Practice makes perfect? Not so much

By | May 21, 2013

Jason Mraz, world famous performer with “perfect pitch”. € 

Turns out, that old “practice makes perfect” adage may be overblown.

New research led by Michigan State University’s Zach Hambrick finds that a copious amount of practice is not enough to explain why people differ in level of skill in two widely studied activities, chess and music.

In other words, it takes more than hard work to become an expert. Hambrick, writing in the research journal Intelligence, said natural talent and other factors likely play a role in mastering a complicated activity.

“Practice is indeed important to reach an elite level of performance, but this paper makes an overwhelming case that it isn’t enough,” said Hambrick, associate professor of psychology.

The debate over why and how people become experts has existed for more than a century. Many theorists argue that thousands of hours of focused, deliberate practice is sufficient to achieve elite status.

Hambrick disagrees.

“The evidence is quite clear,” he writes, “that some people do reach an elite level of performance without copious practice, while other people fail to do so despite copious practice.”

Hambrick and colleagues analyzed 14 studies of chess players and musicians, looking specifically at how practice was related to differences in performance. Practice, they found, accounted for only about one-third of the differences in skill in both music and chess.

So what made up the rest of the difference?

Based on existing research, Hambrick said it could be explained by factors such as intelligence or innate ability, and the age at which people start the particular activity. A previous study of Hambrick’s suggested that working memory capacity — which is closely related to general intelligence — may sometimes be the deciding factor between being good and great.

While the conclusion that practice may not make perfect runs counter to the popular view that just about anyone can achieve greatness if they work hard enough, Hambrick said there is a “silver lining” to the research.

“If people are given an accurate assessment of their abilities and the likelihood of achieving certain goals given those abilities,” he said, “they may gravitate toward domains in which they have a realistic chance of becoming an expert through deliberate practice.”

via Practice makes perfect? Not so much.

Damn. No wonder my vocals are improving at a snail’s pace. Just this past weekend I recorded the same short phrase for two straight hours over and over in my home studio trying to get it to sound right. I got better, but I couldn’t pull it all together, the feel, the timing, the pitch…. Then I got mad at myself and erased every take in disgust. I highly doubt Jason Mraz or Michael Buble worked as hard just to not hate recordings of their voices. Natural talent, eh? I may just have to accept that. But I’m a fighter! I’ve gotten so much better at being able to sing a middle C out of the blue with just pure hard work, and I couldn’t do that when I started. So, I may just have to keep struggling until I get my voice to where I enjoy hearing it as much as Jason’s. I know people who took years of voice lessons before finding what worked for them, so that’s another reason to keep chipping away at it.

4 thoughts on “Practice makes perfect? Not so much

  1. Fred Killer

    Perhaps a more fruitful approach would be to only sing in the octaves you’re naturally tuned to.

    Either that or take a leaf from Ferris Bueller and use a sampler to change the pitch?


    1. Xeno Post author

      I can now easily correct, digitally, the timing, pitch, and EQ of my voice, but this does not give the pleasant authentic resonance of a really great voice. (Dropping 1.95 kHz down 2.4 dB in the mix gets rid of my most annoying vocal tone, but then it sounds a bit muddy.) So, I’m trying to get something that not only sounds great “on tape” but which I can also perform live with greatness. Yes, it is important to be aware of one’s tessitura:

      In music, the term tessitura (Italian for “texture”) is the most musically acceptable and comfortable range for a given singer … the range in which a given type of voice presents its best-sounding texture or timbre.

      Friends say I’m being overly critical, and my voice teachers and a whole class of pros at the Berkeley Jazz School recently said they thought I was crazy for hearing my voice as being too nasally, but I know what I want, I know what I’m capable of, and I only hit the awesomeness infrequently. Others do it constantly, and authentically, like the guys I cited.

      Ah well. Day by day.

      1. arjay001

        Try and try, I can’t word my thoughts on this to any satisfaction. Then again maybe that “awesomeness” will be worth the work. I thought you were awesome already.

  2. Nathaniel

    Definitely a discouraging article to read. A month ago I found the perfect instrument for me and I have been practicing every day for hours. I still hold out hope that if I remain dedicated and don’t give up then I can be at the level I want to be. I’m not sure I fully agree with this article, but I do agree that some people need far less practice than others.

    You, Xeno, seem to have the same attitude towards it that I do, that is good!


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