Author: Faubel, Melinda

Today’s Welcome Column from Melinda Faubel

The difference between the amateur and professional/expert has been discussed at length between my mom and I. The last time it came up was at a Bruce Molsky concert, while we were trying to pick our jaws off the ground – as he manages to not only play his fiddle in tune, but also sing and play harmony with himself at the SAME TIME.

We had both read an article that had put the difference between really good amateur musicians and the pros in terms of hours of practice. It's been long enough since the conversation between mom and I, that I'm not sure the particulars of the article, but the difference was a lot. Thousands and thousands of hours. Really made you appreciate the amount of work that goes into the seemingly "natural talent" of the person on the stage.

I’ve been hanging out at the CBA campout in Turlock (very convenient, as I live in Turlock….) and had a chance to see a young “kid” (just turned 18, so I guess he’s not a kid anymore….) that my mom and I met a few years ago through civil war reenacting. We were excited to meet someone else in the reenacting community that played old time! My mom (like any good Membership VP….) encouraged him to get involved in the CBA. It’s been a couple of years and I’m proud beyond measure to see him continue with old time and bluegrass. Although I’ve always thought he was an incredible musician – he just continues to get better and better and better. He’s a natural….but I also happen to know that he practices. A lot. If/When he goes pro, it will be through hard work and dedication, not because he was born with a fiddle on his shoulder (although I suspect he exited the womb with bow in hand – note to self: must check with his mother at our next visit!)

A recent article I read put the difference between being an amateur and expert (not necessarily music) at 10 thousand hours of practice, or 10 years. Here's another way of putting it (don't have a reference for the quote - sorry): "an amateur practices until they can play it right, a professional practices until they can’t play it wrong."

So let's assume take the article at face value and assume it takes 10 years to be an expert at something - assuming you have a natural knack for it in the first place. And let's assume that during that 10 years, it has to be more than just a "day job" - it has to be an overwelming passion and obsession. Wow.

How many things in my life have I done for 10 years? Could I be considered a professional/expert in any of them?

The short answer (of course) is no.

There's some really easy reasons for this - most of which of to do with a lacking in CONSISTENT obsession or practice in that 10 year period. I’ve done 2 things for 10 years – horses and play the fiddle. Both illustrate why I'll probably never become an expert at anything.

I started playing the fiddle at 9 years of age. That was 17 years ago. People assume one of two scenarios when they hear me play.

1. They assume that I'm a decade younger than I actually am and thus, I'm pretty darn good for my age!

2. Actually got told once by another adult after watching a teenager play "we can't all be lucky enough to start playing in elementary school". Ummm.....I did.....

The fact remains that after 17 years of playing, it hasn't really "paid off".....and why not? I actually do have quite a bit of "natural talent" for playing musical instruments, that's complimented by the ability to effortlessly put in long hours of practice (just ask my family who had to suffer through my middle school and high school years). So what's the problem?

1. I like the first part of the learning curve and making giant leaps. I don't have a high level of tolerance for later hard work that results in smaller and smaller "payoffs" for an increasing amount of work. Thus, I can spend long hours practicing when I'm learning a new instrument or style of music, but I'm not willing to put in the same amount of work to correcting my bad 4th finger habits on a particular passage of "mozart's whatever".

2. I'm interested in too many instruments and styles. Yeah I like flute, but is in the BEST instrument? What about the trumpet? They seem to get all the good lead parts. And the bass line? That's kind of funky cool! I want to play a bass line on the baritone! And it goes on....It's impossible to master everything, so instead I become the master of nothing. My fiddle playing has suffered exceedingly from this!

3. I'm interested in a lot of different activities outside of music. Nothing (except perhaps horses) stands out enough to easily allow me chose to focus on one thing.

Here’s another consideration – there is only so much time in the world. I not sure I COULD focus on one thing in my life to the exclusion of everything else. The fact remains that I have many different interests, which I am not wiling to give up totally for one thing – even something I love like fiddle or horses - mostly because I fear that the incremental enjoyment of being an "expert" in something would not outweigh the joy I get from the other activities in my life.

Another view is even if I COULD give up everything for the chance of being an expert at something, I don't think I'm mentally cut out to do so. I function better in life when my activities are balanced with many different kinds of activities. I'm not cut out to be an expert I fear. So perhaps one of the biggest stumbling blocks in simply my desire to be an expert!

The realization that I don’t have to be the best, or even working towards being the best, was a pivotal revelation in my fiddle playing. That I can do something “just for fun” is quite novel

My question today is this: Could you be considered a professional or expert in something? If not, what holds you back? Are you trying to become a professional in that area, or are you content to be an amateur? What do you think the difference between a professional and amateur is? How would you quantify that difference (do you think the hours/time quoted here are about right?)?

My new signature should be: Melinda - expert in nothing but sampler of all....

See you at the Campout!

Check out my new website - Boots 4 Mel!
Posted:  4/16/2011

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