Discipline VS Devotion: What Makes Someone a Professional Musician?

By now, most people are familiar with Malcom Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” rule, outlined in his book “Outliers”.

Gladwell states; “when we look at any kind of cognitively complex field — for example, playing chess, writing fiction or being a neurosurgeon — we find that you are unlikely to master it unless you have practiced for 10,000 hours. That’s 20 hours a week for 10 years.”

According to this theory, anyone, regardless of natural talent, can invest 10,000 hours into a craft and “master” it (mastery here implies a certain level of skill that is well above average). 10,000 hours truly is a lot of time but in all honesty, just about anyone can put 10,000 hours of practice into just about anything if they really want to do it; in the end it boils down to time management. Bearing this in mind, there could very well could be plenty of hobby musicians out there who are every bit as technically proficient and who have devoted as much if not more practice time as professional musicians.

So what is the difference?

As I mentioned in my 'Orange Twist' interview, my first voice teacher posed me with an interesting question at the very beginning of my studies:

"If you had to choose another career, what would it be?"

I thought about it and told her the truth,

"I have no Plan B; I'm going to be a singer."

I will never forget her response: "Good. We can proceed."

She was the first person to make me really think hard about the lifestyle of a career musician. Having a pretty voice and a love of singing is essential but not enough; you need to be tough, resilient, totally dedicated, and work like crazy to have a happy and successful career as a musician.

That conversation truly changed my life and over the years, I have shared it with countless young singers. In my opinion, there is no other path for professional musicians. Sure, we may take odd jobs to pay the bills but at the end of the day we define ourselves as musicians. We go on stage, give our blood, sweat and tears to perform because it is who we are, not necessarily because it is fun.

Hobbies are chosen. A profession is a calling.

Music is more than just a passion for professionals. It is not what we do with our spare time or for fun on the weekend. In fact, music is often no fun at all. Our devotion to the technique and art form means even listening to music or attending a concert is true work; we hear the tiny details that could be better, bigger, or more subtle. We are in the audience studying, learning, analysing, thinking of how we did it / could do it / will do it differently.

The time, discipline, and devotion required to create something unique, true, and honest is hard and challenging. It can bring us to our knees. We travel long distances, sing long operas for little money. We leave the party early because we have to sing the next day. We schedule and invest in lessons and coachings not for the joy of it, but because we have to push ourselves further, to be better. A professional goes beyond 10,000 hours of technical mastery.

Pavarotti said “People think I am disciplined. It is not discipline. It is devotion. There is a great difference”.

I couldn’t agree more.

What do you think? What makes someone a professional musician? Let us know in the comments section below!

Anne Wieben is a freelance operatic soprano, currently residing in Vienna, Austria. For more information, check out her HELLOSTAGE profile Anne Wieben or visit her website: www.annewieben.com!
Author: Anne Wieben / edited by Nina HELLO STAGE
Comments [7]
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Evan Bortnick - 2015-05-09 10:32
Excellenct article and valuable thinking. Thanks Anne. My experience, as a student, as a singer, as a teacher and as a teacher of teachers have all shown me clearly that people are different. Very different! Not only that, individuals have different needs and resources which vary according to the situation they’re in. Even more important, these variances change over time. In my youth I was extremely focused on singing opera. There was nothing else.
Evan Bortnick - 2015-05-09 10:33
The transition over time towards “Mastery” in other areas was never easy, especially as an “Identity”. Discipline and Devotion were at the same level, just multiplied. I’ve seen that to be true with a lot of voice students.

That’s why I believe that 10,000 hours is one of the most simplistic models on ‘success’ as a professional opera singer that I’ve seen. Some as “Wunderkinder”, with extreme natural talent, enter into the profession with much less than this number.
Evan Bortnick - 2015-05-09 10:33
Others aren’t ready with 5 times that amount. What happens with these two examples over time? Interestingly enough, often those with profound natural talent advantages get left on the wayside after a few years. Yet those who have worked their A**es off with their 50,000 hours over time have great success later on.

Discipline Vs. Devotion is a truly hard-linepre-assumption. Right at the beginning, it implies that we have to choose. The truth as I’ve experienced it is that we utilize both.
Evan Bortnick - 2015-05-09 10:33
The good news is that one can grow out of the other. You can find discipline through intense devotion and you can find devotion through intense discipline. Any philosophy, or model, or quote, or ideal which reduces the creative human being to simplistic dichotomies might be easy to understand, but will rarely precipitate understanding, motivation or self-knowledge!
Anne Wieben - 2015-11-18 11:23
Thanks for your insight, Evan! You are right--one can definitely grow out of the other.
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