The name of the ‘School voor Jong Talent’ suggests that there is such a thing as talent. But what does it mean, having talent? For the common layman someone with talent has obviously more capabilities than others, and usually these capabilities are presumed to be innate, genetically inherited. However, in the course of the 20th century, there has been a lot of research on the issue of talent and development psychologists have developed new views and new theories in this so-called nature-nurture debate.
One of the leading scholars in this field is Ericsson, who in a famous article ‘The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance’ (Ericsson et al. 1993) stated that “expert performance is the result of an extended process of skill acquisition mediated by large, but not excessive daily amounts of deliberate practice” (p. 387). His claim, often quoted by others, is that irrespective of the domain (sports, music etc.) a period of 10 years (with accumulated deliberate practice of about 10,000 hours) is needed for the acquisition of the skills needed for expert performance. This seems to suggest that, given enough time for deliberate practice, any one could learn to be an expert in any field. Indeed, Ericsson writes: “We reject any important role for innate ability”. But he continues: “It is quite plausible, however, that heritable individual differences might influence processes related to motivation and the original enjoyment of the activities in the domain and, even more important, affect the inevitable differences in the capacity to engage in hard work (deliberate practice)” (p. 399).
Some scholars took this argument even further. Howe concludes in his article ‘Innate Talents: Reality or Myth?’ (Howe et al. 1998, p. 147): “The evidence we have surveyed in this target article does not support the talent account, according to which excelling is a consequence of possessing innate gifts. This conclusion has practical implications, because categorising some children as innately talented is discriminatory. The evidence suggests that such categorisation is unfair and wasteful, preventing young children from pursuing a goal because of the unjustified conviction of teachers or parents that certain children would not benefit from the superior opportunities given to those who are deemed to be talented”.
Lehmann refers in his article ”Persons in the Shadow” Brough to Light: Parents, Teachers and Mentors: How Guidance Works in the Acquisition of Musical Skills’ (Lehmann 2014, p. 65) to an earlier study (Lehmann et al. 2002) of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and 21 contemporary composers, and seems to suggest that his reputation as a child prodigy can be explained exclusively on the basis of his early started rigorous training by his professional father.
Other scholars, however, have expressed opposite views. Hambrick quotes in his article ‘Deliberate practice: Is this all it takes to become an expert?’ (Hambrick et al. 2014) several scholars that heavily criticized Ericsson’s views and he concludes “that deliberate practice is necessary but not sufficient to account for individual differences in performance” (p. 36). According to Hambrick’s research deliberate practice could account for only 29.9% of variance in music performance (ibid. p. 40).
Sloboda intends to prove in his article ‘The role of practice in the development of performing musicians’ (Sloboda et al. 1996) that in the comparison of different groups of young musicians, performing at different levels, the higher level of one group can be explained by the fact that they have accumulated the required hours of practice at a faster rate – and thus at a younger age – than the other groups (p. 300). The fact that within the compared groups there were individuals who did less than 20% of the mean amount of practice for a certain grade and others who did over four times as much practice compared to average, is regarded by Sloboda as not relevant for his conclusions (p. 301). In my view this might raise doubts about the validity of his conclusions.
Trainor concludes in her above-mentioned article (Trainor 2005, p. 274) that “not all students who practice a lot become masters, so there also may be a contribution of innate talent”. However, she adds, “it is also somewhat difficult to predict musical genius from early childhood promise”. As a final quote from the vast literature in this field, I refer to McPherson (2005, p. 27), who states to have found “ample evidence that better players possessed more sophisticated strategies for playing their instrument very early in their development and that these players were the ones who went on to achieve at the highest level”.
As you may have concluded, the nature-nurture debate in the domain of talents and the acquisition of expert skills, is very dynamic and shows rather opposite views, some of which even tend to be ideologically motivated (cf. Howe quoted above). What does all this mean for me in my practice as a violin teacher working with ‘young talents’?
My work can be seen on the ‘nurture side’. However, when I start with young children, they have already experienced years of influence from their environment – how much music making and listening was there in their families? - and are no longer ‘tabula rasa’. So the question whether these children have talents that are innate, is not of primary importance. More important is, what the capacities (‘talents’) of these children are when they start their violin lessons with me and how these develop in the course of their education process. Here I adhere to the view that there is no such thing as a one-dimensional talent for playing the violin. I refer to Gardner’s theory of “multiple intelligences, each of which coincides with a different cognitive module and follows its own developmental path” (quote from Lightfoot et al. 2013, p. 421).
For becoming a performing violin expert, you need to develop skills in rather different – though interrelated – domains. In broad lines, I would distinguish these four domains:
And within these domains, you can distinguish many different aspects (appreciation of tone quality, good hearing of intonation, pitch memory, phrasing, etc. etc.), all of which may be easier for one child to master than for an other child at a certain moment in their development, but which may also change and develop over time.
Each child has his/her own balance of strengths and weaknesses. It is the teacher’s challenge to get the most out ofeach student. For this reason it is essential that each student is guided individually. It is essentially incorrect to approach all students in the same way. On the contrary, it is important, that all skills required to become a good musician are developed in each student individually. Using one single method for all students is therefore undesirable as too many specific issues may get underexposed for a certain number of students.
The truth is that children who pass their entrance exam for the SvJT show better skills and have a higher motivation than their peers. However, at this young age it is very difficult to decide who is really ‘talented’ enough to develop into a professional violinist. The main criteria applied at the entrance exam have to do with attitude, motivation and learning skills. And in those cases that I had to decide to stop teaching one of my students, this was for the same reasons: lack of discipline (attitude) or lack of learning skills.
In my work, I feel inspired by Coyle (2009), who describes his search for the secret code of ‘talent hotbeds’ in the world. He describes this code in three elements: ignition; deep practice; and master coaching. In short you might say: the secret code lies in the combination of strong motivation, focused practice and good guidance.
My point of departure is that everybody has certain musical skills, since we all have language skills, which includes a sense of phrasing, rhythm and intonation. For me it is the challenge to enable all my students to develop their skills, departing from the skills they already have and building upon that, step by step, each child in his/her own way, at his/her own speed and if necessary in his/her own order. I have experienced the malleability of talent in my class for some decades now. For me as a teacher it is very rewarding to see how far you can get with such an approach.
These ideas of talent will be my starting point in this research. It makes the question even more interesting why some children show motivation, interest and perseverance and obtain the title of ‘talented people’ while others do not.