Musical Families by George Slade

If musicians don’t inherit a talent for music, where does it come from? One thing professional musicians tend to have in common is that they started playing early in their lives. Six or seven years old—a statistical study might show this being a mean starting age. And, most were not prodigies, gifted in the sense that we imagine a young Mozart gushing genius; their accomplishment came after years of being pushed, dragged, or otherwise coerced into practicing and attending lessons.

It would be an unusual musician who would give no credit to parents or other elders for encouraging and facilitating their evolution during the developmental years. But an individual’s growth continues within families that have less to do with blood and more to do with affinity. A musician grows from his or her family of origin into a far-flung, multi-dimensional clan that maintains the traditions of performed music. There are influential teachers, supportive and challenging school communities, studios, and, finally, orchestra ensembles, chamber groups, bands, summer institutes, and so on, all of them serving as quasi-families. For better and for worse, with all their quirks, kinks, and wonders.

10,000 hours. According to Malcolm Gladwell, as he researched and discussed in his book Outliers, this is how long it takes to become really good at something. If you were to practice—golf, violin, chess, database design—for six hours a day, six days a week, every week for six years, Gladwell’s theory holds that you stand a good chance of becoming quite proficient at the skill. If you only practice three hours a day, well, your time-to-mastery becomes twelve years. If you only practice four days a week you will have to do nine hours each day to keep the pace. Many accomplished musicians’ careers confirm the 10,000-hour figure. And once you finish 10,000, you are just beginning to be fully formed; most orchestra musicians have played multiples of that number by the time they reach mid-career.

Certainly it takes a lot of drive to get there. It also helps to have friends who are pursuing the same goal; thus, an affinitive family grows and nurtures the intrepid workers who commit themselves to excellence in this pursuit. With only few exceptions, music is a team sport. There are brilliant soloists, free agents whose musical character distinguishes them and necessitates their nomadic existence. In an orchestra, however, individual voices find common ground on a shared stage. It is ironic, isn’t it, that one spends 10,000 hours refining one’s skills, only to become one voice in a hundred? Just part of being a family.

George Slade
July 2012

George Slade played piano, flutophone, guitar, and recorder until his mid-teens, when his artistic focus shifted to photography. He first experienced the Minnesota Orchestra during grade school field trips to Northrop Auditorium. His appreciation for classical music grew in his twenties, when his mother ran a record store in downtown St. Paul’s Landmark Center. Since 2005 he has lived with a violinist, whose music fills his life.

Slade’s writings on photographic matters can be found in print and online; his blog, re:photographica, is located at

Copyright © 2012 George Slade


2 thoughts on “Musical Families by George Slade

  1. I value your insights very much and you expressed them brilliantly. Thank you for this. I’ve known your family for so many years and count them as real friends. Continued success to you. Thelma

    • Families do make their mark, don’t they, Thelma? Thanks so much for your comment and support.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>