Practice or Native Talent?

July 15, 2014 at 11:02 AM · This new study that the NY Times reports on reawakens the debate over which is more important, practice or native talent.

Since the previous "most important" study in 1993 'concluded' that practice is more important, no one has seriously challenged that conclusion--till now.

The question does NOT address the pleasures of being an artist/musician or the reasons for becoming involved in an art...and shouldn't affect most musicians/artists; but for those who are ambitious to achieve renown and become #1, it may be worth considering...once, of course, someone devises a way to measure 'talent.'


July 15, 2014 at 11:51 AM ·

July 15, 2014 at 12:06 PM · Actually, we now have the big laboratory in the sky known as You Tube.

I'm amused in particular by a video about s child prodigy shown banging on a piano while still wearing diapers! (Emily Bear) What practice?

Some people got it, some don't. Some have more, some have less.

I have too much fun to worry about it. I remember a line from a western movie, "No matter how fast you can draw, somebody can draw faster!"

July 15, 2014 at 12:09 PM · I've been convinced for many years that it is talent. Unless you have it in abundance you will never make it to the top.

The great players were all there by about 12 years of age, or even younger.

Moderate talent and hard work can sometimes get you quite a long way as well, but never to the pinacle.

July 15, 2014 at 12:22 PM · For me, the question of talent is somewhat irrelevant. I'll never achieve greatness, but it's still gratifying to work hard in order to reach my highest potential. Not having prodigy-level talent doesn't mean that practicing is futile!

July 15, 2014 at 03:43 PM · How many 11 year-old "geniuses" survive adolescence?

I guess (in the absence of figures):

- 10% as successful if slightly disillusioned professionals; (the non- geniuses hvae caught up..)

- less than 1% as top soloists;

- a vast majority give up when their child's ease deserts them, and no-one has taught them to analyse, reconstruct, maintain, ...and practice!

Itzahk Perlman said somwhere that he wasn't the most brilliant of his class, he just worked much harder. Not sure about that!

As a teacher, I am delighted to meet those who manifest a strong talent; when it is less manifest, I try to look under the surface.

July 15, 2014 at 03:54 PM · Everyone has to work hard; for those who have talent the results will be better and quicker. To me this is so obvious it does not need a research study to prove or disprove. How this will play out in each individual's life is another matter, there are so many factors--psychological strength, degree of commitment, life circumstances--that come into play.

July 15, 2014 at 06:58 PM · Talent is a bag you fill with hard work. Some people have large, empty bags. Some have tiny filled bags. And some have tiny, empty bags...

July 15, 2014 at 07:22 PM · Can we exchange our bag if we are not happy with it ?

July 15, 2014 at 08:53 PM · Talent is certainly real. However, even the most talented individual will eventually hit a wall where he or she will have to work in order to improve. This can be a rude awakening for people who are used to hearing a lot about their innate gifts; it can even be crippling if the student's self-esteem is built on the idea of not having to work very hard and still getting good results. A student can do nothing about his or her talent (or lack thereof), but everyone can work to improve.

As far the upper echelon of classical players (who I happen to believe are not the only musicians who make a meaningful contribution to the world), I agree that they almost always "arrive" before age twelve. But talent isn't the only factor there. It also takes being born into the right family who have the money to nurture the talent, who know the right things to do and the right places to take their three-year-olds, who are willing to move to a different city or country to pursue their child's violin studies. Of course, there are plenty of those families that don't end up with supremely gifted children. But I'm sure there are also any number of children with the natural musicality to be a world-class soloist who just didn't win the lottery on where to be born. What we generally think of as "talent" on the child prodigy level is really a perfect storm of many different factors, with actual talent being only one of them.

July 15, 2014 at 09:42 PM · Haven't read the article, but what passes for "talent" may be far more than just genetics. What many refer to as "the golden-age" of violinists may have is roots in pre-natal development, healthy food, clean air, and absence of neurotoxic pesticides. Certainly practice plays a vital role too.

