Aptitude vs. achievement

In the academic world, there is a lot of noise (i.e., research and discussion) around musical aptitude - in other words, capacity or talent. They're working on the idea that before the age of ten, whatever musical potential you have is set and you won't be able to achieve anything beyond that. Indeed, evidence suggests that most of a child's formative musical experiences occur by the age of five.

I won't speak to the validity of these assertions - I have no reason to believe that they aren't true. However, there are some dangerous and inaccurate conclusions that could be drawn.

A person might decide that because they had little early musical training, they have no hope of learning to play an instrument as an adult.

A parent might conclude that more is better and enroll an eighteen-month-old in formal music lessons, burning the child out by age four.

The fact that one's musical aptitude apparently stabilizes in childhood does not mean that one's musical achievement must take place by this time. It's also worth noting that few of us are able to achieve our complete potential in a lifetime of study in any field - there is always room to keep learning and growing.

The diagram below shows the musical aptitude and achievement of four fictional people.

Persons A and B are twins raised in the same family. As children, their parents took them to the symphony as well as jazz and bluegrass festivals. Their parents, both amateur musicians, sang and played music with the children at home, and also played recordings. The children participated in toddler music classes and enrolled in violin lessons at age four.

Both children played in orchestras in middle school and high school. Person A discontinued lessons at age fourteen, while continuing to play in the school orchestra. Person B played in elite youth orchestras and took lessons with a college professor. Person B was accepted to a well-known conservatory following high school, while Person A went to a liberal arts college to study English. Person B became the first-chair violinist of a large orchestra, earned a doctorate in violin performance, and took a position as a university professor, while Person A plays bit of bluegrass fiddle and participates occasionally in a community orchestra.

Person C's parents sang at home and played recordings. In third grade, Person C began singing in the school chorus, and took piano lessons from fourth grade until ninth grade. In college, Person C wrote songs and performed at open mics. Person C continues to play at home, and now Person C's children are taking lessons.

Person D listened to music occasionally at home and participated in general music classes at school. Neither of Person D's parents sang much at home. Person D took piano lessons briefly in third grade but did not practice - lessons were discontinued in less than a year. Today, Person D listens to the radio on the way to work and is thinking about taking guitar lessons.

As you can see, even if you believe that one's capacity for music becomes set in stone in childhood, it's not as dismal as it sounds. Both Person A and Person C have a lifetime of musical enjoyment ahead of them even though they are not at the pinnacle of musical achievement like Person B. And that window of white showing that Person D has untapped potential: that is very important! That's the difference between wishing you could play and actually playing.

These graphs are obviously reductive - the risk is that you'll walk away thinking that you have less potential than Person D when really you're in C territory. Personally, I believe that some things can't be quantified, and one of them is desire. If your heart is set on learning an instrument and you are willing to put the work in, you will succeed. My point is that musical success does not have to mean being Person B!

Musical aptitude, like athletic aptitude, becomes most relevant at the very highest levels of achievement. On any sunny Saturday morning you will see a ton of runners out and I promise you that they are not trying to qualify for the Olympic Trials. So let's not pin our Juillard hopes on our toddlers. Instead, let's show them that music is joyful, worthwhile and soul-renewing at any age. It's never too late.

Talent, Schmalent, Part Two

Baseball Beth (@ervarela) sent me this great Mozart quote in response to a conversation on Twitter:

"People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times." - Mozart in a letter to a friend

Those who have worked incredibly hard in athletics, the arts, or any craft will nod knowingly, while the rest will think it's false humility on Wolfgang's part. Oh well...if everyone understood that ninety-something-percent of what is possible is within reach of anyone, I'd have nothing to write about.

Feel free to call the non-ninety-something-percent "talent." Just don't use it as an excuse for not doing whatever it is you wish you could do.

Hat tip to Beth for pointing me to another great resource: an interview with Malcolm Gladwell on the subject of talent, a topic covered at length in his book Outliers.

The worst mistake a music teacher can make

The worst mistake a music teacher can make:

Deciding that a student "just doesn't have it."

"Alas, this poor soul was born without the talent necessary to become a musician. I'll collect my fee, but I really can't do anything with this one."

This is such a depressing idea. If this is where you begin, why even bother being a teacher? And if this is where you end up, you are seriously burned out and should take some time off.

There have been times in my career that I've struggled in finding the best way to reach a student. There have been times when I was frustrated at a student's lack of practice or progress. But instinctively, for self-preservation as much as compassion, I've avoided thoughts that allow me to take myself off the hook and blame the student.

Once you go down this road, it's very difficult to find meaning in the work of teaching. All of a sudden, you're deciding the destiny of a student based on your assessment of ability. You become a judge, rather than a teacher.

This is an incredibly destructive attitude. For many teachers, "None of my students has the dedication and talent I had," becomes a self-satisfied, self-fulfilling prophecy that stunts their own growth as educators and musicians. Obviously, the student herself suffers as well, since she's put her trust in a mentor who doesn't believe in her.

Photo by Erik CharltonIf you are a teacher who is tempted into this thought process, it might already be too late for your student. However, you can work on it. Consider that the student might have a unique learning style that you are not tapping into - for example, he can learn very well by ear and has trouble reading notes. Or he might have certain personal qualities, such as determination or a great attitude, that will make up for a supposed lack of talent.

