News Flash: Musical Achievement is Not About Talent

Musical Talent, Nature Versus Nurture, and the 10,000 Hours Rule

Meet my sister. She started piano lessons at age 7, and practiced a half an hour a day pretty much for the next 11 years, sometimes doing a little more, rarely less.  

She didn’t especially love practicing, and indeed, it was hard for her because she doesn’t have a good ear: She can’t sing on key, could never learn to tune a guitar by ear, can’t pick out a tune by matching pitches. Most of the time, she had to be told that she was playing a wrong note, which my father vociferously did, shouting out from the back of the apartment whenever she hit a clunker.

My sister was smart in school, but she wasn’t what most music teachers would identify as “talented” in music: She never sat down and tried to pluck out a favorite song; she didn’t fish out chords and harmonies; she has trouble identifying the difference between major and minor. But she practiced that half an hour a day. 11 years: Do the math: That’s a total of nearly 2000 hours. And she became skilled.

Here’s a partial list of some of the (original) repertoire she played in junior high school: Chopin’s Military Polonaise. Debussy’s  Clare de Lune. Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances (actually, we performed those together when she was still in elementary school). Janacek’s “On an Overgrown Path.” Some Haydn sonatas. A few Chopin waltzes, polonaises, and preludes. She didn’t ever get to the big concert repertoire: Chopin ballades and etudes, the big Beethoven sonatas, Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff. But she got farther than 95 percent of the piano students I’ve encountered.  

I think about my sister a lot as my students come in and out the door, with their practice logs marked “10 minutes,” “7 minutes,”  “3 minutes,” and a lot of “zeros.” I think about her when I’ve had a kid for four or five years who isn’t yet fluent in note reading, who has to be coached to figure out where a method book piece even starts. Four years of lessons, and “Fur Elise” is still an impossible dream for most of my students…. I admit, I still have trouble wrapping my mind around that.

Comparing students is fruitless of course, but people do it all the time. And one of the ways they do it is by bringing in a destructive little word: “Talent.” Joey has talent. Suzie doesn’t. THAT’S why Suzie can’t find Middle C after 100 piano lessons. THAT’S why Joey is playing the Fantasie Impromptu at the age of 12.  

Talent, Shmalent

In the early 1990s, K. Anders Ericsson did a study at West Berlin’s prestigious Music Academy. He interviewed teachers, asking them to put their conservatory-aged young adult violin and piano students into categories:  Those who had the potential to become professional performing artists. Those who had the ability to play in working professional orchestras. And those who were destined to teach in elementary schools.

An interjection here: I don’t like that last designation. Many fine musicians teach in elementary (and other) schools. But to argue about the classification is to miss the point: The teachers were ranking the students based on their professional potential as performing artists.

And then, in a blind study, the researchers interviewed all those students about how much practice time they had put into their music from the very beginnings of their introduction to music. 

The results were consistent across the board, with so little variation that it challenges our very notions about “talent.” As it turned out, the “talent” it took to become what the professors considered a potential concert artist had nothing to do with anything except how many hours the student had practiced. 

  • 10,000 hours: Master of the instrument; concert artist potential.
  • 8,000 hours: Professional orchestral musicians.
  • 4,000 hours: Teachers 
  • 2,000 hours: Amateurs

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explores the phenomena of people who live and work outside the bell curve: the geniuses, the achievers, the exceptions. He looks at questions like “Why do Asian children seem to do so well at music?” and asks “What is going on here?” He looks at the 10,000 hour study and then he looks at the Beatles and Mozart — and he concludes that just as important as any “talent” was the fact that they had those 10,000 hours. The Beatles played day in and day out in Hamburg, racking up hundreds, then thousands of hours of performance and rehearsal time before their “overnight success.” Mozart played music all day everyday, carefully supervised, starting as a toddler; he probably had his 10,000 hours in well before he was a teenager. 

No one is saying the Beatles or Mozart didn’t have talent: But would they have achieved what they did without those hours? Ericsson’s study says “no.” 