July 15, 2014 at 10:05 PM · "Talent is a bag you fill with hard work. Some people have large, empty bags. Some have tiny filled bags. And some have tiny, empty bags..."

The really important thing is that your talent/work parallels your intended journey.

Or that your bag matches your shoes (bet you didn't see that one coming...)

July 23, 2014 at 04:31 PM · I'm convinced that "talent" is 2% natural and 98% practice. The 14-year-old "child prodigy" who wins a concerto competition probably started at 3, and practices 5 hours a day.

If you practice 30 minutes a day, 5 times a week, and have played for 11 years, this is only 1,430 hours of practice total.

If you practice 5 hours a day, for the same length of time, this is 14,300 hours, which according to many studies, is far beyond the number of hours one must practice to become a "master" of something, whatever that means.

My only point is that if you hear an amazing performer, they've probably just put in the time practicing.

Amazing players that show up at symphony rehearsal claiming they "barely had time to practice", but then rip off every passage like is is nothing, are probably being a little untruthful about how much time they actually spent hacking away at the music.

July 23, 2014 at 04:52 PM · Thinking out loud .............

Why does it seem that the violin is taken as the ultimate candidate for the talent/genetics debates?

I can carry a tune in a bucket on a violin but I would not even think of flamenco guitar!

How about other skills like painting? Are you born artistic or do you learn it?

July 23, 2014 at 05:38 PM · Charon - if you were right then virtually any child that started at 3 would become not only a virtuoso but also a musician. I think there is overwhelming evidence that this is not the case - a few people become truly great - and they need not necessarily have the best opportunities/environment. Marian Anderson the amazing opera singer is a wonderful example of someone with very limited background/opportunities that was head and shoulders better than her well appointed peers. She was just SO talented (and obvioiusly had an amazing natural voice.

Of course that's an aspect that's too often ignored: 'talent' is usually also at least in part a perfectly suited body...

July 23, 2014 at 06:32 PM · perfectly suited body? dressed well or fit for the task? Talent for any complex skill is a package. To play violin, you need good pitch and interval recognition, good hands, good sense of rhythm, curiosity, whatever personality/intelligence gifts make learning and practice possible, good enough vision to read music (unless pure fiddling), and enough basic health to stay the course. Also, an ability to "multi-task" and do all these at same time... Maybe others? Some people have great sense of rhythm but no pitch recognition and make wonderful drummers. Everyone's different! All of these "talents" probably have genetic and epigenetic components, and some can be developed or fine tuned by practice/education to a degree that probably varies greatly among people.

July 23, 2014 at 07:22 PM ·

There is definitely truth to what you say, however, it seems most kids just don't practice a heck of a lot. Even the ones who start at 3. My students who practice more, in general, tend to be better.

It can be argued that those with more "natural talent" have a greater desire to practice more, as the immediate payoff is greater, and those with less "natural talent" practice less due to it feeling like more of a challenge.

There is a massive gray area between a section player in an average-paying symphony, and one who is a world-class soloist. When I think of being an accomplished player, I really don't think of the latter, as that is really reserved for the special few who honestly are just probably born with something extra.

But what is that something extra? Is it perfect pitch? Perfect dexterity? Amazing memory of the entire fingerboard? Or the discipline to put in many hours of focused, daily practice? Also, how often is one born a "genius", but in the end simply does not practice enough to become a world-class soloist? It probably happens quite often.

On another note, as a former opera singer myself, I have a hard time comparing the human voice to any instrument. The voice is an instrument you were either born with, or you weren't. You can either sing, or you can't. Practice doesn't improve the instrument you already have. Lessons teach you how to breathe, phrase, learn diction, learn repertoire, etc, but if you don't already have the voice to begin with, not much is going to change that.

July 24, 2014 at 01:44 AM · "The 14-year-old "child prodigy" who wins a concerto competition probably started at 3, and practices 5 hours a day."

