Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The 10,000-Hour Soprano Rule

In Malcolm Gladwell’s 2010 best selling book, Outliers, he discusses what he calls the "10,000-hour rule."  He arrived at this number by surveying several classical musicians, discovering that in order for them to reach the level of musicianship where they could perform as a concert player, they needed at least 10,000 hours of practice--which comes out to roughly 3 hours a day for 10 years.  This rule, of course, extends far beyond music; it applies to tennis players, golfers, pool-players--you name it.

When I first read this, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a record producer who told me that I shouldn’t play the soprano exclusively because it was too limiting. But I explained to him that it wasn’t so much that the soprano is limiting as it is people don’t get a chance to hear the result of someone having spent several years, solely committed to developing a voice on the instrument. In other words, very few people have put in their 10,000 hours mastering its ins and outs and all of its idiosyncrasies.

I didn’t start playing the soprano exclusively until I was 30. And it really wasn’t until I was 40 that I started to feel like I had a good understanding of how to play it. Up until then, I was always at the mercy of my reed and mouthpiece. It was only after I put in my 10,000 hours that I started to develop the chops and a deep enough understanding of the instrument to even attempt something as difficult as playing solo—not to mention being able to play all of the extended techniques that have now become part of my sonic repertoire.

Another factor to consider regarding the 10,000-hour soprano rule is that one also needs to put in several hours of soprano-centric listening to gain a true understanding of how it should sound.  When I first started playing the soprano exclusively, my sound was a lot louder. I could hold my own with trumpet players. But I wasn’t producing a soprano sound. It was the tenor sax 8va, which is what I hear a lot nowadays--either that, or alto. 

I actually went through a transformation period of only listening exclusively to soprano players, as a way of erasing the sound of the tenor's lower range from my ears. I remember that I played a tenor saxophone a few years back and I was amazed at how high I was able to play. Mind you, when I only played the tenor, I could barely play a high G.  Even while playing in the altissimo of the tenor, it never felt high enough.  By that time, I was definitely hearing the higher range of the soprano.

 I could never say in good faith and with certainty that 10,000 hours plus practice equals a master soprano player (10,000 + p = msp).  But it does equal a better understanding of the instrument and all of its quirks.

Another thing I’ve noticed, too, is that, since players have already reach a certain level of proficiency on one of the other saxophones, they’re not striving as hard to develop the soprano to the next level. Typically what happens is once players have a pretty good handle on how to play it in tune and develop and certain level of instrumental dexterity, much of time is spent trying out the latest mouthpiece and horn--which I ultimately see as the beginning of the downward spiral. Many of the new horns give players a false sense of accomplishment. The instrument is easier to play in tune, but you don’t develop the skills necessary for real instrumental control. Newer model horns and mouthpieces don’t solve problems, they just enable players to mask them. And eventually they surface again.

You don’t have to use 10,000 soprano rule in the literal sense, but it is good use metaphorically to understand that in order to play the soprano well, it takes time, patience, and many, many hours of practice—sometimes 10,000 of them.

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