Written by Jeffrey Agrell in Practicing
≈ 4 Comments
deliberate practice, Geoff Colvin, Mozart, practice
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I’m all for practicing and I agree with the theory that an awful lot of focused, thoughtful practicing is necessary to achieve greatness, no matter what you start with. I teach at a school for gifted children and this is definitely a hot topic right now. I also know from experience that environment, like the one Leopold Mozart created for his children and the advantages that children in higher socioeconomic classes today have, is also a huge factor in children’s success.
I disagree with the speaker in this video (I didn’t catch her name) when she says maybe there’s no genetic component, it’s all in your coach and your practice approach. Leopold did what he did with his children because he saw their talent and their attraction to music. The attraction was almost certainly because they were being exposed to music from birth, but the talent? There is a primary source that relates an incident from when Wolfgang Mozart was very young. His father’s string quartet was rehearsing and Wolfgang begged to play along. Leopold told him he didn’t play well enough and he would only mess it up, but finally gave in and said he could play along with the second violinist. Wolfgang (of course) played so well that the adult violinist stopped and let him take over. By all accounts Leopold was an extreme example of a stage parent — pushy, fudging the children’s ages, seeking the limelight for himself and his children. But in private it seems that he could be surprised by what his son was capable of, and that was because Wolfgang Mozart’s talent was extraordinary, not something created by his pushy father.
I recently read Mozart’s Women by Jane Glover. I highly recommend the book. Leopold does not come off looking very good in this well-researched account. He was an overbearing father who ended Nannerl’s promising career as a pianist and who Wolfgang had to break free of in order to realize his potential.
If it was only good coaching and environment, why aren’t there more extraordinary creative achievers?
The speaker in the video gets her information from the book Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin; a book that complements and supplements this theme that came about about the same time was The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. I highly recommend both (see my earlier post on the books). From different approaches they both tried to answer the same question: how do experts (e.g. in music and sports) become expert? Why are some places hotbeds of (particular) talents? For instance, they say that the reason that Mozart was Mozart was the same reason that Tiger Woods was Tiger Woods: because their dads were Leopold Mozart and Earl Woods, professionals in their disciplines and superior live-in teachers. The relate that Earl would take 18 month old Tiger and put him in a high chair and proceed to hit golf balls in front of him for four hours at a time. By the time Tiger played in his first pro tournament at age 19 he had been working very hard under a fine teacher for 17 years. Mozart already had 3000 hours of diligent practice by age 6, under the nose and direction of one of Europe’s finest pedagogues. No texting, no TV, nothing but practice for little Wolfi. So: the reason you or me are not Mozart is because our dad was not Leopold Mozart. My own feeling is that beyond a basic physical suitability for a specific discipline (offensive linebackers have to be big; gymnasts have to be small), that world-class unrelenting coaching combined with the grit/gumption to work unrelentingly long and hard for many years is what makes the best of the best; I don’t see genetics as being more than an entry card to the race. Most people don’t have that kind of coaching or that kind of determination or are in a situation where ($ is a factor) they can devote that much time for so long without letting up. It’s not easy, it’s not fun, and there is little life outside of the discipline. Most of us want to be good, but really want to have some life in our life. So we fall somewhere short of where these few brilliant amazing people have done. And that’s ok. The world needs people of all types. Mozart’s talent developed not because his father was pushy (he certainly was), but because he worked so long and so hard under a great teacher starting from the youngest possible age. There just aren’t many instances where this combination has come together. Check out the books and see what you think – they are much more eloquent than I on this subject. The books are fascinating treatises of the subject; I’ve often used their examples and ideas in my teaching. Thanks for the tip on Mozart’s Women – I looking forward to reading it.
Thank you for all the information — I have been meaning to read The Talent Code. Carol Dweck writes about similar ideas. I do agree with the ideas that lots of practice, good teaching (or coaching) and focus, along with the attitude that you can get better if you try make for success in any field. Certainly a lot of people with natural ability don’t develop it either because of lack of opportunity or interest. My two children are both musically talented. My son quit trombone in high school and never looked back; my daughter is majoring in horn at IU. I still believe that Wolfgang Mozart was very unusual, that maybe he wouldn’t have been Mozart without his father, but he was so extraordinary that he must have started with buckets of talent. Was his sister equally talented but because she was a girl, Leopold limited her options? What about Beethoven? His father made him practice, but he was not a good coach. But Beethoven became great anyway. It would be interesting to look at other artists. Did Picasso have a coach from a young age? Again, I don’t disagree with the ideas in the video, I just think it’s more complicated than she makes it out to be.
A brief video is ipso facto just a glimpse of an idea. Best thing is to read one or both of those books to really get deep into the history and science behind it all. They are fascinating reads – every musician and athlete should read– oh, heck, everybody ought to read them.
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