Talent and Practice: The Chicken and the Egg

To conclude that talent has nothing to do with anything may be a little facile, and it contradicts the evidence every music teacher has of students coming in and “getting” it” or not. Some people are better at certain musical tasks than others. And indeed, talent may have been one of the factors that made people practice more to begin with. Would Leopold have sat with little Wolfgang day in and day out if Wolfie had been a distracted little kid who couldn’t remember “Middle C”?  Maybe not. But talent without practice can be nothing more than an empty, unfulfilled promise.

Where talent may factor in is that people like doing the things they are good at. There is a virtuous cycle: They practice, they get results, they enjoy the results, they practice more. A child who simply can’t wrap her mind around how to figure out that “D” is one step up from “C” may not be having as much fun as the kid who sits down, grabs some notes, and starts playings something that sounds good. Kid number 1 practices less, Kid number 2 practices more. 

The Role of Will, Drive, and Character in Musical Achievement

The type of practice also matters: Good practice is a whole lot more than butt-on-bench time.  It can be active, engaged, critical, creative, and problem-solving. It can also be frustrating and boring. It’s not just the time; it’s also about intent and energy and efficiency.

Finally, there is the issue of personal will. Some kids simply have minds that like to wrestle.  

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: If I put a Beethoven Sonata full of 16th notes and 32nd notes on the piano music stand, most of my students will treat it as adult garbage that has nothing to do with them (and, they seem to hope, never will). Their initial reaction to it is that it looks “HARD” and “CONFUSING” and that is all they want to know about it.

But I have a couple of 9 and 10 year-olds who would IMMEDIATELY pick up that music and start trying to work it out. They would look at the threes against fours and ask how to play them, or ask how you play a chord with six notes with only five fingers, and what is that “x”  doing in front of a note where a sharp or a flat usually would go? They are curious — and they see no reason why they shouldn’t be able to try it. That’s not musical TALENT, folks: That’s character. Personality. Drive. Will. Curiosity. Interest. And I’m pretty sure it shows up on the soccer field and in school and in art projects, too.

And that, I think, is the bottom line here: Music is a great equalizer. In a world filled with technology designed to make everything we encounter as effortless as possible, music still requires, and rewards, work.

The Myth of Musical Genius

We have a myth about talent: We like to believe it exists, maybe in part because it lets us off the hook. We think of Paganini, or Robert Johnson, both supposedly possessed by the devil to play as they did. We hear about Uncle George who just sat down at the piano one day and started playing, and we shake our heads in wonder at George’s talent, and say that we wish we had it, conveniently ignoring that when George was a kid he banged away at the old clunker piano in the school lunchroom and tried to learn songs by sneaking into the local music store and looking at chord sheets to see if what he figured out by himself was right, and he listened to the radio when he was supposed to be sleeping.

I’m not sure we’ll ever figure out all the mysteries of talent and genius: The kids who can read music upside down, the prodigies who, at age six, start playing Mozart sonatas, the children with perfect pitch or an intuitive understanding of harmony. Such things certainly exist out at the far edges of the bell curve.

But professional musicians don’t all live out there in the land of freak outliers. Indeed, as the Berlin study showed, even prodigies need to practice to make good on their gifts, and the vast majority of professional musicians inhabit the more prosaic world of “practice makes perfect” and good old slogging.

The conclusion we can draw is an encouraging one: If we practice like they practice, we too may achieve remarkable things.

Just like my sister.

13 thoughts on “News Flash: Musical Achievement is Not About Talent”

  1. Samantha — Thanks for much for your comment, and also, especially, for the link to your blog post.

    Everyone: Go to Samantha’s blog and read her practice guidelines. She’s broken it down year by year and grade by grade.

  2. This is EXACTLY like what my high school band teacher, an AMAZING teacher, used to talk about near the beginning of the year. He called it the T x E equation. Talent x Effort. If you have a lot of talent and put in only a little effort, you will get the same result as someone who has less talent but puts in a lot of effort!

    Sometimes, when talking with my potential Moonbeams One (7-9 yr old) students, and discussing practising expectations, I ask them if they can guess how much I have to practise (I am a 4th year bachelor’s of music student, and also am in grade 10 piano outside of uni). When I say that it’s often between 3 and 4 hours a day, their 15 minutes (half a show, or the time it takes to eat dinner-thank you to one mom for helping put things in perspective!) doesn’t seem so much!

