The Eight Year Rule Revisited

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A few months ago I wrote a column about the theory that it takes approximately eight years to become proficient at a musical instrument. The column generated a lot of buzz on the message board. It also generated a lot of sympathy for my own eight year struggle to prove that premise right. I’m grateful for that sympathy and I can assure you the struggle goes on! As I write these words I’m trying to tie up loose ends and escape to music camp where I can hone those skills to razor sharpness. But I just realized I need to come up with TWO welcome columns before I leave, so with your indulgence I will now retype the original Eight Year Rule Column (which was posted for January 25, 2009 but never made it to the hallowed halls of the CBA Welcome Column Archive):

How many times has this happened to you? You’re at a party or some informal gathering. A friend of yours, or maybe someone you just know casually, sits down at a piano or picks up a guitar and starts playing. You get lost in the music as you realize this person is actually pretty good. You’re astonished that this person, whom you thought you already knew, has this extra dimension, a wonderful skill and mastery of an instrument which until that moment had been merely a piece of furniture in someone’s living room.

When I was in high school and college, the above scenario was played out many, many times. Naturally enough, the conversation would then turn to something like: “Oh, I had no idea you played. You’re really good. How long have you been playing?” You may live in a different world than I do but, believe it or not, every time I have asked that question, I have always gotten exactly the same answer: “Eight years.”

Not four. Not seven. Not twelve. Eight years, I kid you not. About a dozen times I have asked that question and EVERY SINGLE TIME comes the reply “Eight years.”

I remember that eight year reply so clearly, because every time I heard it, it made me think that if I’d only stuck with piano lessons a few more years, or continued from the junior high band to the high school band, or hadn’t sold my electric bass after a few years, I could have been good at an instrument too! That’s how I came to formulate the Eight Year Rule, which states that if you plug away at an instrument for eight years, you will be good at it by the end of that time.

Fast forward about twenty years. Now I’ve got kids, and my wife and I are both big believers in the concept that children should be exposed to new languages at an early age. We enrolled our kids in Spanish immersion at school and, since music is a type of language too, we signed them up with music teachers from an early age. Here I should mention that my wife, unlike me, is one of those kids who actually stuck with her instrument. She’s actually good and can sit down and play a Chopin nocturne with hardly a mistake, even if she hasn’t played in months.

So we started each of our children with a music teacher at an early age. Maybe they’d stick with it and be good some day. But it’s hard to keep a child working at a musical instrument. With so many forces pulling on you, from school to friends to computer games or whatever, how can a child have the discipline to practice, when it’s one of the hairdest things they have to do all day? But think about it: isn’t it a good thing for a kid, especially a smart kid (like your kid for example) to be challenged with something that IS too hard for them?

We started Juliet on piano and Ethan on violin. Juliet threw temper tantrums about the piano and I considered doing what so many parents have done: “You HAVE to practice (or else).” But I’ve seen so many people who hated their instrument, even if they could play well, just because a parent forced them to play it. Instead, we took Juliet out of piano for a while and had her do singing lessons. After six months she went back to piano and nailed it.

What about Ethan? How do you teach a boy to learn violin? Answer: it’s probably impossible but you should try anyway. I like the old adage that, if you want to teach a child to play the fiddle, all you need do is: 1) buy a fiddle; 2) show it to the child and tell them they are not allowed to touch it; 3) put the fiddle in the closet and let nature take its course.

We started Ethan at age 5 with a local teacher who had played with the San Francisco Opera. He was a good teacher and managed to teach Ethan the fundamentals of how to get a good sound out of the violin, but I felt so sorry for that poor guy. Ethan spent many a lesson rolling on the floor and moaning and there wasn’t much you could do. After talking over the situation with Ethan, and exploring other options we hit on a good idea. Maybe Ethan would enjoy fiddle more. Fortunately Ethan liked his dad’s strange style of music and was willing to give it a try.

But getting Ethan to practice was still a big problem. Listen well parents. I have the solution for all of you out there. Just bribe your kid! Find an inexpensive goodie that you can dole out for less than a buck and I guarantee you that that expense will be money well spent. Dollar for dollar it will be more valuable than the money you spend for each hour of the private lessons you’re shelling out for. Without practice, those lessons are almost a waste of time anyway. Just do it. Bribe them.

