Talent is Overrated, Part 2

My quest to uncover the meaning and question the validity of talent continues!

I’ve been reading an excellent book by a two-time Olympic table tennis champion, BBC commentator and journalist, Matthew Syed. The book is called Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success.

Here are a few key points from the book:

  • Physical skills such as reaction time, which would be seemingly transferable if inborn, in fact do not transfer to other areas. For example, the author explains that his lightning-quick reaction impulses in table tennis do not carry over when he plays “regular” tennis.
  • Physical equipment such as “amazing hands” in tennis are not, in fact, inborn, but rather are the result of amazing coordination between the brain and the nervous system, created and honed through hours of intense practice.
  • Expert performers step outside of their comfort zones continually, in order to make progress. Even given their extraordinary ability, they constantly attempt new challenges that are just outside their ranges. I.e., expert skaters fall more often than average skaters do.
  • Child prodigies may look as if they have reached the top in double-quick time, but the reality is that they have compressed astronomical quantities of practice into the short period between birth and adolescence.

Notwithstanding the amazing benefits of deliberate practice, Syed cautions against the so-called “Tiger Moms” (and dads). He writes, “It is only possible to clock up meaningful practice if an individual has made an independent decision [author’s emphasis] to devote himself to whatever field of expertise. He has to care about what he is doing, not because a parent or a teacher says so, but for its own sake. Psychologists call this ‘internal motivation,’ and it is often lacking in children who start too young and are pushed too hard. They are, therefore, on the road not to excellence but to burnout.”

Sports scientist Peter Keen concurs, “Starting kids off too young carries high risk…The only circumstances in which very early development seems to work is where the children themselves are motivated to clock up the hours, rather than doing so because of parents or a coach. The key is to be sensitive to the way the child is thinking and feeling, encouraging training without exerting undue pressure.”

The findings shared in this book are exciting, hopeful news for anyone who has ever considered attempting a new activity, but was afraid that they “didn’t have the talent for it!” As it turns out, a strong desire to learn, coupled with good practice, may outweigh the importance of talent after all.

Is Talent Overrated?

How many times have you heard someone say, “I can’t do that; I just don’t have the talent”?

In this case, talent is seen as a mystical endowment, a gift bestowed at birth. Or in less flowery terms, a “knack” for a particular activity.

But when you really look into the matter — examining the childhoods of geniuses with super-ability — you see a different story.

In Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overratedhe examines just that. Looking at research in various realms, as well as case studies, he tries to uncover what the source of talent might be.

Is it intelligence? Not necessarily, as evidenced by the fact that “some people have become international chess masters though they possess below-average IQs.”

Is it superior memory? Not so, because scientific experiments have shown that memory can be greatly expanded through proper training.

Is it some kind of physical propensity, such as faster reaction times or the right kind of body build? Not really, because “endurance runners, for instance, have larger than average hearts, an attribute that most of us see as one of the natural advantages with which they were blessed. But no, research has shown that their hearts grow after years of intensive training; when they stop training, their hearts revert to normal size. Athletes can change not just the size of their muscles but even the composition of them (the proportion of fast-twitch fibers to slow-twitch) through years of practice.”

Or, is it inborn? If so, this would suggest the existence of a “talent gene” – and to date, none has been found.

Well, what is the answer then, you ask? Drumroll……………………………………………………………………

……….it is deliberate practice, carried out for many years, and often starting earlier than the norm (for other practitioners of an activity).

That’s it, you ask? But what about geniuses like Mozart, who composed music when he was five years old?

Colvin examines the case of Mozart, only to find that “Mozart’s father was of course Leopold Mozart, a famous composer and performer in his own right. He was also a domineering parent who started his son on a program of intensive training in composition and performing at age three…he was deeply interested in how music was taught to children…he was highly accomplished as a pedagogue.”

