We Need A Minor League System for Musicians

The book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell highlights a little-discussed gorilla in the corner of most high school and college music rooms: the overwhelming amount of practice it takes to become an elite performer in the world of professional music. Gladwell outlines a study by K. Anders Ericsson that tracked the practice habits of conservatory music students in Berlin’s Academy of Music. Their findings were illuminating: despite the music world’s love affair with the concept of the “genius”, “virtuoso”, and “talented” performer, Ericsson found that the greatest determining factor in the rate of improvement and eventual professional success of promising students was not their innate abilities. It was, in fact, their practice routine. The number of hours of practice per week inclined steadily from childhood through age 20, resulting in over 10,000 hours of practice logged by the time the students had graduated from college.

What’s more, Ericsson was able to extrapolate further on this “10,000 Hour Rule” to create a four-tiered strata of eventual professions for music students, based on their total number of practice hours. Student with 8,000 hours were considered “merely good”, and students with around 4,000 hours became teachers! Coincidentally, Ericsson also studied amateur pianists and found that they averaged only 2,000 hours of practice over the same period that “elite” professionals were logging five times that many. That no “naturally gifted” students were able to slacken their practice pace and still rise to the top of the brew should serve as a strong warning to aspiring professional performers, but it also has strong implications for aspiring professional music educators. The saying in baseball is that “the numbers don’t lie”, and Ericsson’s research indicates that the numbers here are, at least at first, overwhelming. For students, however, it might and should come as something of an inspiration. It isn’t some unknown commodity of “talent” that determines whether you make it to the top: it’s a matter of consistent practice.

It is understood by many parents and students that ensemble music courses, from the elementary level to post-secondary, are more than a laboratory environment for learning music skills. Music ensembles are frequently thought of as an expressive and creative outlet (though, frequently, creativity has little to do with it), a social bubble and community of caring classmates, an environment for students to display leadership skills, and, in some avenues, an opportunity to engage in a type of competitive environment most frequently found in youth athletics. Parents and the greater public, and, increasingly, students themselves, wish ensemble music experiences to contain a degree of entertainment value that they find in popular and consumer music. With tight budgets and cultural disregard and disrespect for the arts so common that it has become an assumed matter of course, schools, where {by the far the greatest degree of traditional and contemporary music education and training is taking place}, favor quantity over quality when gauging the worthiness of arts courses to even exist.

How, then, can any music educator be counted upon to ensure students get anywhere close to the number of practice hours they need to be competitive for a future in the profession? Even an ensemble that meets one hour a day for an entire school year only provides 180 hours of rehearsal time, 1,260 total if you track 6th thru 12th grade. Most teachers are lucky to meet 30 minutes three times per week, and that time is not necessarily focused on individual achievement and growth. Too often, music educators at the secondary level are trapped by the “y’all come” nature of their ensemble, forced to spend the majority of their efforts on bringing less knowledgeable or less motivated students up to snuff and praying that the ambitious students figure it out on their own. Even then, a motivated self-starter who practices on his/her own one hour a day all school year for seven years would log 2,030 hours of practice. Combined with the generous hour of daily rehearsal over that same time period, the number of hours logged isn’t quite a third of the necessary hours needed to make the 10,000 hour barrier. Going into college, such a student would need to practice four hours and thirty-six minutes per day, seven days a week, for four straight years to make it to exactly 10,000 hours.

What the professional and academic music scene needs is a farm system, a minor leagues of music, so to speak. I’m not talking about placing professional symphonies and opera companies in every small town in America, more the system of improvement and growth that a minor league system represents.