While it is unfair to blame failure on the teacher and credit accomplishments to the student, neither is it acceptable to blame a student for lack of aptitude and at the same time claiming faultless teaching methods. Focus on yourself and not the student, and do what you can to improve your own work. 

Whatever you observe as weaknesses on the part of the student, figure out how to strengthen their underdeveloped ability by breaking its necessary elements into achievable steps. Many things that people dismiss as innate talent (sense of pitch, sense of rhythm, expression, "feel") can be explicitly, systematically taught by a teacher who is able to calibrate her expectations down to very tiny increments of forward progress.

In acknowledging that anyone can get better at music, you might have to confront some uncomfortable realities about your own talent, accomplishments, and weaknesses. You don't have to be stuck where you are, either.

Somewhere along the line, you might have encountered a judge masquerading as a teacher. It's time to silence that critic, and in so doing, let a more compassionate, creative voice speak up. Instead of, "maybe she just doesn't have it," how about, "I charge myself with the responsibility of awakening this person's musicianship."

Harder, and worth it. If you can't do that, maybe you just don't have what it takes to be a teacher.

Momentum: more important than talent

One big thing you have to forget about is whether your kid is talented or not. Just take it off the table.

Here's the thing: for kids, it's all about the work they put into it. Yes, work. It's not all going to be fun, although it might be enjoyable. You have to help the kid set up a routine for playing every day. Or at least four days out of the week, at least ten minutes a day. If you can't do this, the chance of your kid succeeding with the instrument over the long haul drops precipitiously.

It's all about momentum. If you can build momentum from the very beginning, you will be amazed at how well your child will do. Some early success on the instrument will help her continue to stay motivated to practice, which in turn leads to more success. "She's so talented!" Uh-huh. How mysterious.

Contrast that with the alternative: Teacher and kid cover pages 10-12 in the first lesson, and kid doesn't look at them again for the rest of the week. Kid comes back, teacher realizes the kid didn't practice. Two things happen then: First, the teacher knows that practicing is going to be an issue and unconsciously holds back her best stuff. Second, the kid gets assigned pages 10-12 again. There goes the momentum. It takes a lot to fix this problem: The kid has learned that practicing is not a part of taking music lessons.

I cannot overstate the importance of the crucial first few weeks of music lessons. Developing the practice routine is a lot like practice itself: getting it right on the first try is exponentially better than fixing mistakes. It takes seven repetitions to learn a given musical figure, and thirty-five repetitions to un-learn it once it's been learned incorrectly. Likewise, a child who gets off on the wrong foot has learned incorrectly that learning an instrument is about attending the music lesson and nothing more, and once a child makes this erroneous assumption it is extremely difficult to get him to a place where he is learning music for real.

This is such an avoidable problem. But how involved should you be in preventing it? This depends on the age and temperament of your child. For most children under twelve, you can pretty much assume that you will be overseeing daily practice, reminding your kid to do it, and providing rewards for doing it/consequences for not doing it. If you are not willing to be this involved, it is unlikely your child will succeed at music lessons, even if it was his idea.

For children twelve and up, it is a judgment call. You have to choose your battles on everything at this age, so maybe you want music lessons to be something you don't have to be involved in or fight over. If this is the case, you have to decide whether you are okay with spending the money on lessons even if your kid isn't practicing. The exception to the momentum rule is that sometimes when teens are given the space to develop their passion for music, it will bloom on its own.

Be prepared for the teacher to have a say in this, too - your teacher might not be willing to work with a student who is not practicing. Children who don't practice are not fun to work with.

Many a parent wants his kid to be a natural - our culture fetishizes prodigies and overnight successes. But practicing music is really about training the student to feel pride in a sense of accomplishment - to derive pleasure from a sense of progress after a period of hard work. That's not glamorous at all! So what's the shortcut?

You guessed it: momentum. The funny thing is, momentum starts to look eerily like talent when developed early and cultivated faithfully.

Talent? Yes. Hours of practice? You bet.

Seeing this video of a little boy playing Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik", it is tempting to say, "Wow! That kid is so talented. I wish I (or my kids) had that kind of talent."

Yes, this child has a tremendous ear. But the thing is, his ear has been developed. His fine motor skills have been refined. How? Hours and hours of practice every week (initiated by Barrett himself) plus an average of two to three lessons per week.

Barrett's parents aren't professional musicians. They don't even care if he becomes a musician. They only saw a few green shoots of a natural inclination coming up through the soil, and decided to nurture them by providing him with access to a piano, music to listen to, and skilled teachers.

What's kind of cool is that he is an Eclectic Music student, and he has really found a home here. Sometimes Barrett will stop by after preschool and just hang out for awhile, playing various instruments and jamming with whichever teachers or students happen to be around. It's pure fun, although since Barrett has two younger siblings it takes some logistical creativity on the part of his mom to make it happen.

It takes time, energy, and sacrifice to support a young musician, and it takes consistent effort on the part of the student to make music. You see this video, and you see only a five-year-old "prodigy" playing Mozart. It looks like magic. I promise you it takes passion, dedication, and plain old hard work to make it look that easy no matter how old you are.

We should all find something in life to get so excited about that we get up early or stay up late to do it, the way Barrett does with music. If there's anything to be wistful about here, it is to wish we could have found our life's passion at age four. But at whatever age you find it, follow Barrett's example and get down to business. After all, he does have a bit of a head start.