A popular question, especially when people start cranking out the 10,000 hour rule and “talent,” whatever that is. I always say that it takes hunger, stubbornness, and time to master an instrument.
But I rarely ever see anyone mention the specific kind of hunger that’s needed. This goes for any mastered skill, and for me, it was always more languages and mathematics than music until very recently.
There are a lot of people who can’t tell the difference between wanting to be something and wanting to do something. I don’t know how else to put it. Many people have what feels like a deep, abiding hunger to be a cellist, to be a pianist, to be a professional athlete.
But they don’t have a hunger for the activity itself, somehow. They envision themselves on stage playing a piece of beautiful music and receiving accolades, or having the ready access to big cars and compliant women of the professional athlete … but they don’t envision themselves compulsively engaging in the activities that one needs to master to do these things.
Okay, so you want to play hockey for a living. Do you want to bang a puck around so badly that you’ll spend your off-time doing it? (Gretzky was famous for sticking around after practices for hours still thwacking that puck around the ice; he did it because the sensation of getting that thing where he wanted it, even down to the crack of the stick on the rubber and the scrape of the skates over the ice felt delicious to him.) Do you want to stop pucks to the point where you are sitting on the couch staring into space and imagining blocking shots?
You want to be a cellist. Do you hunger beyond reason for the friction of hair against string? You want to be a pianist. Do you find immense, inarticulate satisfaction in simply moving your hands over the levers, or do you hunger instead for the rose bouquet and the standing ovation after the performance?
It’s not bad to want the accolades and everyone likes them, but that hunger won’t suffice to get you through the decades of work you’ll have in front of you if you want to get them. The hunger for pretty music won’t get you there, either. If that’s all you want, you can download tons of music to hear.
The only thing that will keep you going for the decades required to reach the needed level of mastery is a sense of satiation with every step forward. Each movement of the hands must be a food pellet, above and beyond the music.
There are a lot of people who see lace bedspreads and want them. They want that bedspread bad. They “love” it, they want one more than anything, they think.
What they don’t want is the sensation of making millions of tiny stitches over and over and over. Merely wanting the finished object will never be enough to motivate you through the years of monotonous effort it takes to make an Irish lace bedspread or tablecloth with sewing thread and a size 14 steel hook. You must instead want that sensation in your fingers of stitch after stitch after stitch, with a concomitant zing of satisfaction after each of the 500+ tiny finished medallions of lace that must be completed before that finished object is anywhere near to reality.
If you hunger for that, for the verb and not the noun, you’ll get through those millions of tiny stitches — or the thousands of hours of practice or the late nights and early mornings at the court, rink, or field — and only notice that you’ve finished the bedspread when you look up and realize that your hands are empty and you aren’t making anything.
Then, you’ll probably pick up more thread and a hook and get started on the new one.
Because the greater hunger is for the verb and not the noun.