Take professional baseball in the United States. Players who show promise during their high school careers are drafted or signed to “professional” contracts with a team affiliated with a major parent, usually an MLB team. These minor league teams are located in cities large and small across the country and are split into strata from “rookie” teams composed entirely of newly signed players to the “A teams” classified as A, AA, and AAA, each of which represents a progression in skill and development of the player. Finally, players on the AAA teams serve as a sort of reserve squad for their parent MLB franchise, and players on the bubble of professional readiness for the major league roster frequently bounce between these two levels until they either earn a regular spot on the big team or settle into a less prestigious role. It is not uncommon for a newly signed prospect to spend five to seven years in the minor league farm system before he is ready to play in the “big leagues”. While players are on this developmental journey, they receive individualized instruction to improve their own skills. Position coaches specialize in the detailed skills of fielding, pitching, hitting, and catching. Managers bring all of these skills and talents together to create a stronger team and teach the players how to contribute their unique gifts to the greater good of the players around them. Experienced players teach rookies important shortcuts and advice from their personal experience, and strength and conditioning coaches work on the fundamentals of general athleticism to ensure that players can continue moving forward free from injury. Together, this system provides young players with the necessary 10,000 hours in a constructive, strategic, and purpose-driven environment.

There are already several parallels between the music academy and the baseball farm system. Position coaches are like studio teachers, focusing on the specific skills of the chosen instrument. Managers are akin to ensemble directors, bringing everyone’s talents together to make an ensembe, cast, or company. Graduate students assume the position of veterans, providing insights from experience, and music theory, pedagogy, ear training, and musicology provide fundamental, core knowledge of music that informs and improves student practice and performance in every genre. One could think of music majors on scholarship as a sort of “drafted” prospect, one who shows promise in high school and whose potential warrants a financial investment on the part of the university. In this way, there is sort of a farm system in place for developing musicians. However, where the musical academy falls short of professional baseball is in the connections, networks, and agreements between the different parts. High schools and universities rarely coordinate curriculum and expectations for promising musicians beyond state or regional music standards that are inconsistently adhered to or assessed. As a result, a student may spend 10 or more years in college trying to get to 10,000 hours, frequently paying thousands of dollars with few, if any, professional engagements during that time. Beginning minor donleague don’t make much, but it’s at least an incentive for developing players to stick with it until they’ve gotten to the highest level.

High schools need to start taking seriously what it means to prepare students for the next level. There is a reason why there are always one or two high schools in every state that send a disproportionate amount of promising young athletes on scholarship to collegiate athletics: their coaches, parents, and institutions decided that preparing students for every possible future in athletics, including professional sports, was going to be a goal and priority of their program. Therefore, these stakeholders invested the resources necessary to give their student-athletes the skills they need to make the jump to the next level.

Likewise, universities need to become more proactive in creating partnerships with professional, semi-professional, and amateur ensembles, artist programs, and institutions in their community and greater region, working to provide these organizations with future contributors and leaders. Performers should be moving out into these organizations as a natural extension of their university experience. There will always be a “major league” level of music performance. The Met isn’t going anywhere, and neither is the Los Angeles Philharmonic. These major organizations should reach out to others in a formal capacity. This doesn’t mean that the organization would have to have an inclusive partnership with a “feeder” program, but having a strong, mutual understanding of the skills and experiences desired by the bigger fish can only help the smaller fish to swim faster and stronger.

A farm system of interconnected curricula, expectations, and mutual respect and understanding is a long-term solution to a long-term problem. Ensemble music in secondary school isn’t going to change overnight. Nor is the societal value of academy music and music education. However, if the United States wishes to bring more students to the 10,000 hour threshold, it needs a better process than the wild west system it is currently saddled with. Middle and high schools (which should already, but often aren’t, be aligned with each other on curriculum) should work to align their curriculum with the needs of their local and regional post-secondary institutions. Those institutions should, in turn, partner with area professional and semi-professional organizations to provide graduates with a stepping stone into the professional music world. From there, less formal relationships and understandings can be made on a broader range of needs between these local/regional organizations and their “major league” counterparts.

The result of this system should bear fruit at all levels: increased competition at the highest echelons of the profession will move it forward. Increased awareness of, and participation in, regional music organizations will increase civic awareness and community engagement and support for local institutions. Universities can demonstrate their commitment to lifelong learning and increased practice time after students walk out the door while also receiving more students who possess the prioritized requirements of their music schools. Finally, and most importantly, secondary music programs can build bridges into the professional world, adding legitimacy to arts education through increased student participation after graduation and heightened academic and artistic integrity for students throughout their seven years of middle and high school music.

Let’s play ball!