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Danielle Gomez

Musical Talent: Nature vs. Nurture

October 6, 2009 at 12:33 AM

 For the most part, I don't believe in a "musical gene."  I will concede that there is such a thing as a musical genius.  But these people, regardless of the field they crop up in, are more the exception rather than the rule.

A child growing up in a musical family will have a distinct head start in a musical career over children who come from a non-musical family.  I think that examples of this that are seen in history are largely responsible for this notion of a "musical gene."  "Of course Bach was a musical genius.  He inherited all those good musical genes from his father."  Bach's father and all of his uncles were professional musicians.  He was encouraged from a very early age to explore music.  Bach's musical accomplishments were loudly applauded by his entire family rather than discouraged and frowned upon.  How could the young Bach fail to have, at the very least, an interest in music with this kind of environment?

What is sad for me to see is students that are denied a musical education due to their performance on some kind of "musical talent test."  These tests determine a very finite set of skills that are purely the result of previous exposure to music, nothing more.  The skills necessary to be a professional performer are very different from the skills of a music teacher or instrument maker. So long as there is interest and determination, skill can be developed.


From Bart Meijer
Posted on October 6, 2009 at 8:59 AM

Danielle,

So true. Remember what some violin teacher said about very young David Oistrakh: no talent at all. It's a good thing his parents didn't believe that!

Bart


From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on October 6, 2009 at 3:51 PM

Well they are many versions Bart lol  One that Stoliarsky took DFO's hand when he was about 5 and just by the feel said that one day he would be a prodigy, another that Stoliarky said he was not a virtuoso because he was a real violinist and another that Oistrakh's mother made him meet the flutist of the orchestra who said he was terrible and non talented at all...  My favorite one is the one Oistrakh said about his playing himself when asked by someone to comment it. He said that he didn't have anything extraordinairy as the drama of Stern, the technique of Heifetzh or the philosophy of Menuhin but that he had all those at a lesser level and that his talent was to combinate everything in order to make music that is after all the art of "combining" thingsjust like in a combined sport.  I found it very cleverly said!

I agree with your thoughs Danielle and what makes a musician is all this IMHO: musical exposure/context, mental and physical talent, and... yes sometimes natural selection. I cannot say always because I saw a wonderful exception to this in a thread lately (a guy that had super musical training at US best schools but... no right hand.  He played Tchaicovsky's concerto!!!)

Anne-Marie


From Danielle Gomez
Posted on October 6, 2009 at 7:10 PM

 How is that an exception?  The violinist with no right hand worked really hard and developed physical talent.  I'd say he's a perfect example.


From Corwin Slack
Posted on October 6, 2009 at 8:08 PM

I feel very strongly that innate talent is a necessary but not sufficient condition for full development as a musician. I have seen it over and over. The great piano pedagogue Cecile Genhart said that there were three elements to a successful musician, background (meaning general education), training, and talent. Of the three she said that background and training were the most important but that only talented people were worth training (at her level). 

I do believe that everyone has something that can be cultivated but it isn't tragic if an untalented person does not get training.


From Bart Meijer
Posted on October 6, 2009 at 9:11 PM

Anne-Marie, I believe it was the flutist version of the story that I heard.


From Danielle Gomez
Posted on October 6, 2009 at 9:44 PM

 To Corwin:

For argument's sake, how would you define a talented vs. untalented person?  As a control, let's say that neither of them have had any musical exposure whatsoever.  


From Corwin Slack
Posted on October 6, 2009 at 10:53 PM

 Some criteria would be pitch recognition, hand, eye and ear coordination etc.

I don't really expect that you can pick these people out really well before they start playing an instrument but once the opportunity to learn an instrument presents itself the reality of talent starts to manifest itself. By the time someone is ready for college there should be absolutely no doubt whether there is a trainable talent.  If someone has aspirations for a solo career the level of talent is well understood by the time the player is 13.  I would hope that no one is headed to college thinking that the end result will be a Midori like career if they haven't been having Midori like experiences. (i.e. paid solo performances, playing with major symphony orchestras etc.)