  3. Your points about time put in it are fine. The word “talent” refers as much to having ability and skill as it does to natural aptitude, however. Nobody says that a successful pianist lacks “talent.” It’s a stretch to assume everyone things of the word as referring to some innate gift.

    Anyway, re: nature vs nurture, you’ve ignored the fact that there are genetic influences on traits such as patience, persistence, motivation… In other words, someone with a knack for identifying pitches but an indulgent, distracted personality will not succeed as well as someone with less natural sense of pitch but a dedicated, focused personality. I’m not arguing for everything being innate, because tons of this is environmental, but the factors that got your sister to practice might be as innate as the ones that made her a little slow at identifying notes. Maybe she had more innate aptitude for dedicated practice than most people…

  4. Hi Aaron — Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Yes, a talent for practice may well be innate, or genetic. Also a talent to practice well. I think the 10,000 hours study is only the tip of the iceberg on this issue. 10,000 poorly spent hours won’t get anyone anywhere.

    I DO think that successful musicians have talent… my guess is, that where this factors in is in the work-reward cycle: Talented kids may get better results, sooner (cooler songs, a new book with a higher skill number on it, a trophy at a contest, applause, satisfaction), which encourages them to practice even more. Or they may draw the attention of teachers and parents, who, seeing this talent, make it a point to have them practice more. Chickens and eggs. But the study didn’t look at the reasons some people practice more than others; just the results.

  5. I have had several of my teenage students read this article. Every one of them felt excited and validated when they read it. It gave them hope that, in spite of their busy lives and many interests they can succeed at playing the piano if they are just consistent and stick with it. Your words have really livened up my studio this week and given us much food for thought. Thank you!

  6. These are fantastic articles that parallel and strengthen an amazing number of the ideas and theories I’ve formed since I started teaching piano. Karen, you’re great.

    The link to the Ericsson article seems to be no longer working, though!

  7. There are also basic aspects of biology.
    At 6 feet tall and 22 lbs I am unlikely to be a jockey.
    I’m sure there are similar things with music that make practice more of a joy (less of a struggle) like good hearing, good vision, ability to sit and listen and so much more.

    I’m a strong believer in the 10,000 hours, but I find I am incapable of counting in my head while doing anything else.

    I tried drumming – total failure.
    I am OK at some aspects of piano, but my timing is poor.
    I sing in choir, and lead music at church but at age 50 I have given up trying to force my brain to count “in my head” while doing anything else. If I tap my foot as I sing or play or use a metronome I do better. After years of trying I realize I just can’t count in my head and do any other thing. I must focus to intently on the one thing I am working on.

    That level of focus is helpful in some areas of life (when I read I don’t even hear the phone or doorbell) but it is quite a handicap in piano and singing.

  8. Definitely, people’s individual talents are different. As far as counting in your head goes — most people CAN”T do it, at least not at first Or can’t do it well, That’s why piano teachers insist on counting out loud. Tapping a foot can work too, and that’s what a lot of instrumentalists do, especially, of course, horn players. (For piano, counting is better because one foot is on the pedals, and you have left hand and right hand parts to track, so it’s more complex. But tapping can help.) )Some way of externalizing the beat helps it migrate to you internally, over time — but it takes a lot of time, and almost ALL students, whether adult or kids, are resistant to counting out loud, and insist they can’t do it — if the teacher keeps encouraging them to do it a little at a time, over time, they internalize the rhythm better. It’s like you then have a little metronome/counter ticking away inside you, but it takes a lot of physically marking the beat to get to that point if you start with “bad” rhythm. I’ve heard a lot of people insist they can’t count because they can’t “multi-task.” I have found, though, that if they consistently try, and do what we learn in lessons at home, that they DO learn to internalize the beat better. Some pick it up faster than others, though, and frustration — not ability — is often the limiting factor.

  9. Hi Karen,
    I’m rebooting my piano study after 20+ years of barely playing at all,
    (I used to be pretty good) and am LOVING your blog posts.
    Thank you!!!

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