Recently, the 10,000 hour concept has gained international prominence through books such as Malcom Gladwell’s, “The Outliers”. This magic number is touted as the hours required to achieve ‘true expertise’. For a young music student just starting, how would you feel if you were told that this journey is going to require 10,000 hours of effort if you want to make a significant career as a musician! Most of us, myself included, would never embark on such a journey and yet each year thousands of children and adults pick up an instrument for the first time. So what is it that propels us to start and perhaps more importantly keep going? The answer is complex, however, one crucial aspect of learning an instrument or in fact any skill is the involvement of a mentor – teacher, master, maestro,‘yoda’!
I am passionate about the value and importance of having good mentors in the lives of young students. From an early age, I have benefited from great teachers to guide me through the hours of practise. I have carried this through into my professional life and even now, I make a point of surrounding myself with people who I can learn from. My first saxophone tutor helped me learn the value of small successes and the momentum this can create. Too often as students we see the end-point as the only thing worthy of achievement and yet if small success aren’t celebrated along the way, the final task may seem insurmountable. Remember, that first time playing a solo in band or orchestra would not have been possible without that first time playing Mary Had a Little Lamb. Still, learning is not all hard! If you can celebrate the small ‘wins’ then the big moments come – great days are the result of a lot of little small days in between.
My conducting tutor throughout my Doctoral studies helped me see the value of failing forward and that all things are difficult before they are easy. Coming from a band background, the first time I stood in front of string players was intimidating – my ears struggled to hear anything. Yet, my teacher calmly came up beside me and explained that he had the same experience decades earlier and that learning takes time but you have to give yourself a chance to learn. The easy road for all of us as students is to quit but you need to expose yourself to the possibility of failure in order to move forward – music learning is risky but the payoff is worth it!
Finally, a mentor from the world of business, taught me the value of goal setting. Relating this to what we do as musicians, goals help those hours of practise fly by. We have all had times when practising is a chore and most likely this is the result of not knowing the answer to, “Why am I doing this?” A good mentor steps in and shows us the way, hopefully, because they have been in our situation before! Goals also help with planning and priorities – learning to identify what ‘the main thing’ is at any given time and then disciplining yourself to ‘keep the main thing, the main thing!’.
So, how do you find a good mentor? There are numerous qualities to finding and being a good mentor but several are key criteria. Firstly, a good mentor will have done what you are seeking to accomplish. For example, there is no point learning golf off someone like me as I usually take several attempts to even hit the ball off the tee! A good mentor will also create a safe learning environment and one that enables you to take a risk with the possibility of failing without you feeling like a failure. A good mentor will also be able to show you a clear path to success and keep you accountable for your learning. They will help you in never being too proud to think that you have arrived but also never being too hard on yourself to think that you can’t get better.
I always fancied myself as a Skywalker growing up, perhaps because my first name was Luke! Nevertheless the Jedi Master and Apprentice model is one that is very relevant in the lives of all young musicians. I encourage you in your journey to take the time in finding good mentors and remember all things are difficult before they are easy.
Dr Luke Gilmour
ABODA NSW Vice President
Director of Bands, Newington College
Featured image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/allthatimprobableblue/5425519839/ (Creative Commons License)