The Piano Brain: A Question Of Talent

Article by Michael Griffin (MGBH)

How often have you heard someone say, “that student is talented”? Perhaps you say this yourself? Why talented? One could use words like competent, accomplished, capable, able, strong, skilled or phrases like “very good at it” and “has much potential”.  The uniqueness of “talented” and its relative “gifted” brings an implication of natural ability requiring less work and effort. No other word implies this.  Therein lies the danger.  Some people think the word encourages effort and builds self-esteem, but a significant body of research suggests otherwise.

The question “how come you are you good at playing the piano?” might generate two responses.  One – because I am gifted, talented, a natural.  How do I know?  Because everyone tells me so.   Two – because I work at it.  “I am who I am through my own efforts,” said Beethoven (OBM). Learners with a “talent mindset” develop less effective learning dispositions than those with the “learning mindset” that attributes achievement to the quality and quantity of effort.  Stanford University research concludes that the “learning mindset” person works harder, persists for longer, likes to be challenged, learns from criticism, seeks feedback, pursues excellence and as a result, broadens their potential.  The “talent mindset” person works less hard (because talent means I shouldn’t have to work as hard as others), is likely to quit much sooner, is less adventurous in seeking challenges, seeks feedback less readily, is paranoid about protecting this “talent” image at the expense of learning, and as a result, underachieves over time.  Hence, if we want to develop healthy learning dispositions for our students, we should cultivate a learning mindset, which we do through our words, feedback, and the way we praise. Sticks and stones might break our bones, but words can do real harm!

Stanford University research concludes that the “learning mindset” person works harder, persists for longer, likes to be challenged, learns from criticism, seeks feedback, pursues excellence and as a result, broadens their potential.

In one sense, it does not even matter what the truth of the “talent” argument is, because perception controls reality.  Nevertheless, what is the evidence for genetic talent?  The world’s largest investigation about this – the international Human Genome Project spanning 16 years or so, found none.  No variant genes associated with intelligence or innate talent in music or anything else were discovered, and the report concluded they would probably never be found.  It was discovered that among our 19000 genes (rather than the more than 100 000 they expected to find),  99.9 percent of them are identical.  Our brains, which control muscular movement and expression, are very similar in capacity and capability. Brains are shaped by early childhood experiences and by what we do.  Intelligence is a result of working the brain to make new connections and then strengthening them.  Whilst everyone has about 86 billion brain cells, people vary enormously in the number of brain connections they have – up to 80 trillion- based on what they do. Hence the variation in ability and intelligence.  Some people read books, move their bodies, work harder than others, sleep more, and best of all for connecting the whole brain – play the piano.  Again, some people practice thirty minutes a day, three days a week.  Others might practice four hours per day, every day.  Some children choose to spend six hours per day looking at a phone, time that could be used cultivating the intellect. In a sense, we are neurological engineers of our brain.  As Aristotle (OBM) said, “We become our repeated self.”

 Whilst everyone has about 86 billion brain cells, people vary enormously in the number of brain connections they have – up to 80 trillion- based on what they do. Hence the variation in ability and intelligence.

Hence, when the world expert on expertise in any domain listed the factors uncovered from years of investigation into exceptional performance, he did not list talent.  Rather, 1) early childhood experiences, 2) the quality of effort – deliberate practice as he called it; and 3) the number of practice hours.  The last factor deserves more respect than it usually receives.  It is the single most significant factor in differentiating achievement in anything– provided the practice is of a quality nature.

What is quality practice?  Eighty percent of pianists aged 14 and under mostly practice a piece once through, from start to end (always at the very start!) without stopping to fix anything.  This, of course, is a run-though – not practice.  Those who make progress, practice in chunks, isolating phrases for specific attention.  They rarely go from the beginning.  These pianists practice slowly, and engage in much repetition – blocked, variable, and spaced depending on requirements.  The focus is 100 percent.  They practice “only on the days that they eat” (thanks, Dr Suzuki (OBM)) and think about what it is that needs to be the focus of a practice session.

Those who make progress, practice in chunks, isolating phrases for specific attention.  They rarely go from the beginning.  These pianists practice slowly, and engage in much repetition – blocked, variable, and spaced depending on requirements.

Andres Ericsson (MGBH), a researcher in the psychological nature of expertise and human performance, says, “In every case, talent is identified retrospectively, and the emergence of prodigious skill follows rather than precedes unique opportunity and substantial work.  No one has found a way to predict talent before they witness it.”

She plays so well because she has a talent.

How do you know she has a talent? That’s obvious. She plays so well.

Parental support plays a role in every case of prodigy.  There are no known cases of child prodigy not hot-housed by parents.

Exceptional performers almost exclusively are of a “learning mindset” disposition.  Lang Lang (MGBH) wrote “Journey of a Thousand Miles” to help people understand how classical pianists get so accomplished.  He started piano at age three, was soon doing six to eight hours per day, this became ten hours prior to turning nine, and the rest is history.  “I believe you have all the talent and creativity you need. What you can control is how hard you work.  You can make sure you work harder than anyone else.”

The word “talented” is used regularly in music education.  The idea that it is a positive ascription is not supported by evidence. Rather, it can cultivate undesirable learning dispositions and precipitate quitting. On a more global scale, eliminating this word from music teachers’ vocabulary might help future generations to consider taking up and continuing the challenge and joy of learning music, rather than accepting the permanent defeat and incapacitation of “I’m not musical”.

The word “talented” is used regularly in music education.  The idea that it is a positive ascription is not supported by evidence. Rather, it can cultivate undesirable learning dispositions and precipitate quitting.

 

About the Author:

Michael Griffin is an educator, speaker, and pianist, based in Australia.  He is the author of “Learning Strategies for Musical Success” and “Developing Musical Skill – For Students.”

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2 thoughts on “The Piano Brain: A Question Of Talent

  1. I had a chance to look through the articles from the Winter issue. I particularly found the article, “Piano Brain” most interesting. I think it brings attention to important distinctions and misconceptions about ability, skill, and “talent”. It’s also motivating and insightful across a wide variety of disciplines, which makes it an effective life hack. Keep up the great work, all the best.

    James-

  2. Well when a person is talented it means he has a lot of skill and experience in this skill and that’s why some people would call him talented well aI do most of the things the author said like I do practice always the day before band class and I never forget so I do some good things the author said in the ext about this word “talented”.

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