Colvin goes on to note that many of Wolfgang’s early compositions are in fact compositional studies – arrangements of the work of other composers. The earliest work by Mozart that is today considered a masterpiece, his piano concerto No. 9, was in fact written when the composer was 21; in other words, after he had amassed some eighteen years of intense training.

Another groundbreaking fact to note is that, contrary to what many of us were taught, Mozart did not in fact write down pieces that had been fully formed in his head. “Surviving manuscripts show that Mozart was constantly revising, reworking, crossing out and rewriting whole sections, jotting down fragments and putting them aside for months or years.”

So, now that we’ve seen the incredible results of deliberate practice, one question remains: what separates those who partake in this type of practice from others? Since deliberate practice is difficult and a great time investment, what motivates people to do it in the first place?

Colvin proposes a few possibilities to this mysterious question. One is “the multiplier effect.” It purports that “a very small advantage in some field can spark a series of events that produce far larger advantages.” Take, for example, a young child who has better-than-average forearm strength to begin with, who then joins a baseball team, and receives positive feedback for his slightly superior ability, which in turn motivates him to work even harder, creating a self-perpetuating cycle. Also, the better he gets, the more he seeks out more advanced opportunities and has the chance to work with better players and coaches. In this way, each increase of ability is matched by a better environment, creating the conditions for superior performance.

Another factor that motivates people to engage in deliberate practice is believing that they are uniquely capable. “In all fields most of these young students were regarded as fast learners by their first teachers…Whether or not they were really faster learners than others is not known…As they began to receive recognition for the talent in the early years of instruction, the children’s investment in the talent became greater. No longer was the prime motivation to please parents and teachers. It now became the individual’s special field of interest.”

Colvin points out that “talented” youngsters are compared with others their age, not with the best in the field, using Tiger Woods’s youth as an example. By starting earlier than the norm, a child has the chance to amass more deliberate practice than their peers of the same age, creating a sense of “talent” and competence, which in turn fuels their motivation to continue to practice. As Colvin states, “Standing out at any given age is an excellent way to attract attention and praise, fueling the multiplier, and it can be done without relying on any innate ability.”

What do you think? Do you believe that talent is innate, or is it a result of the right mix of factors?

Catching the Wave: Flow

Flow is a mental state characterized by total immersion in the task at hand, coupled with a sense of enjoyment of the activity and an overall feeling of well-being. A lot of what propels musicians to pursue their art is that they can experience this state of flow.

Do you recall a time when you experienced this feeling? Maybe it was while finger painting as a child. Or becoming wrapped up in a video game for hours, not realizing how long you’d been sitting there, because “time stopped.”

Wouldn’t it be great to live life constantly in this state? Unfortunately, a flow state, much like creativity in general, cannot be forced or willed into existence. That being said, there are a few key components that make a person more likely to get into this all-encompassing state.

  1. Knowing what to do
  2. Knowing how to do it
  3. Knowing how well you are doing
  4. Knowing where to go (if navigation is involved)
  5. High perceived challenges
  6. High perceived skills
  7. Freedom from distractions

(Schaffer, Owen (2013), Crafting Fun User Experiences: A Method to Facilitate Flow,

Human Factors International)

For musicians in particular, this boils down to: playing a piece that is at once challenging and enjoyable, but that also falls within your own perceived skill level. Keep in mind that this can be either during practice or performance — you can experience this state at any time, and in almost any place!

Ready, Set, Go!

Picture this for a moment: you’re on stage – bright lights beaming toward you – you hear the introduction by the orchestra or piano, and you think, “But I’m not ready yet! I don’t know this piece!” You wake up in a cold sweat, relieved that it was just a dream.

These vivid anxiety dreams are all too common before a performance, and they reveal an underlying, understandable fear that many musicians have: that you are not or will not be ready. Despite hours, weeks and even years of preparation and study of your instrument and the music in question, you still shiver with apprehension at the prospect of a big performance or audition. This is when it’s time to take a mental leap and trust your preparation.

