Wednesday night we went to an event I'd been anticipating for weeks: violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, performing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the MSO. Mutter, a former child prodigy, now in her mid-40s, is one of only a handful of top-flight violin soloists in the world, but it seems as if she's as well-known for her long hair and signature strapless gowns as for her virtuosic playing. I heard her play once before, maybe ten years ago, in a much more intimate concert of violin sonatas that moved me a great deal; her recent recordings of Mozart have been flawless, but I wasn't sure what to expect last night.
I certainly didn't expect to be blown away by her playing, but that's what happened.
The form-fitting mermaid-like outfit (she wore the CD-cover dress the first night, a blue-grey one the second) was beautiful but ceased to be a distraction after the first few bars, when it became all about the music. The concentration and intensity she brought to the performance was captured in the photo La Presse ran with its review, but that's all the more remarkable when you consider the fact that she's been touring all over Europe and America this season, playing this same piece over and over. The ability to be "on" and give 110% night after night has to be one thing that separates the top performers from the next-lower tier of simply exceptional players. Of course, everyone has "off" nights, or "just so-so" nights. I've heard a number of acclaimed soloists perform and not been touched or excited at all - the performance here by Hilary Hahn last year was one of those; I also felt very lukewarm about a performance by Emmanuel Ax; by contrast I've heard some fantastic performances by young and unknown musicians. But the point is that you can't sustain a concert career at Mutter's level and not give extraordinary performances continually and reliably.
Sitting between my husband and my dear friend Jon, a composer and professional musician, I was spellbound, not only by the lightening tempi she chose for the first and third movements, but by the range of emotion and tone she brought forth from her instrument - undoubtedly one of the two Stradivarius violins she owns. The orchestra played very well too; Mutter hadn't been in Montreal for 20 years, and I hope she enjoyed the warmth of the audience's appreciation.
Later the three of us were talking about Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, and his "10,000 hour rule" - that in order to master a field, people have to have practiced it for 10,000 hours. Noodling around the web for other people's takes on this idea, I see that the rule works out to 24 hours a day for a year and 3 months (think of new parents); 8 hours every single day for three years and a half; or 3 hours of daily practice - 21 hours a week - for 10 years.
As you might expect, I'm skeptical: it's a catchy idea that sells books and creates good fodder for blog discussion, but so much depends on how we define "mastery", and on the individual combinations of quality instruction, inherent talent, personal discipline (all practice hours are not equal), the level of feedback one receives...and on and on. There's no way that every aspiring violinist can become an Anne-Sophie Mutter on 3 hours a day for 10 years, and plenty of people who've put in that level of effort only to become highly-accomplished amateurs.
But I do think Gladwell makes a good point about the investment of time that's required to become good at anything. Thinking back over my own life, I decided I've certainly put in 10,000 hours or more of musical practice during the 50 years between age 5 and 55, but they've been split over choral singing, piano, flute, and voice training -- which has made me into a good, skilled, all-around amateur, but not nearly at the level of accomplishment or ease as people who've concentrated one discipline only and made it their life's focus. The most progress I ever made in music was during a period of four years, as an adult, when I was taking lessons from a very good teacher and practicing an hour every day: but that's only 1,440 hours. By contrast, my college roommate, a highly-accomplished piano major, practiced more like 4-5 hours every day during the four years of university - 7,200 hours - and that followed many years of long daily practice. It's a pretty big difference.
In other areas of my life, the most sustained effort has certainly been in my profession of graphic design. In writing, starting from a fairly skilled level, I began writing much more seriously at age 40 and told myself it would take ten years of daily disciplined effort to be good at it. That turned out to be just about exactly right, though of course, in writing as in any art, you never "arrive" at a fixed point and stop there.
What about your life: where have you put in the most effort, the greatest number of hours? Do you agree with Gladwell's "rule?"
(I realize, amusingly, that one of the things I do best, and most easily, is cook. (Let's call it 350 days per year, 2 hours per day, for 35 years - a mere 25,200 hours!)
I admired Mutter's playing tremendously, and have some sense of what it has taken for her to achieve this, but I also realize it comes at a very high price. My friend Jon remarked, after the concert, "This is probably not very much fun for her," going on to describe the travel, the demands on her time, the social obligations, the fatigue, the repetition: he knows. We see the glamour and the fame, but she was a prodigy who stopped going to school at 13 and never had a normal childhood, went on to rapid stardom, international touring and recording; had two children, lost her first husband early to cancer, and has recently divorced from Andre Previn, her much-older second husband...it's not a life most people would choose or even be able to handle. On the other hand, for those moments of intensity and peak performance, there is no substitute - and I think she must know she is giving people like me a great gift. How do you ever quantify such things?