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How long should it take to learn a new concerto?

Or memorize a Bach prelude?

And how many hours should you spend preparing for a first orchestra rehearsal?

It used to be pretty difficult to get answers to questions like these. But, now that we have the internet, we know that the answers are a) 3 days, b) less than an hour, and c) yes.

But in all seriousness, even with the internet at our fingertips, we still look to our peers to get a sense of what “normal” is. And often, use this as a guide to shape our own behavior.

For instance, when I went to my first orchestral summer festival, I didn’t see anyone taking their parts home after rehearsal, so at first, I didn’t either. But I felt so unprepared at rehearsals, that I ended up sneaking music home to practice anyway. Yet, having to do this made me feel really ashamed and embarrassed, and led me to conclude that I must really suck at sight reading, learning new music, and orchestra in general.

Of course, in hindsight, I realize that other people in the orchestra may already have played much of the rep. Or had way more hours of experience sight-reading than I did. Or, were getting the music and practicing it too – and I just didn’t know it.

Have you ever practiced in secret? Or felt like everyone else had time to chat in the hall, or hang out in the quad, but in order to keep up, you had to keep grinding away in the practice room?

And how accurate are our estimates of others’ work habits anyway? Do we generally underestimate how hard others are working? Or overestimate their efforts? And what kind of effect does all of this have on performance?

A series of studies

Though not an exact parallel, a recent series of studies looking at college students’ study habits, assumptions, and test performance can give us some useful insights.

Do we over or underestimate?

In the first study, students in an introduction to social psych class were asked to answer two simple questions, five minutes before the first exam of the semester. The first question, was how many hours they spent preparing for the test. And the second, was how many hours they thought the average student in their class had spent preparing for the exam.

Students reported spending almost 6.68 hours preparing for the exam. But on average, they tended to underestimate the amount of time their classmates spent studying – guessing that others in the class studied just 5.13 hours.

Interestingly, their study time was correlated with their perception of others’ effort too. Meaning, the more they thought their classmates were studying, the more they tended to study.

So the first takeaway is that we have a tendency to underestimate how hard other people are working.

Which is kind of nice to know, but how might this have affected actual performance on the test? Did underestimating others’ study time drag down students’ own study efforts, leading to worse performance?

How does this affect our performance?

The authors ran a second study with another intro social psych course, where once again, 5 min before the first exam, students were asked to report their own study time, and estimate that of their classmates.

As in the first study, students tended to underestimate how much their average classmate studied, reporting 8.52 hours for their own exam prep, and 7.84 hours for others in the class. 

But this time, the authors also took a look at how the students’ over/underestimation of their classmates’ study time might relate to exam performance.

The results were unexpected.

You’d think that the more hours students thought their classmates were putting in, the greater their study time would be too, and the better they’d perform on the exam. But what they found, was the opposite.

The greater the students’ overestimation of their classmates’ study time, the worse their performance was on the exam. While underestimating their classmates’ study time was associated with better exam performance.

Wait…what? How does that make sense?

Ack, I’m not prepared!

Well, imagine walking into an audition, and seeing all these other folks who look like they totally have their act together. If you start to imagine that they are much better prepared than you, this is probably going to trigger all kinds of insecurities, doubts, anxieties, and thoughts about how great it would be to have a time machine that would let you go back and practice more. Whereas if you go in believing that you have put more time and energy into preparing than most other people there, you’re likely to feel more confident, and perform better.

And this is exactly what the researchers found in their third study. The larger the students’ overestimation of their classmates’ study time, the less prepared they felt in comparison, and the worse their grades were on the exam.

Is the answer to practice more?

So what do we do with all of this? Does this mean we just have to put more hours into preparation than we assume other people are?

Well, I’m not so sure that’s the answer, exactly. I mean, not only does that feel like a dangerous path to go down, but simply putting more hours into something doesn’t mean things will be better. As this University of Texas study of pianists shows.

So what are we to do?

Well, the researchers ran a fourth study to test a simple strategy for eliminating the effect of overestimating others’ study time. Spoiler alert: it worked – but I don’t know how useful this would be for musicians, as you’ll see in a moment.

Does knowing the truth help?

In the final study, the researchers took the same class of social psych students from Study 3, and one week before the second exam of the semester, shared the actual average study time of their classmates (7.26) from the first exam.

So this time, when asked how much time they and their classmates spent preparing before the exam, their study and estimate numbers were pretty much the same (7.16 vs. 7.24). But more intriguingly, the students got better grades on the test! Feeling like they were on more even ground with their classmates seemed to contribute to an average improvement of 3.4 points over their grades on the first exam1.

Takeaways

In principle, I guess it makes sense that knowing exactly how much other people are practicing could help us adjust our efforts and feel more prepared going into rehearsals, performances, juries, competitions, auditions, and so forth. But that puts a weird amount of attention on something we can’t know for certain, have absolutely no control over anyway, and is probably not the most inspiring (or important) practice metric to track.

So maybe the key takeaway is that other people aren’t as “talented” as we think they are. That they are probably working a lot harder to get to where they are, than it appears from the outside. And that there’s no shame in studying, practicing, or working harder ourselves when something doesn’t come as easily to us as it seems to for others. Because this doesn’t mean we aren’t talented. It doesn’t mean we’re slow. And it certainly doesn’t mean we’re not capable, if we put in the right kind of effort.

After all, people who work their tails off, and find ways of training “smart” (like NFL great Jerry Rice’s famous workouts on ''The Hill'' ), in many ways, make for more compelling and inspiring stories in the long run (ha! pun!).

Footnotes

  1. To make sure this improvement wasn’t due to it simply being the second exam of the semester, the researchers looked at exam scores from the previous semester – and found no difference in test scores from exam 1 to exam 2.