In Ethan’s case, the bribe was baseball cards. You have never seen such practicing as when I first hit on this concept. My kid would literally jump out of bed in the morning and go straight to his fiddle! He now has one of the best baseball card collections I have ever seen. And by age 8 his fiddling was showing the results of all that effort. He even admitted to me that he would play the fiddle even without baseball cards because he liked it. I wish he had told me that sooner. For a while I was spending twenty minutes a week organizing his baseball cards and it was a real struggle to find new packs that wouldn’t duplicate cards he already had.

All this practicing and learning by the kids had an affect on Dad. It was so inspirational to hear my kids getting better and better at music. I loved music, but I was now the only non-musician in the family. For years, I had been thinking about what I could do when I retired some day. And one of my pipe dreams was to finally pick up a musical instrument and learn to play it. Inspired by my kids, I started to think: “Why wait? I’m almost fifty, why not give it a try now?”

I researched my options and plotted my strategy. I did everything in secret. The code name for my stealthy endeavor: Project Bluegrass. Eventually I went online and executed my strategy. A strange thrill went through my spine when I crossed the Rubicon and clicked on a small rectangle that said “Buy”.

A few weeks later a strange package arrived on our doorstep. And as soon as I arrived home from work, the questions came from everywhere: “What’s that package?” I casually replied “Oh, that’s Daddy’s mandolin.” But nobody believed me until I finally opened the package and cradled my little bundle of Bluegrass culture for all to see. Now all I had to do was learn to play the darn thing.

Fortunately, thanks to Project Bluegrass, I had planned ahead. Armed with a Mickey Cochrane video and beginner books from Andy Statman and Roland White, I set about my task. Every night I would retire to the downstairs rumpus room (where nobody could hear me) and play along with a CD on my little boom box. Somewhat to my amazement, after a while my playing started to sound like the Bluegrass music I had loved since childhood! Project Bluegrass was succeeding! What a great feeling. Every week brought new milestones. I signed up for lessons with a teacher, joined the CBA, ordered book after book, CD after CD and DVD after DVD, all in my quest for Bluegrass bliss.

I’m sure my teacher must have thought of me as that guy who has all those books full of music he can’t play, but I didn’t care. I practiced diligently, and if a new book brought me just one small step closer to my goal I was happy. Project Bluegrass was like a military operation. I spared no effort to achieve my objective. I even bought a backpacker mandolin so I could practice anytime the opportunity arose, like when I was picking up my kids from school for example. People probably thought I was crazy. And I was. I had a serious problem.

Fortunately, I still have a serious problem. Few things give me more joy than playing until my fingers get sore, and then some. Every tune that you’ve struggled to play for so long, when it finally falls under your fingers, is such a thrilling experience. And making new friends, playing music with them at venues like Grass Valley… all that has resulted from my little crazy idea, Project Bluegrass, put into action. After four years of effort I wish I could say my eight year project is half done but it doesn’t feel that way. There’s still so much to learn.

But in a way we are all struggling musicians, no matter how good or feeble we are. The great physicist, Richard Feynman once explained quantum mechanics by saying that no one actually understands it. I think nobody can actually ultimately play music either. If anybody ever played perfect music the effect might be so overpowering as to be lethal, like the siren song. I think that even the greatest musicians on the planet struggle to get better.

To illustrate that point, I’ll close with a quote from Thomas Goldsmith’s book, the Bluegrass Reader. The great banjoist and fiddler, John Hartford, is struggling to get his music right. Hartford is dying and he knows it, but he is obsessed by the process of learning to play music better. He says: ” The reason I’m in the business is because I love to play, and I love to explore where to go… What happens is you run up against a wall in you playing and you start searching along the wall and you find this door down here. And you open it up and there’s this beautiful garden on the other side and you crawl through and all of the sudden every tune that you know becomes a whole new experience again.”

… Four years later the journey is still fun. And if I still played as badly as I did four years ago and never got any better, it would still be fun! Juliet still plays her piano, but now she plays in a jazz combo that has regular gigs. Ethan’s primary instrument is now the trumpet. He’s really good, but he still plays the fiddle too. He bounced from teacher to teacher over the years (I lost count at about ten). And now he is back with his original classical teacher, John Konigsmark. The same guy who patiently watched Ethan roll around on the floor as a five year old now enjoys helping the more mature 11 year old learn Bartok! If only I’d figured out the baseball card bribe strategy sooner!

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