Deliberate practice, focused practice, and a better rule of thumb than “10,000 hours”

Let’s talk about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours postulate, and performance art.

Let’s never mind he referred specifically to mere practice, when it’s honestly deliberate practice that improves your ability.
The bigger issue is there is almost no one who can amass 10,000 hours of active improv experience, or such experience in many other performance disciplines.

Let’s say the average skilled, hard-working improv performer, between shows, jams, practices, even classes when applicable, can reasonably expect to get in an average of 10 hours of active, feedback-available improvising a week. There are weeks where they can get much more, and weeks where they get little to none at all, but it averages out to 10 a week.

Over a year, that totals 520 hours. At that pace, without a break, it would take about 20 uninterrupted years to amass Gladwell’s mythical 10,000 hours. And again, that’s hours of active practice, not time spent sitting and watching improv, or sitting in class or practice watching teammates, or any moment spent not physically practicing the task.

Even long timers like Del Close and Joe Bill have spent far more time observing, analyzing and discussing improv than they have actually doing it on stage. If we somehow had a transparent view of every moment of their lives, and added up all their time spent actively improvising scenework, they’d each probably fall well short of 10,000 hours. Yet they and many others have undeniable expertise as improvisers.

(While one may attempt to theoretically call observation practice, and there is value in watching the work of others, your act of observing does not necessarily develop your ability to do the task you’re watching… certainly no more than watching 10,000 hours of baseball on TV, even with a trained eye, makes you a great baseball player. You may develop your ability to listen, observe and analyze. But you’re not really developing your ability to *do* what you’re watching.)

There is one time based rule I feel may be more valuable, but it operates on a micro level than a macro level.

The rule is: For every minute of performance in a show, you need to put in one hour of rehearsal. For a five minute piece, five hours of rehearsal on the piece is good. For a sixty minute piece, 60 hours. Even with improvisers, a 20 minute set goes well with at least 20 hours of practice for that show by the team.

As someone who has fallen on his face many times in many performance situations, and prepared pieces with both far more and far less time working than 1 hour per minute of show, I’ve found in my experience that this is largely true. Exceptions aside, pieces thrown together in less time tend to come off slapdash. Once that threshold is crossed, the piece/set feels solid and I feel confident about what I’m doing, whether what we’re doing is a prepared piece or improvised.

Why is this true? Why is this the threshold?

One tenet I’ve found helpful is the notion that you forget 90% of what you’re told. You may remember main ideas or key things said, but you won’t remember most every other word.

Let’s cross apply this to reading a poem you have to memorize. The poem takes about a minute to recite. You read it aloud off the paper, start to finish. If I had you put the paper down and recite as much of it from memory as you could, you might remember 10% of it. That’s not a far fetched assumption for most.

Let’s say I had you read the poem off the paper twice in a row, and try to recite from memory after that. The first recital, you’d forget 90% of it. The second time around, you’d remember the first 10%. And of the 90% you didn’t remember the first time, you still wouldn’t remember 90% of that the second time, but you’d pick up 10% of what you forgot the first time. The parts you remembered the first time are strengthened, plus you also pick up parts the 2nd time around.

90% x 90% = 81% forgotten = 19% remembered

So basically, each time you read the poem off the paper, you further ingrain the parts you remembered while picking up about 10% of the parts you didn’t fully remember.

If you read it three times, it snowballs accordingly.

90% x 90% x 90% = 73% forgotten = 27% remembered

By this rule, you would need to read the poem aloud six times to memorize 60% of the poem. To remember 80%, you’d have to repeat the process 16 times. 90% remembered? 23 times. The more you do it, the more of the poem you remember, but the less new information you pick up each time. However, obviously, your knowledge of the parts you first picked up strengthens with each repetition.

Calculations based on this logic indicate that it takes at least 52 read-throughs to round up to 100%, i.e. 99.6% mastered. Reading the poem off the page an even 60 times gets you to 99.8%. Assuming a minute each time around, that adds up to about an hour to fully memorize than one minute poem. Boom.

You can easily cross apply this logic to scripts, storytelling, whatever. And it’s not even a matter of memory: We can swap out ‘memory’ for ‘mastery of the show’, e.g. blocking, artistic navigation of the material, how you perform it. Maybe I can read the text of Drawn Dead in 25 minutes, so it would take me 25 hours to memorize the script. It would take me 3 hours of physical work to perfect the blocking of a 3 minute physical theatre scene in the show (and that’s not necessarily a 3 hours rehearsal, since rehearsals do have downtime to rest, discuss or analyze).

Part of my difficulty with Drawn Dead is that, once the show’s script was fully fleshed out in 2013, John Leith and I didn’t have 55 hours to perfect this 55 minute show. We had a handful of rehearsals, and shortly before the show I had to shoo him away so I could memorize and practice the revised script and our rehearsed blocking. I’d imagine that, if we had three months (meeting twice a week), we would have felt far more confident. The show still turned out good (thanks in part to the low pressure of small supportive audiences, and some artistic engineering on my part), but it would’ve felt far better for both of us had we had another couple months to prepare.

Meanwhile, my Seattle improv group Wonderland slogged through a ton of rehearsals, but by the time we finally headlined our first show with a 30 minute set, we had been practicing as a group for well over 30 hours. Our show was pretty awesome.

Rather than clocking hours of work towards overall experthood, clock hours towards full preparation for your next performance.

Truth be told, every show is a new situation. Whether or not you’re an expert at a subject, generally you’re never an expert at your next project. You have to develop your knowledge and skill at that project before you perform it. It may be better to focus on preparing for your next piece or show than to clock hours towards a mythical, and unreasonable, expertise.

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