Remind yourself of the time you’ve spent and the care you’ve taken with the music. Picture yourself in the practice room. Maybe even go all the way back to your early music lessons, and see the time and effort you’ve put in since then.

Sometimes all you need is a gentle reminder. Recently, one of my students, who is ten or eleven years old, came to me nervously just before a student recital. “Can I use the music?” she asked.
“N., how have you been practicing?” I asked.
“By memory.”
“And remember how great you played, by memory, in your last lesson?”
In the end, she DID perform by memory and played beautifully. I think she just needed a reminder to trust her preparation.

It’s funny that, no matter what, I always wish for more time before a performance. I think, “If I only had one more month…” But I’m sure that, even if I DID have an extra month or two to prepare, I’d say the same thing! There comes a time when the preparation phase is over, and it is time to go out and do it. You’ve done the work. Now trust your preparation.

Making goals, breaking goals

A new year, a new opportunity to re-evaluate our goals and set new ones for the year…what resolutions did you make this year?

We all know the drill: set specific, measurable goals and then define the steps to meet them. But what happens when the unexpected occurs, interfering with our goals?

Or what if we *do* meet our goals, but we end up missing the bigger picture or an even better opportunity?








Don’t get me wrong – goals have their place in motivating us to achieve new challenges. But, we need to distinguish between process and outcome-oriented goals. Both have their place for the fearless musician.

Outcome goals are, as their name suggests, focused on measurable results: to run a mile in X number of minutes, or to win Y championship. Process goals, on the other hand, involve an aspect of the journey: to take longer strides during a race, or to position one’s feet properly before a golf swing. Or it can even be, to keep one’s mind focused on the present during a performance.

During the training/preparation process, outcome goals can be most useful. They motivate the player to complete a training task, staying focused and interested in the practice session. This same outcome-oriented approach, however, can add unnecessary pressure in a competitive or performance situation, however.

In performance, by contrast, the player should choose a process-oriented mindset, such as listening carefully or staying focused on phrasing beautifully. In this way, the player’s mind will stay in the moment and avoid self-judging thoughts or other negative, potentially harmful mindframes.

This week, when considering your musical goals, can you find examples of both process and outcome goals, and make some of each?

Further reading:



Left, Right, Wrong: the myth of the split brain

Recently, I came across a survey that asked, “Which side of your brain is more dominant?” Have you taken it? What was your result?

Whatever response you received, the real answer is: both! Or, it doesn’t matter! Actually, it’s always changing!

In “The Brain that Changes Itself,” author/psychiatrist/psychoanalyst Norman Doidge talks about how the brain can and does re-wire itself according to the challenges and stimuli presented to it.

Doidge recounts the story of the dramatic recovery of Pedro Bach-y-Rita, a Catalan poet and scholar, who suffered a debilitating stroke at age 65. Pedro was aided in his recovery by his two sons, one a medical student and the other a scientist. The brothers rehabilitated their father patiently and diligently, teaching him how to walk and talk again. They were so successful after a year of work that their father eventually returned to full-time college teaching.

What was the key to his recovery? It was not that the brain had “healed,” because the damage done was irreparable. No; the brain had actually “rewired” itself! That is to say, parts of the brain that were formerly devoted to certain tasks were re-assigned to do the work of the damaged brain cells.

The phenomenon at work in this case is plasticity: the ability of the brain to re-organize itself at any stage of life. Doidge writes, “The age at which we learn a mental skill strongly influences the area in which it gets processed.”

Further debunking the left/right brain myth, neuroscientist and author Joseph LeDoux explains, “Left-Right talk in the popular media dates back to the 60s and was mostly stimulated by research on split-brain patients, patients in whom the left and right sides are literally separated. In these people, the left and right hemispheres cannot communicate. In most of us though, the two sides are closely interconnected and work together in creating our mental and behavioral capacities.” (full article here)

In short, brain researchers now posit that the purported split between right and left brain is imaginary – in reality, the two hemispheres are highly interconnected. Different people use different areas for processing things, and those areas can even change in a person’s lifetime, owing to neuroplasticity. So here’s to the complexity of the brain in its entirely whole, interconnected state.