I'll bet that if you surveyed the first violin sections of the top 10 US orchestras you would find that by the time they were juniors in high school most had played several virtuoso concertos, had soloed with at least a youth orchestra and and won a symphony young artists competition and were first or second chair in every ensemble they played in (except the most elite summer festival orchestras where they were almost always in the upper ends of the first violin sections).  This is unachievable without talent.

Training is necessary but there are no trainers who can produce this result all the time every time. 


From Bethany Morris
Posted on October 6, 2009 at 11:35 PM

Edwin Gordon, a major name in music education, developed two tests to measure tonal and rhythmic aptitude: Primary Measures of Music Audiation for ages 5-12, and Intermediate Measures of Music Audiation for ages 12+.  It is a purely aural test, with no music reading required.  His writings about musical aptitude are pretty dry, but his philosophy on teaching children music (with emphasis on exposure to many different types of music at the earliest age possible) is fascinating.

When people look for "talent", they tend to look at achievement, not aptitude.  Even children with low aptitude for something can reach considerable achievement with effort.  I suspect that some aptitude is inborn.  However, Gordon's research shows that aptitude can be increased until the age of eight.  (Support your elementary music programs!!)  After that, a child's musical progress is achievement within fixed aptitude.


From Danielle Gomez
Posted on October 7, 2009 at 8:00 AM

 To Corwin:

Pitch recognition, ear training, and hand/eye coordination are all learned skills.

"By the time someone is ready for college there should be absolutely no doubt whether there is a trainable talent."

I'm still not exactly sure what you mean by trainable talent.

"If someone has aspirations for a solo career the level of talent is well understood by the time the player is 13.  I would hope that no one is headed to college thinking that the end result will be a Midori like career if they haven't been having Midori like experiences."

Midori practices for many many many hours everyday.  Her skill is the result of diligent study and a passion for performance.  Why they heck couldn't a 13 year old aspire to do that if you told them exactly what was involved?

 


From Danielle Gomez
Posted on October 7, 2009 at 8:12 AM

 To Bethany:

I agree that these tests can be useful in judging achievement levels.  Especially in a school setting.  So long as students are not rejected just because no one ever bothered to teach them.


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 7, 2009 at 11:01 AM

I half-agree with Corwin.  But I think it is tragic if someone who is interested and motivated, and loves to make music, doesn't receive training, talented or not.  While I agree that not everyone can be trained to be Midori, there's only one Midori and most of us are not her. I don't care for teachers' making sweeping comments about who is "worth" training in an absolute sense.  Of course they can and should decide who it is worth their own time to train, but generalizing is unfair.  Nobody, no matter how talented they are personally, gets to decide what is "worth it" for someone else.


From Royce Faina
Posted on October 7, 2009 at 2:55 PM

I agree with Karen.


From Corwin Slack
Posted on October 7, 2009 at 2:51 PM

 In the developed world most people get a chance receive enough training to demonstrate their talent. There are very few Midoris The rest of us enjoy the violin in spite of the talent gap between us and Midori and her peers.


From Danielle Gomez
Posted on October 7, 2009 at 6:10 PM

 Would you say that performers such as Midori succeed more because of their personality or because of their skill on the violin?  I mean, there are many many talented musicians out there.  All perfectly capable of giving a soul wrenching performance.  What makes some rise above others?


From Danielle Gomez
Posted on October 9, 2009 at 11:59 PM

 Interesting.  So what would be considered pure professional soloist level skill?  Super fast up bow staccato?  Arpeggiated chords? 


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 10, 2009 at 11:45 AM

I think someone like Midori has everything:  skill and personality.  That's one reason why performers like her are so rare. 


From Danielle Gomez
Posted on October 10, 2009 at 7:21 PM

 I agree, Karen.  Theoretically, anyone can play a technically complicated piece.  Just like how anyone can do a pull-up.  Sure, it's not easy.  And it may be easier for some compared to others.  But if you work at it long enough, it will happen.  I think the top notch performers have to have a "diva soprano" type of attitude.  You have to love playing in front of others.  That's a very rare personality trait.


From Maeve O'Hara
Posted on October 11, 2009 at 8:12 PM

Hmmm...Suzuki, anybody? :)

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