I ain’t got noth­ing but prac­tice, girl, eight days a week

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion -

At a Paul McCart­ney gig a few years ago. He has played for two hours in front of 80,000 peo­ple, but af­ter the show he does a “grip and grin” ses­sion with vis­it­ing me­dia.

As a song­writer and mu­si­cian, McCart­ney has noth­ing to prove, he’s world-fa­mous, richer than God and has been in­stru­men­tal in chang­ing the course of pop­u­lar cul­ture. He’s post-iconic. But here he is, du­ti­fully pos­ing for pic­tures with me­dia dead­beats, mak­ing sure every­one is in frame, throw­ing his arms around count­less shoul­ders and smil­ing as if he’s ac­tu­ally en­joy­ing it.

From a cor­ner, I stare over at him with a mix­ture of awe, re­spect and love. (C’mon, he’s a Bea­tle.) Once McCart­ney makes sure that every­one has had their pic­ture taken with him, he moves over to a bunch of ra­dio types and records a se­ries of inane sta­tion in­dents – “Hi, this is Paul McCart­ney and you’re lis­ten­ing to . . . ”. He works the room with a broad smile, al­ways ready with a cheery anec­dote and a friendly slap on the back.

Ask an in­die band to­day to record a ra­dio sta­tion ident and you’d have to re­vive them with smelling salts. Ask them to ac­tu­ally press the flesh of the me­dia and they’d pout and sulk. Can you imag­ine hear­ing, oh, Thom Yorke say­ing: “Hi, this is Thom from Ra­dio­head and you’re lis­ten­ing to Dublin’s best pop mu­sic sta­tion, 98 FM”. Ask most of them to pose for a cheery pho­to­graph with their thumbs up for a fan and they’d be ring­ing the Pri­ory to book in with “ner­vous ex­haus­tion”.

To this day, Paul McCart­ney still jumps through me­dia hoops be­cause that was the way he was brought up in show­biz. When he was scab­bing gigs around Liver­pool, there were no gov­ern­ment grants, arts coun­cils, beer com­pa­nies or mo­bile phone op­er­a­tors around to pick up the tab and smooth over the ex­penses.

To get to the “top­per­most of the pop­per­most”, The Bea­tles knew they had to put in the hours and learn their craft. The only rea­son McCart­ney ever sat Len­non down and sug­gested they write some orig­i­nal songs was be­cause too of­ten at shows, they would hear the band on be­fore them play­ing cover ver­sions far bet­ter than The Bea­tles could play them. There was no “the me­dia won’t cover us”, “the record la­bel won’t give us any money”, “ra­dio won’t play us” ex­cuses. They took the boat to Ham­burg and played five shows a night, eight days a week.

From Au­gust 1960 to De­cem­ber 1962, The Bea­tles played to drunk sailors and dis­in­ter­ested hook­ers in dive bars. The money was crap and so were they – to be­gin with.

In his book, Out­liers: The Story of Suc­cess, Malcolm “Tip­ping Point” Glad­well ex­am­ines the idea that true ex­cel­lence at any com­plex task re­quires a crit­i­cal and min­i­mum level of prac­tice. He finds that re­searchers in the field have set­tled on the “magic num­ber” re­quired for true ex­per­tise: 10,000 hours.

The neu­rol­o­gist Daniel Levitin writes: “In study af­ter study (of ex­cel­lence in any given field) this num­ber crops up again and again. Ten thou­sand hours is equiv­a­lent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week of prac­tice over 10 years. No one has yet found a case in which true world-class ex­per­tise was ac­com­plished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to as­sim­i­late all that it needs to know to achieve true mas­tery.”

By the time The Bea­tles fin­ished their ex­tended grind in Ham­burg, they had played live some 1,200 times – be­fore they ever re­leased a sin­gle. Most of to­day’s bands don’t per­form 1,200 times in their en­tire ca­reer.

Ob­vi­ously, prac­tic­ing any­thing for 10,000 hours will not au­to­mat­i­cally make you a ge­nius. The point is, ac­cord­ing to Glad­well, you can’t be a true ge­nius without it. And if an op­por­tu­nity arises, you’ll be in the right pos­tion to take ad­van­tage of it.

To­wards the end of their Ham­burg stint, the Bea­tles went into the stu­dio with Tony Sheri­dan and recorded a cover of My Bon­nie Lies Over the Ocean. Back in Liver­pool, a fan went into a record shop and asked for a copy of the sin­gle. The guy work­ing be­hind the counter, Brian Ep­stein, didn’t have it in stock but re­solved to or­der a copy and in­ves­ti­gate fur­ther.

McCart­ney: a mas­ter at play­ing to the gal­ley

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