Have you ever tried getting a 3-year-old to play for 5 hours? To me, part of the "talent" is the internal focus and desire to play better, and willingness to put in the time. Maybe I have talent... but I just don't feel like practicing.

July 24, 2014 at 05:07 AM · It probably in the end comes down to how many brain cells you have, all other things being OK such as hearing sight and general health.

I may have been a bigger success had i not been totally deficient in brain cells and general intelligence. So I had to be a ditch digger in orchestras.

July 24, 2014 at 12:54 PM · And if the ditch is carefully dug the conductor can trip into it ;)

July 24, 2014 at 12:55 PM ·

Generally we look at fast learners as talented, and how can you compete against someone who is able to learn something in hours or weeks that you are unable to learn in months or years. Well thank god or nature there is creativity, because creativity trumps fast learners.

July 25, 2014 at 05:03 AM · Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. (Thomas A. Edison).

That doesn't mean that if we sweat a lot we are going to hit the genius level. To become a star player we sure do need that 1 percent.

Although am an old professional orchestral sweat, (done the crime, served the time), I am no genius, a mere violinistic pygmy as compared with the great soloists.

July 25, 2014 at 06:56 AM · stop for a moment and think of all the geniuses-that-never were. All those violinists who would have been better than any yet but could not because their circumstances would not allow it - poverty, parental control, injury, or just play circumstances (maybe ended up playing a guitar!), prevented them from stepping on to the violin track at the timely moment or pulled them off it before they could discover their oevre.

So Edison got it only partially right:

"Genius is 1% inspiration, 49% perspiration and 50% non-deprivation!"


July 25, 2014 at 08:58 AM · I heard that Julian Bream the guitarist started off as a cellist before taking up the guitar (as I also did, but there the resemblance ends!), so one cannot help wondering if in different circumstances JB would have become a prominent cellist.

July 25, 2014 at 07:37 PM · Maybe in a lot of cases average violinists would have made amazing pianists. Then we wouldn't have to spend so many hours just trying to play in tune. ;)

Does anyone watch Louis C.K.'s show Louie? The girl who plays his younger daughter is considered a prodigy, and plays in a few episodes. I was very impressed by her ability and age.

There have to be SOME parents who force their 3 year olds to practice a few hours a day... Although I have a hard time getting a 3 year old to focus for more than 10 minutes at a time during lessons.

July 26, 2014 at 07:39 AM · Maybe someone could come up with a software package that you can feed your bio-essentials into (finger length, span, stamina, determination etc etc) and that would spit out the instrument you should really be playing.

It wouldn't be a bad idea...

July 26, 2014 at 11:42 AM · Like the tallest lad in class in junior school inevitably finds himself playing the double bass.

July 27, 2014 at 12:01 AM · Yes and Michael Phelps has such long arms. But I think what makes the great violinists special is not their physique because they come in all shapes and sizes. It's something with their minds, perhaps something bordering on a savant-like quality.

July 27, 2014 at 01:29 AM · >Have you ever tried getting a 3-year-old to play for 5 hours? To me, part of the "talent" is the internal focus and desire to play better, and willingness to put in the time.

Don Noon, you read my thoughts! I think this is a big, big, big part of the equation. There has to be fire within the child. Heaps of it. Talent plus fire - seems to me the rest just works itself out (well, as someone else put it, also parents willing to do what it takes, move wherever it takes, to support it all. Oh. And the money. That too.)

July 27, 2014 at 07:14 AM · But coaching a 3-year-old is totally different from coaching a 6-year-old: we (i.e. those of us who actually do it..!), by intuition or training, know how to break down the work into coffee-spoon-sized chunks.

Also, Very Small Children have a natural propensity for continuing the same activity for an hour or so - if it suits them! It is for us (teachers, and above all, parents) to make playing the violin fascinating, enjoyable...and indespensible!

