By the time I get old enough that I won’t be able to play anymore, I should be starting to become acceptable on oboe (and bassoon, since I’ve also been fussing with that a bit, lately).

It’s always nice to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and to be able to convince oneself that it isn’t an oncoming locomotive.

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