Archive for May 8th, 2012
On Saturday, I was fortunate enough to see Yo-Yo Ma perform Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B Minor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (You can see a much younger Ma play a portion of the concerto here, with a slight assist from Elmo.) As the most famous of all cello concertos, this is probably the one piece you’d want to see this man perform, if you could only choose one, and he’s played it countless times before. As a result, he’s clearly internalized it about as well as a performer can know a piece of music. All the same, there was nothing rote about his performance—his work was attentive, impassioned, and alive, as it has been without fail for the past thirty years. And faced with such bracing work, delivered with such showmanship and skill, it’s hard not to ask the obvious question, as one of our friends did on the way home: “So how much does Yo-Yo Ma practice these days?”
Which is a great question. (It’s so good, in fact, that “How does much does Yo-Yo Ma practice?” comes up as one of the suggested search results on Google.) A quick look online doesn’t reveal a definitive answer, but the evidence seems to suggest that yes, in fact, he still practices a lot. In a recent talk at DePauw University, Ma refers to the work of Malcolm Gladwell, who famously claims in Outliers that 10,000 hours of practice is necessary to attain expertise in any field. Ma estimates that he practices 10,000 hours every five years, which amounts to about 50,000 hours at the cello over the course of his career. This puts him in the select category of supervirtuosos, and comes out to an average of about five or six hours every day, an amount that doesn’t seem to have diminished over time.
This seems intuitively right to me, especially when you consider that Ma’s hours at the cello don’t just consist of rote rehearsal, but of performance, recording, and teaching. It’s also likely that Ma spends a lot of time thinking about the cello, and music in general, that can’t be classified in ordinary ways. In the career of any artistic master, the line between personal and professional life can’t be clearly drawn, and it often disappears entirely. Ma certainly has a lot of other things going on these days, but I don’t doubt that he still thinks about music for most of his waking hours. His constant engagement and curiosity, even more than his technical virtuosity, account for a great deal of his appeal as a performer, but it’s those reserves of practice, of scales, of muscle memory, that open up such possibilities.
And yet the more I think about Ma, the more I feel that his example isn’t about the importance of practice, but rather the importance of love. Ma is the best in the world at what he does, and he has been amply rewarded for it, but not only has he been inspired to use his gift in surprising ways, it’s clear that he still loves his job. Without that love, none of this would be possible. What Gladwell’s 10,000 rule really means is that if you genuinely love what you do, you’ll end up doing it all the time without even trying. While few of us will ever become virtuosos, we’ll get much further through love than if we were simply counting the hours toward mastery. If Ma still practices a lot, it’s because he clearly wouldn’t have it any other way. Because when you love what you do, 10,000 hours is easy.
You sit at the board and suddenly your heart leaps. Your hand trembles to pick up the piece and move it. But what chess teaches you is that you must sit there calmly and think about whether it’s really a good idea and whether there are other, better ideas.