It's exhausting, but a wonderful life-lesson.

July 28, 2014 at 05:10 PM · Adrian, I agree. I've also noticed that 3-6 year olds love repeating the same things over and over again, until it is solidly in the brain (and fingers, if it be the case). This is why I always start the itty bitty ones with singing and clapping, similar to kindermusik. It turns it into a game, and puts the music in their bodies before they have to physically execute it on the instrument, making it easier once they get a box violin or real violin, if that be the case.

The trick for getting the young ones to practice more time is to not do any single activity for longer than 5 minutes at a time, so that it doesn't FEEL like practice, but like a game.

I should have mentioned that in my previous comment when I referred to practicing 5 hours a day between the ages of 3-15, I wasn't implying that a 3 year old is actually practicing 5 hours a day. :) I was making a reference to total hours practiced over time, and the difference over a number of years between 1,000 hours and 10,000 hours.

Also, for the little ones, musical immersion seems to have as huge of an impact as actual practice (i.e., listening to music, hearing a sibling or parent practice, singing in the car, clapping to the radio, going to children's symphony concerts, or pounding rhythms on pots and pans, etc.). Could this musical immersion be the difference between a potential "prodigy," or a student that quits once they reach middle school?

July 31, 2014 at 11:58 AM ·

August 1, 2014 at 12:08 AM · He should have practiced ..... a true but confusing story about an acquaintance I will simply call "Singer"

Singer was a normal kid with some singing experience during middle school and later was a utility tenor in the church choir.

His musical career ended around age 24 after marriage and a family but some 15 years later he announced that he will join a community chorus which was also affiliated with an orchestra. His coach liked what he heard and Singer auditioned for Tanglewood.(Boston Symphony chorus). He was accepted.

This is happening after Singer has not done any serious practicing for 15 YEARS. (Singer is about 40 years old at this point.)

July 30. Phone call. "Singer and coach are now involved in singing program at Harvard." Gimme a break! This guy is now 42 years old and the older he gets the more he improves with hardly any practice at all. (He travels a lot for business and has little spare time.) Singer now is hoping to do some regular opera!)

Is his apparent success due to practice or talent?

It better be talent because that is all he has in good supply (?)

August 1, 2014 at 05:56 AM ·

August 1, 2014 at 01:51 PM · Good discussion, with many points of view. But are not both talent and practice necessary? Does not the great (or at least good enough to be effective) artist need both?

When we see a violinist who does not seem to need "practice," how do we really know how much or how obsessively that artist "practices" in his or her head (or rather, mentally)?

And the one who practices 10 hours a day, how can we measure or even detect what kind of inner "talent" may be at the heart of his or her motivation?

Got a couple of quotes here:

John Paul Getty, the oil billionaire, said he had 3 rules for success: 1) Rise early, 2) Work late, and 3) Strike oil.

Pablo de Sarasate: "For 37 years I've been practicing [the violin] 14 hours a day, and now they call me a genius."

Steven Staryk: "The technical, musical, and emotional challenges of the violin are infinite."

Casey Stengel: "Good pitching will always stop good hitting...and vice-versa."

Isn't it interesting that in any critique of any "great" violinist, so many talented, accomplished, knowledgeable violinists, musicians, critics, and listeners have such opposing and extreme opinions as to said violinist's level of talent, technique, emotional depth, and so forth?



August 1, 2014 at 07:40 PM · Darlene, the human voice is an instrument inside the body that you are either born with, or not, and no amount of practice (or lack thereof) will change that. You simply cannot compare the voice to an instrument. If one has been born with the gift of an amazing voice, it is like being born with brown eyes, or red hair. It is luck, and genetics. Practicing singing and taking voice lessons teaches repertoire, breathing, etc, but does not change the vocal chords and make one a better singer, but taking lessons on an instrument and practicing should make one a better instrumentalist.

For the record, I used to be an opera singer. I used to be told how much "talent" I had. What a bunch of horse hockey. I didn't practice singing. I was just lucky to be born with the instrument.

