Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor of the light bulb and heaps of other stuff, said "Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration."


Think about how talented you are for a moment and give yourself a score out of 10.  Now ask yourself how this will impact your musical career?


What is neuroplasticity?  It is the ability for the brain to change and grow in response to experience, in our case to musical training and practice.  For more see:

So what separates the hack player from the wizard player? The two terrible twins: training and practice. Training and practice pop up everywhere from the music room, to maths class, to the basket ball court.  If you want to be really good at it you have to do the training and practice.  There are no short cuts, only drive and self-discipline.

Harvard University has done studies and shown that world class expert skill levels are achievable by anyone who puts in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.  This is practice where they are constantly pushing themselves to expand the outer reaches of their musical ability. Most of what is thought of as musical talent is the result of earlier musical training and practice.


Here is a rough guide on how many hours you need to pay and what you may expect to get for your time.  (Figures based on Harvard research and opinions from experienced music teachers.)





1 hours per day for 3 years

Average local musician in a non-professional band.


Piano practice - 2 hours per day, 6 days per week for 2 years. Grade 5 on Piano


2 hours per day, 6 days a week for 5 years.

Competent professional musician.


3 hours per day, 6 days a week for 10 years+ OR
5 hours per day, 7 days per week for 5 years.

World class musician

So you can buy the level of talent you want and the price is not in $ but in hours of deliberate practice.
How much “talent” do you want? What price are you prepared to pay? 

Please note there is a limit on how much hard core practice you can do each day before becoming exhausted.  That limit is about 5 hours per day.  When people are working hard at this level you see them pulling faces as they strain at the limits of their abilities and they takes lots of naps as it is exhausting.

If you are going for a high end result part of that time will be spent going to a Conservatorium as this has a profound experience on musicians.  At a Conservatorium they have quality training, expand your musical horizons and you make contacts with quality musicians like yourself.

{Just a small note here: Be careful of RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) as it can destroy your career. Take breaks, do stretching exercises and seek advice from suitable qualified teachers and medical professionals.}


Playing over a bunch of songs you already know every day is not effective practice. You need deliberate practice on things that are progressively more difficult. Every day you should be stretching yourself to expand the limit of your abilities.  Push the edges of your envelope. Work on things that are a bit beyond your current skills and outside your comfort zone. Your practice should stretch your mind more than your fingers.

Taking too high a gradient is only going to cause you frustration, so you should not be trying to learn Chopin after 3 months playing piano. Going too slowly will get boring and will take too long to become a good player.


A coach gives constructive feedback, A coach is your guide. Your coach will provide training that stretch your abilities by the right amount. A coach has perspective on your progress that you are too close to assess for yourself. A good music teacher is likely to be conservatorium qualified. For a musician weekly lessons from a good teacher (there are plenty of bad ones) is very useful.

A good teacher will know the road ahead of the student and what he or she has to do to get there quickly.  If you are self taught you will always be searching for that road ahead and wasting time on dead ends.  A good teacher guiding you through towards the best use of your time will get you to where you want to go more quickly.  When you think about the thousands of hours practice time, if a good teacher can speed your progress by just 10%, and perhaps much more, then that is money well spent.


Training is about making connections in your brain. Your brain has lots of connections that if they are not used they get pruned back to what you do use. Have you ever notice that people who learn a new language before puberty are able to speak it without an accent? If they wait until after puberty they will always have an accent. You can often see this accent difference in siblings who have come to Australia while some are before puberty and some are after. Using this principle it makes a lot of sense to learn as much music as possible before puberty. (I started my daughter on piano lessons at age 6 and now think we should have started her earlier.) If you have children you want to introduce to music I would recommend having a wide variety of music playing in the house, for at least 5 hours per day, from 3 months before birth and onwards. 

Use it or lose it. If you are a couch potato during puberty then you will lose a lot of brain function and it will be a lot of hard work to get it back. If you do a couple of hours a day practise during this time you will benefit from this for life. Bits of your brain “freeze” during puberty and can no longer learn. Future learning has to be done with other parts of the brain.

Learn the language of music while your brain is still young.   (But it is never too late if you are prepared to do the work.)

Well meaning parents and teachers often tell young people to "keep your options open." "Have balance in their life." etc.  Fill your days with one afternoon of music, one afternoon of football, scouts etc. have a full and balanced life.  My advice is start young, go hard and go far.  If you dabble in everything you will be a jack of all trades and master of none.  If you find 'your thing' and attack it with a single minded obsession from an early age you may achieve amazing results.  (If you change your mind every 2 years about what 'your thing' is you will never get anywhere.  Of course you can make shed loads of money if 'your thing' is maths, computer programming and commerce (or the building industry and property development).  Before you make that big investment of time on music make sure that it is the right place for you.


If you are a keyboards player you have the advantage of a well established training methodology. There is a large pool of teachers who are well trained in how to teach people. You just need to find a teacher with a compatible approach.  This is something the classical music world has really well sorted out - teaching methodology.

Unfortunately there are a lot of dodgy guitar, bass and vocal teachers around. This fact is not helped by lots of dodgy students too. Guitar lessons should be a lot more than the teacher working out songs the student wants to learn and showing the student how to play them.


Learn to give total concentration to one thing for an extended period of time.  Learn the discipline to prevent your mind wandering.  Multi-tasking is not compatible with deep learning so remove distractions like mobile phones and Facebook.


