Why the Beatles were so good: They practiced!

Beatles in America

The Beatles arrive in America in 1964. From left to right: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Photo from Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, Washington celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first concert in America with the tribute band Beatlemania Now taking the stage at the same venue (the Washington Coliseum) at the same time (8:31 p.m.) to play the same set (12 songs) that John, Paul, George and Ringo performed that snowy February night in 1964.

Okay, I admit it, I’m old enough that I probably could have gone to that first Beatles concert—if we had lived in DC, and IF my parents had let me. Would you believe tickets that night sold for $2 to $4? Plus, Jay & The Americans, The Righteous Brothers and Tommy Roe were the opening acts. Wow!

Even in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, where I grew up, the Beatles were an instant sensation. At Graham Road Elementary School, we were singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.” It was that “Yeah, yeah, yeah” part that got everybody giggling.

The Beatles were so talented that they made their special brand of pop music seem easy—and oh so listenable. But people forget that they worked hard perfecting their craft before bursting onto the scene with their appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

If you’re familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers: The Story of Success,” you know that the Beatles are an example of the “10,000-hour rule.” Gladwell studied extremely successful people and concluded that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. He based this in part on research done in Berlin in the early 1990s by a team of psychologists who studied the practice habits of top violinists. By age 20, elite violin players had averaged over 10,000 hours of practice, while less able performers had only 4,000 hours of practice.

John and Paul started playing together in 1957, almost seven years before their first concert in the U.S. More important, Gladwell explains, is the time they spent in the early 1960s in Hamburg, Germany, along with George and Ringo, playing in clubs night after night…after night.

“All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half,” Gladwell writes. “By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, in fact, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times.” As Gladwell points out, that’s more performances than most bands have in their entire career.

John Lennon explained that they couldn’t help but improve because they played eight hours a night. Do the math, and you can see that the Beatles had already logged 10,000 hours before coming to America.

What’s my point?

Well, it’s pretty simple: To get good at anything, whether it’s music, sports, art or business, you have to practice, really practice. Ten thousand hours is the equivalent of practicing eight hours a day, Monday through Friday, for five years straight. That’s like a full-time job.

To be sure, practice isn’t everything. Aptitude counts, too. But lots of practice seems to be the mark of the “outlier,” what separates the great from the not-so-great.

This explains why after six years of taking guitar lessons, I don’t play nearly as well as I’d like. I have to admit, days go by and I hardly pick it up. In a good week, I might practice three or four hours. Even if I practiced a full hour every single day, it would take me 27.4 years to hit that magical 10,000-hour mark.

Gee, just in time for the 75th anniversary of the Beatles!

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