21-year-old Mikey Ambrosino (A.K.A. Mykey) is well on his way to becoming an outlier.
In the best way, of course. In the 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell presents the “10,000-Hour Rule.” It’s based on an Anders Ericsson study and claims, essentially, that greatness requires time–10,000 hours, to be exact.
Mikey has always been playing music; he literally can’t remember not being a musician. But from speaking with him, it’s clear that Mikey goes above and beyond the typical commitment of pretty much every musical venture he’s pursued. And while certainly enthusiastic about his experiences, Mikey describes them with a casual, no-big-deal tone, as if everyone does such remarkable things. Like it’s normal.
Mikey started off with guitar, and joined a music school where from sixth to ninth grades, he subjected himself to frequent live performances, “piss-in-my-pants play-on-stage type of things.” If we’re recalling our middle school mindsets, typically being timid and trying to blend in, this is no small feat. As a thirteen-year-old, Mikey was into Blues music, while his classmates bopped to innocuous Disney pop and Top 40 hits. When his mom brought him to a to a Bluegrass festival, thinking it was a Blues festival instead, he made a huge discovery: something that truly changed the course of his life.
“I’d never heard Bluegrass in my life,” Mikey says. But, armed with a mini guitar, he was asked at the festival to jam by a family band. And so he did, of course. After “messing around,” as Mikey calls it, or “making beautiful Bluegrass music,” as normal people would probably say, the paterfamilias of the group asked Mikey (read: Mikey’s mom) if he could officially join the band. She said yes.
Mikey entered “a world of Bluegrass, all at once.” He rehearsed and played shows with the Flower Hill String Band–of which he is still a member today–and even accompanied them on a tour of a recording studio.
I just thought it was the coolest place on the planet. So I went up to the studio manager [Tom Mindte of Patuxent Music] and asked if I could work there… and he said, ‘Yeah, why not.’
So there Mikey was, a fourteen-year-old, engineering, mixing, and producing tracks; playing sessions; learning everything he could from Mindte. “I worked for him for five or six years… I would get out of school and go to work, five or six hours… and I actually still do stuff for him. He really just taught me everything about recording.”
This is where Gladwell’s theory comes in. A minimum of five hours a day, five days a week, 180 days a year, for five years. That’s around 4,500 hours… as of four years ago.
Yet for Mikey, “music wasn’t even a priority for a while. I was always into a million things at once.” He was interested in film and photography, and attended the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)’s film program, starting in September 2014, before dropping out at the end of the year to pursue music full-time. “I decided, I’m just gonna be a musician, that’s it, nothing is gonna get in the way.”
So Mikey resumed his “all day, every day, for who knows how long” work ethic. (Are you still keeping track? We’re at 5,000+ hours now.) As time went on, Mikey found it difficult to break into the music world. He spent hours and hours, days and days recording for artists at his studio, often without receiving any credit when their albums finally dropped. “I got really pissed, actually. I had to go confront a lot of people.” After a year and a half of this, Mikey had to stop.
This entire time, Mikey had been working on his own music, but alone. When a mutual friend introduced him to Elie Rizk, another singer-songwriter, their styles instantly clicked. That realization led the two to join forces as writing partners, something that Mikey says has helped his ideas flow and flourish.
“Pretty much all my music was created with him… Every start of the song I think starts with Elie and I at a diner, just talking about life. I hate having writer’s block and it happens all the time. Just getting stuck. So whenever you just talk about your day and all the million different things that happened, a million ideas happen at once, and everything you write sounds cool.”
It does sound cool. As I said to Mikey, I find it hard to come up with words to describe his music besides “simply, solidly, good.” The “little folk twang” in his songs comes from his Bluegrass beginnings. His current musical influences include Mumford and Sons, The Lumineers, and Kaleo, especially their most recent release, A/B. Certainly these comparisons worry Mikey: “I was terrified writing at first, thinking everything I did sounded like so-and-so or someone else. That was always the fear. But I just stopped caring. I was like, I can’t control it, I’m just gonna make the music I make.” Staying true to himself is also a key step in his songwriting process. Mikey tries “to make everything super personal,” as he puts it, but that “also makes everything super emotional.” To listen to Mikey’s music is essentially to hear an audiobook of his clandestine journal, the experiences and the people part of his life. Perhaps that’s why his songs, raw and real, affect their listeners so.
I personally do not know if I fully or firmly believe in Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule. Both critics as well as the author himself acknowledge its flaws, the clear over-generalization and simplification of facts. However, 10,000 hours or not, Mikey has put more than just time into his music. He’s put pretty much everything into it. And while this may just be, well, life to Mikey, to everyone else, it’s unusual, unique, special. It’s an outlier.