The Myth of the Blank Mind

I recently questioned a young student who was preparing for a recital performance: “So, what are you going to think about before you play?”

He carefully answered, “My mind will be blank.”

His answer was one I’ve heard before, and even thought of in the past. The problem is, can the mind ever be completely blank? Is that the goal?

Don’t get me wrong – if you’ve read my blog before, you know that I’m a proponent of mindfulness, a state of being in the present, and that it is necessary to “quiet” the mind to get there.

But even when we are being mindful, aren’t there hundreds, thousands of sensations and observations flitting through our minds and bodies? How could these ever “go blank”? Even when we’re sleeping, our bodies and minds are quite active, evidenced by REM sleep and dreams.

Instead of willing our minds to be blank, instead, we need to “put” the mind somewhere, to focus it on positive, helpful thoughts that are conducive to doing what we aim to do.

What kind of thoughts are helpful? When performing, it is not specific technical instructions – those have hopefully been automated beforehand in the practice room – that are helpful. We need a broader picture, sometimes called a “process cue,” that describes what we are doing when we are performing well. It doesn’t have to be very specific – just something that pulls us back to our center and reminds us of how we feel when we’re playing our best. When distractions or negative thoughts start pulling our attention, the process cue brings our mind back to what we are doing and renews our courage and commitment.

What are some process cues that are helpful for you?


Intuitive Practice

Musicians, like athletes, are no stranger to the phrase, “No pain, no gain!” Many of us take physical exhaustion, discomfort and mental boredom as par for the course, and even as hard-won badges of honor for our labors. But experience teaches that in fact, pain can lead to injury, whether physical or psychological. There must be a better way to practice!

Enter intuitive practicing. This is not a hocus-pocus, light-some-incense-and-go-to-your-happy-place idea – it simply means, following your own instinctive sense of creativity and curiosity when you practice. Start off with a question – “Where is this phrase going?” or, “What if I handled it this way?” If you desire to linger on a particular passage, do so — as long as you are mentally engaged. If you are drawn to a completely different section of the piece, go there. Experiment with a different speed of vibrato, a more subtle diminuendo, a surprising change of color. This kind of intuitive practicing stokes the creative fires and encourages expression and engagement. And when your mind, emotions and senses are engaged, you are in an ideal state to create music!

The importance of non-judgment

“It’s so out of tune!” “Ugh, that was a disaster!” “It sounds so scratchy.”

Do you ever catch yourself saying things like this to yourself when you practice or perform? Or worse, have you heard someone verbalize them? (I hope not!)

Going hand-in-hand with the state of bare awareness is non-judgment. This is a crucial component of being a fearless fiddler in performance situations. It means noticing what’s going on, without assigning positive or negative values to it.

This can be such a challenge for musicians, who have been subject to many forms of criticism throughout our training, and often are our own harshest critics.

The real challenge, however, is to keep the keen discernment that we have, while staying neutral. Let’s take the examples from the opening. How can they be re-phrased in a non-judgmental way?

If something is out of tune, is it flat or sharp? Do you know by how many cents? What is its relation to the vertical chord structure, or to the horizontal melody line? What caused the error – was it an error in shifting technique? Maybe it’s time to review some shifting exercises. Now we’re getting somewhere!

If the tone is scratchy, why? Where was your bow? Are you using too much pressure or too little bow speed? What kind of sound does the music call for in this spot?

Reframing statements in a non-judgmental way takes more effort, but is more descriptive, more creative, and helps point to a solution. Simply describing something as “bad” is not very helpful – we do not know what is wrong nor how to fix it, and it’s kind of depressing.

Let’s work on silencing the inner mean old teacher, and institute a policy of non-judgment in our practicing and rehearsing.