Speaking to people who are professional musicians and teachers there have been some common guidelines that I will summarise below.  If you are an experienced music teacher and would like to add something here please do not hesitate to e-mail me and I will add relevant input.

Work on your aural skills.  Being able to sit down and learn any music from a CD is a very valuable skill.  The ability to hear what is going on with other musicians while playing and developing songs and arrangement is really important.  Start with simple stuff and move on to highly complex material.  There are plenty of programs like the excellent Tenuto that runs on iPad or iPhone or Auralia from and books with CD's that can help get you started.  Tenuto is great, as so many people appear to be surgically attached to their iPhones so it is easy to put in your earphones and do aural training at any time, like on the bus or train.  Make valuable use of time that would otherwise be wasted.

Your aural skills are among the most important and beneficial skills to develop.  A beginner or intermediate musician should spend time every day doing ear training. 

Learn standards.  During a life as a professional musician you may find times that you need extra money and covers gigs are a steady source of income.  When you go out to pubs and clubs where the covers bands play you will find there are about 200 songs that pop up time and time again in the repertoire of these bands; songs like:  Play that Funky Music, Funky Town, My Sharona, Dancing Queen, Mustang Sally, Centrefold etc.  Even if you never play a covers gig by learning all the standards you learn about the arrangements of the great songs that have stood the test of time. You can find these standards by checking out the song lists of the bands promoted by local agents such as: 

Study music tutorial books.  If you look at or similar web sites you will find tutorial books, aimed at all levels from beginner through intermediate to advanced, on all kinds of musical subjects with play along CD's.  I had a well regarded session musician in my studio I asked him what he did for practice and he said he did not have a teacher any more but he studied new things from books.

Learn the dots.  a.k.a. reading manuscript.  There is lots of work for musicians who can fluently read music.  You could aim to have a manuscript thrown in front of you and play the gig successfully without having heard any of the songs before.  Tab is not a good substitute.  Manuscript is a system that has taken 1000 years to develop to what it is today and is a very workable system.  It is also a great way to communicate music.  I also find it a good way to see what is going on with all the instruments when developing arrangements.

Learn theory.  Music theory aids in your general understanding of music.  It helps in songwriting and your general understanding of music.  In the key of C major why is the B chord diminished and the D a minor?  It really helps to know these kinds of things.  It gives you a framework around which to connect  a whole bunch of musical concepts.  Don’t think of the theory as musical rules; think of it as musical tools.

Listen to lots of music.  When you are driving, on the train, doing housework, eating dinner and all the mundane tasks of life listen to music.  If it is the iPod or Hi Fi or car radio listen as much as you can, that way your brain is processing music while your body is doing the mundane.  If you are allowed to have the radio on at work that can give you 8 hours a day of listening.

Play some piano.  If you are a vocalist or play an instrument that does not normally play chords like violin, flute or bass guitar then take some piano lessons and spend several hundred hours practicing it because it will broaden your understanding of music, give you a tool to work on songwriting or arrangements and give you another tools to communicate with other musicians.  It is worth the time invested.

Play lots of gigs.  Get out there and do it.  So you spent the time learning those standards you may as well go out and make some money using them.  Being in a covers band or a 'pick-up musician' for Elvis impersonators might not be your main gig but it is experience.  There are a lot of lessons that you can only learn by spending the time on stage.

Do something different.  Regularly challenge yourself with something new and different.  An electric guitarist could work out a guitar part for a string quartet or some modest variation to practice like doing it with an acoustic guitar in the park.  Doing different things keeps you growing and keeps it fresh.


You only have to listen to the Australian Idol auditions to know how many crap vocalists there are out there.  The most noticeable thing about crap vocalists is that they don't sing in tune, so if you haven't got a good ear how do you know you are not hitting the notes?  So you should make ear training a priority.  Subject to endorsement by your singing teacher let me suggest someone wanting to be really good singer could follow this training regime: 

Matthew Syed: The myth of talent and the power of practice.  This is a very good YouTube video:


I was talking with a friend of mine who is a Berklee graduate and has taught guitar at a university for 20 years.  He has played several thousand gigs and earned a living as a jazz guitarist in New York for 7 years.  They guy has been there and done that. 

I put to him the concept that if a person was so rhymically challenged that he or she was unable to clap 4/4 time to a marching band could they be trained to the point of becoming a professional percussionist with a Latin band?

Mike thought about this for a while and said that he thought they could IF they did sufficient training and practice under the tutorage of a teacher who had the skill and patience to go one step at a time from train wreck to highly skilled.  He did point out the it would take tremendous self discipline and drive to make that journey, but the journey is possible!

Mike also told me that the way he developed much of his skill was to design practice exercises to address his weaknesses.  He took the things he was weakest on and practiced them until they became his strengths.


Good article, my personal opinion is that knowing how to practice effectively and creatively is key...most people, as you say, just play through pieces without any real methodology. 

What defines the elite performer ... is aural skills and the ability to have one pointed concentration 


Hi Mark,

I've had a truly crazy few weeks, but I had a quick read of your article and it looks GREAT!  The fundamental point that anyone and everyone becomes a great musician by actually investing the hours is so important and so universal.... I think you've done a great job.

All the best,

Elissa Milne
(Elissa is a Sydney based composer, teacher, writer and presenter.  Her educational piano music is published by Hal Leonard and used by by students, teachers and examination boards around the world.)


The following quote by former American president Calvin Coolidge:

"Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.  Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.  The slogan "press on"  has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race"


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Copyright 2009, 2011, 2014  Mark Ellis