What Mozart Can Teach Us About Mastery

The Problems With Mindless Practice

Bryan Collins
Apr 5, 2018 · 5 min read

Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart practised in obscurity for a mere 13 years (or more than 10,000 hours) before developing a style of his own and becoming popular.

Under his father Leopold’s guidance, the boy-genius learnt to play the piano, the clarinet, the violin and other musical instruments.

He also learnt how to compose music. Leopold Mozart recognised his son’s early talents and even believed he was a divine gift.

With his father, Wolfgang studied the great music of the day.

He travelled to the courts of France, Austria, Germany and England to perform alongside other musicians.

He also emulated the popular musical styles of composers he met.

In London between 1764 and 1765, Mozart spent two years prac- tising his craft under the guidance of Johann Christian Bach, the eleventh son of Johann Sebastian Bach. During a concert on May 19, 1764, Bach took Mozart onto his lap and according to a witness:

“They played alternately on the same keyboard for two hours together . . . before the King and the Queen.”

Mozart imitated Bach’s playing style and discussed music at length with him. Today, musical scholars have drawn a strong link between some of Mozart’s and Bach’s works.

The Success of Mozart

As he grew older, Mozart continued to play music, work with other composers and deliberately practise each area of his craft.

In doing this, he more quickly discovered where his true talents lay.

He realised he wasn’t a musician; he was a composer.

He also decided his future didn’t lie in playing church music in Salzburg for Archbishop Colloredo.

The Archbishop had little time for Mozart’s desires to compose, instead preferring Mozart played music for the people of Vienna.

So Mozart wrote to his estranged father who by now was depen- dent on Mozart for financial income.

“I am a composer . . . I neither can nor ought to bury the talent for composition with which God in his goodness has so richly endowed me.”

Then Mozart spent the remainder of his life working towards one goal: becoming a great composer.

The Problem with Mindless Practise

Mozart is an extreme example of a creative master.

He possessed enough innate talents to deliberately practise his craft as a young boy at a level normally reserved for adults.

So while Mozart’s experience does not directly correlate with that of your typical creative, you can still learn from him.

Although Mozart was a musical genius, the trajectory of his artistic career demonstrates that the quality of time you spend prac- tising your craft is as important as the quantity. He worked hard at perfecting his skills and played or composed almost every day for his entire life.

Understand that creativity is also more unpredictable than simple mathematics.

The S-Shaped Curve of Creativity

The S-shaped curve of creativity represents the trajectory of creative output over time and your mastery over elements of your craft, and even Mozart had to negotiate it.

As you invest more hours into your discipline, you will move further along this curve.

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The first stage of the S-shaped curve belongs to the beginner, to the outsider. Here, you invest a significant amount of time and resources and for negligible returns.

Like young Mozart, you imitate, copy others and look to the Bachs of your craft for advice.

Unless you possess his genius, it’s natural to think the quality of your creative output is low or derivative. If you’re a writer, you’ll pen dozens of stories that are abandoned, rejected or end up in the bin.

If you’re a musician, you’ll compose bar after bar and then discard them. If you’re a filmmaker, you’ll storyboard idea after idea for your film without ever shooting a scene that belongs in the final cut.


At the second stage of the S-shaped curve of creativity, as an apprentice, you feel more comfortable with your medium of choice, the task at hand and what you want to achieve. You’re able to scale your creative ideas in quantity and quality too.

You finish a book, record an album or release a short film that you feel confident about showing to your peers. You’re an outsider, unburdened by the curse of knowledge. You can approach your craft in a fresh and exciting way.

In Mozart’s case, as a teenager, he began to write compositions that alarmed his father because they were too complicated and different from the popular music of the day.

At the third stage of the S-shaped curve, your voice is stronger and more confident and your style distinct. As a craftsperson, it’s natural sometimes to experience setbacks and even feel discouraged about how far you have to go to master your craft.

In Mozart’s case, he faced many setbacks.

One came during a trip to Paris in 1777 when he was 17. Despite his obvious skill, Mozart struggled to find a job that matched his talents.

After his mother died, he was in need of money. So he returned to Salzburg. There, he took up a position working under Archbishop Colloredo as the court’s organist and aas keyboard instructor for aris- tocratic children.

Although he felt confident about his abilities, Mozart felt trapped by his father, the job and his new boss.

If you’re luckier than Mozart, a supportive outside expert will help you work through this stage.

The final stage of the S-shaped curve of creativity comes when you have mastered your craft, or an element of it. You know how it feels to finish working on an idea that succeeds.

While it might take just a few weeks or months to master an element, mastery over your craft as a whole could take a lifetime.

In other words, you could practise playing a song on a guitar and reach the final point of the S-shaped curve in your mastery of a song, while at the same time finding yourself at the first point of this curve.

Mozart mastered his craft in his mid-twenties, after all he was a genius. Still, you can master your profession if you avoid mindless practise.

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