I was listening to a classic music station yesterday, and I heard the story of a professional pianist whose hand was injured in an accident. He then started learning trumpet and two years later he was a professional trumpeter. I didn’t catch the musician’s name.

I was not surprised that a professional in one instrument could become a professional in another, but I was surprised that he did it in only two years. It probably helped that he was no longer able to play piano; I imagine if he wanted to learn trumpet in addition to piano he would not have become so proficient so quickly.

If you go by the rule of thumb that it takes about 10 years to master anything, this professional pianist was 80% of the way to becoming a professional trumpeter before he touched a trumpet. Or to put it another way, 80% of being a professional musician who plays trumpet is becoming a professional musician.

Transferable skills are more difficult to acquire and more valuable than the context in which they’re exercised.

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6 thoughts on “Retooling

  1. I took the “Learning How to Learn” course from Coursera, and there was a brief note about this. When you’re learning how to play the trumpet, it’s not just the trumpet you’re learning, you’re also learning skills like reading sheet music, keeping time, and you’ve developed your critical auditory analysis skills. Learning to play the piano, in that context, builds on those existing skills, which lets you focus on learning the mechanics of the instrument.

    I experience this when Iam working in languages other than my own primary language (C#). I know what I need to do, and I know what it looks like (I credit that to my college work), so it’s a matter of shaping the new language to look like the solution I want, and then shaping the solution to the language’s idioms.

  2. If we define ‘professional’ as simply being able to earn a living from one’s craft, then it is a long way off ‘mastery’. In fact the former almost always has to precede the latter (sorry all you bedroom players!). As a rule of thumb, with talent and persistence it is usually possible to become professional-level at many things in 3 years. So 2 years for someone with a head start seems reasonable.

  3. Analogous to a Blacksmith, who has skills working the raw material, but also creates a range of tools and jigs to make certain repetitive tasks simpler?

    The musician is the blacksmith, the instrument is one of many possible jigs to produce a desired result.

  4. James (another one)

    “It probably helped that he was no longer able to play piano”

    More than you know. As a high schooler I tried to learn the violin and C. Unfortunately, I was already very fluent with the guitar and BASIC. It’s hard to avoid the path of least resistance. Fortunately for me, DOS disappeared and neither Windows 98 nor Linux had built in BASIC interpreters. I still can’t do more than make squeaking noises on the violin.

  5. @Ilya Sterin I remember that paper and reviewed the data used in the meta analysis. I was very suspicious of the conclusions since many (or most) studies had very different methodologies, focused on calculating different variables (making difficult a fair comparison) and included very small sample sizes. In some cases, the authors of the meta analysis were not able to reproduce the conclusions in the studies.

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