In my final semester at New England Conservatory, I’m interning as a Teaching Assistant for Dr. Scripp’s Teaching Seminar, one of the core courses in the Music-In-Education curriculum. I took the course a full year ago and really enjoyed the exposure to new concepts and the multiple perspectives from which we viewed the art of teaching and learning. Of course, year-to-year this particular course can change significantly; the topics explored are, to a certain degree, based on the interests of current class members as well as the latest literature with implications on teaching and learning.
One of the pieces of literature we’ve been reading as a class is Matthew Syed’s new bookÂ Bounce. In the spirit of Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers, Syed explores the “science of success” by illuminating the hidden opportunities that have existed to create some of the most accomplished musicians, athletes and intellectuals on the planet. Syed challenges the notion of talent, a concept ingrained in the American psyche and romanticized by many, and points to concepts like the 10,000 hours theory of practice, domain expertise and what he calls a trajectory of development.
What helps to make Syed’s arguments so authentic is that he himself is a former elite athlete, an Olympian who became Britain’s no. 1 ranked table tennis player in 1995. Syed writes candidly about hidden opportunities that existed for him, such as the tournament-specification table tennis table that his parents bought and housed in their garage, on which Syed and his brother would duel for hours on end at a young age, creating for himself a trajectory of development that made it virtually impossible for thousands of other aspiring players to match. Another hidden opportunity existed in the fact that one of the nation’s top table tennis coaches taught at the primary school Syed attended, spotting Syed’s enhanced ability at the game and inviting him to join Omega, one of the elite table tennis clubs in the country. Syed states “… I had powerful advantages not available to hundreds of thousands of youngsters. I was, in effect, the best of a very small bunch. Or, to put it another way, I was the best of a very big bunch, only a tiny fraction of whom had my opportunities.”
Syed also explores the 10,ooo hours theory of practice, a recent theory of cognitive science that asserts it takes about 10,000 hours of purposeful practice for the human brain to assimilate all of the neural traces required for world-class expertise in anything. Syed cites a 1991 study by Florida State University psychologist Anders Ericsson, in which he and two colleagues conducted extensive interviews with violinists at the renowned Music Academy of Berlin. The violinists were categorized into three groups- the most outstanding performers, the very good performers, and the least able players who were studying to become music teachers.
Syed sums up, â€œBy the age of twenty, the best violinists had practiced an average of ten thousand hours, more than two thousand hours more than the good violinists and more than six thousand hours more than the violinists hoping to become music teachers. These differences are not just statistically significant; they are extraordinary. Top performers had devoted thousands of additional hours to the task of becoming master perfomers. But thatâ€™s not all. Ericsson also found that there were no exceptions to this pattern: nobody who had reached the elite group without copious amounts of practice, and nobody who had worked their socks off but failed to excel. Purposeful practice was the only factor distinguishing the best from the rest.â€
So what are the implications of all of this for music, education and music-in-education? There are several. One implication on music performance is that this knowledge can help to nurture humble top performers. The knowledge that world-class expertise on an instrument is not the result of some innate talent but rather a product of countless hours of purposeful practice, often working in tandem with an early exposure to music that created a trajectory of development, can help to instill pride in top performers rather than a feeling of uniqueness. One of the most inspiring things I experience every so often is being in the presence of truly expert performers who are totally humble and unassuming in their personalities- this has a powerful musical effect as well.
Another implication is that we, as educators, should be able to teach complex skills (such as the learning of an instrument) more effectively now that we’re armed with the knowledge that it takes the brain about 10,000 hours to assimilate all of the necessary neural traces for expertise. It may be effective to explain to students the nature of how their brains create memory traces for the fine motor skills required to play an instrument, and that, with practice these traces become stronger and stronger, essentially becoming “wired” in them. Also, to be able to explain to students that expertise doesn’t happen overnight, and to reference the latest cognitive research on expertise, may help young students to gain a good perspective on things and avoid frustration when they expect to develop expertise more quickly than humanly possible.
Finally, an important implication for education in general is, in the words of Dr. Larry Scripp, “Teach every kid as if they’re talented.” In other words, don’t adjust expectations based on a preconceived notion of what students are and aren’t “talented,” because the latest science of expertise suggests that “talent” has far less to do with expertise than the aforementioned factors. Teach all students with the assumption that they will “get it,” because with enough determination, study and practice, chances are they will.