Sorry if this is a repeat of a previous post. It just drives me bonkers when people make references to amazing singers, and comparing them to people who have spend hours hacking away in the practice room at the piano, violin, or other instrument that is outside of the body.

August 2, 2014 at 01:27 AM · It just occurs to me that the really important talent with the violin is the ability to entertain without having to depend on showmanship or technique. Real talent is abstract and is not the stuff of practice. Some of my favorite violin music hardly needs practice. The performer makes it work.

Frankly, I think my musical interpretation is average and will never be outstanding no matter how much I practice (which saves me a lot of practice!)

August 3, 2014 at 02:03 AM · Talent or work? Nature or nurture? The answer of course is BOTH. Talent (and there are a number of aspects to talent, eg hearing, musicality, athleticism, etc.) without good training and lots of practice is unused potential. Work without ANY talent is wasted effort. Discovering that you have talent is like discovering that you have oil on your property. Great, right? But what do you do about it? If you don't drill it, refine it and sell it etc. you might as well not have any. But if you don't have any oil, you can drill and drill...

The exact ratio of talent to work can never be precisely arrived at, but Edison did give us a good idea. I can think of no great violinist that didn't work hard, some of course more or less than many others. Even Kreisler worked hard at a certain juncture in his youth. And his disinclination to practice much later in life caught up to him, as it did with Isaac Stern. The example of Sarasate has already been given. To that may be added Paganini, Ysaye, Heifetz, Oistrakh, Ricci, Rosand, Rabin, Midori, Chang, etc. etc.

Once a student said to me "you must be very proud of your talent." I was rather taken aback and said "No." "Why not?" he persisted. I said "to the extent that I may be talented, I regard that as a gift. And I don't think one should be proud of a gift. Happy and thankful, maybe, but not proud. But I'll tell you what I do take some pride in: all the hard work that I've put in over the years." It was his turn to be taken aback. Some students act like they think it's magic, or that I'm hiding some kind of secret elixer from them, maybe vitamin "V".

Speaking of work, it's back to the salt mines for me. I probably won't post again for a while.

August 3, 2014 at 02:54 PM · There is a possibility that I just don't have the right violin mentality. But then, I did suffer a trauma.

I attended a concert where the soloist was a high school age girl who had won the chance to play with a 40 man local/college orchestra. She played one of the "big" classical pieces in a very mature fashion.

However, I also noticed that her neck was blue from one ear to the next (?)

Then, one of the 2nd violins cornered the soloist in the hall and asked her how long she had worked on the piece? 7 MONTHS !!!!

What ... I can't imagine ..... is the return on investment from such a practice history? Is this talent or a robotic exhibition?

Thomas Edison knew nothing about violins!

August 3, 2014 at 07:59 PM · A blue neck sounds unusual... but I wouldn't call it unusual to work on a big concerto for seven months, especially if it's your first time learning it.

August 3, 2014 at 11:30 PM · Seven months for a young person to learn a big concerto for the first time does not seem out of line. Probably the girl was working on a lot of other stuff during the same interval. And learning something is one thing -- polishing it for performance is another, there's a lot of effort in that. As for the blue marks on her neck, I'd leave that to her parents to worry about.

Raphael -- and here, all along, I thought it was your *violin* that made all that lovely music. :)

August 4, 2014 at 11:00 AM · Rhetorical question .... I would imagine that a major goal of the learning/practice routine is memorization. I can understand that being a long term issue but not interpretation? In this sense, I separate the performance from being a drill.

August 4, 2014 at 11:44 AM · Memorizing a long concerto is maybe a challenge for anyone, but kids who are taught to memorize everything from a young age, they get pretty good at it. And coming back to the original question (OQ), I think the ability to memorize might be a reasonable indicator of talent in the sense that someone who memorizes music easily has the ability to organize it in his or her mind.

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