Nurture vs. Nature

September 8, 2006 at 05:11 PM · How much of what we do is due to talent or good brains, and how much is due to the teacher and the environment?

Replies (66)

September 8, 2006 at 04:20 AM · Here is my argument, in short form... I think that any child can learn to play the violin to an arbitrarily high level of ability, given reasonably normal mental and physical endowment and correctly engineered environment. By "correctly engineered environment", I mean an environment which closely resembles that of a very good to great musician's home and environs and in which the teacher has a high level of skill and artistry on the violin as well as the ability to translate that skill into a coherent curriculum. A "bad" environment is one in which there is comparatively little exposure to high level violin playing and/or actively bad violin teaching (wrong explanations, teacher is poor player, etc.)

Now, it seems to me that there's a relatively easy way to find out if I'm right. Evaluate a large number of kids who are planning on taking lessons. Do neurological and psychological and whatever other type of testing to develop as many descriptive parameters as possible for each child. After several years of lessons, evaluate the progress of each child. Of course, you have to control for many other factors such as parental involvement, teacher student discord, etc. I don't know how to do this, but I know that in principle, it's possible, especially with a very large number of kids. Last, but most important, of the children who did exceptionally well, could you go back to the original testing and find any differences physically or mentally between them and the children that didn't do as well? Would you find (option 1) a large correlation between children's achievement and style of teaching or degree of "environmental engineering" or (option 2) would you find that exceptional students all had weird brain scans or something of that nature? Could somebody who didn't know the outcome of the study still manage to group the students by achievement level JUST based on the beginning, "baseline" studies? I doubt it!

I think that for most of the students, the largest correlation would be between degree of consonance of the environment to my ideal and achievement. I don't think it would be option 2. I also think that option 2 does exist, but is not a factor in MOST cases of high achievement on the violin. I think that if one were to take a look at a large number of really great violinists, the only thing common to all of them is great teaching and great environment, NOT long fingers, unusual brain, short toes or mystical talent.

September 8, 2006 at 08:24 PM · You're trying to separate the good environment from the genes of the parents creating the good environment. I have a feeling adopted children would do as well in the good environment as biological ones. Much easier experiment to do.

September 8, 2006 at 07:54 PM · 99% Nature, 1% Nurture.

If it were the other way around, Shinichi Suzuki would've figured out a way to make a little Heifetz out of every student that ever tried the method.

September 8, 2006 at 08:11 PM · Well kevin...the question is which ones became little Heifetz.

September 8, 2006 at 08:24 PM · In my opinion, nature and nurture play an equally important role. The two cannot be simply delineated. It is asking like whether the length or width of a rectangle contributes more to its area. Without one, the rectangle has no area at all.

If every child who followed the Suzuki method started at age three and practiced like Heifetz, maybe many of them would become "little Heifetzes." And if Heifetz had followed the Suzuki method, maybe he would have developed into a lesser violinist. Of course, it's not a good idea to play the "what if" game...

September 8, 2006 at 09:44 PM · That's because "what if" doesn't work in real life.

Ask any violin teacher how their students are doing. They will all say something like "Some of my students play great and some of them can't get it no matter how hard they try". Same teacher, different results. Even Leopold Auer stated that all of his students were different and so he couldn't teach them uniformly.

The answer to your question, Jim, is that there are no violinists who fit the "little Heifetz" category. There are players who might arguably play as well as the young Heifetz did, but no violinist has ever played EXACTLY the way Heifetz did. This is because human beings are genetically unique, physically and mentally. Even Heifetz couldn't make his own children play as well as he could.

September 8, 2006 at 10:46 PM · I thought you meant little Heifetz as a figure of speech. Silly me.

September 8, 2006 at 11:27 PM · Jim--

By the way, there is also only one Kevin Huang.

--The One and Only Emily Grossman

September 9, 2006 at 12:03 AM · Emily wrote:

"By the way, there is also only one Kevin Huang."


You got THAT right!!

Kevin is a very fine violinist, and a polite, well mannered young man.

I drove all the way to Phoenix, Arizona to find out for myself, and that ain't no joke.


September 9, 2006 at 01:23 AM · Hi Kevin,

Well I guess you can't control every part of a child's environment. However, I once saw one of Suzuki's tour groups that was visiting in Rochester. Several of the kids would have given Heifetz a run for his money. Obviously these were the creme de la creme, but I wonder how many of the rest of that cohort (i.e. the ones that didn't make the cut for the tour) could have kicked YOUR butt? Or mine for that matter...

September 9, 2006 at 12:48 PM · Being only one of a kind, I think I can respond to this topic.

The nature-nurture controversy in my field (psychology) has never been completely settled to everyone's satisfaction. But my own personal conclusion (at least as it comes to playing the violin) is this:

There are 3 types of people (biologically):

1. Those who are simply born to the instrument; those with an innate talent that either shows itself at a ridiculously young age or responds at an incredible pace to whatever training they get.

2. Those who couldn't master the instrument with a billion lessons from the best teachers, the support of the most ideal parents, and the good fortune to begin lessons just after their first breast feeding.

3. Those born with some talent (to varying degrees) but who can become competent and even very, very good with the proper education, training, support, and opportunities.

Most people probably fit Category 3. Which means that even if you are born with only modest talent, you can make the most of it through hard work, study, education, mentoring, motivation, and exposure to the best teachers, musicians, and music. In most careers, a person with modest talent who works hard and has the right training can become successful. I believe that is no less true for violin playing than any other endeavor.

However, if you are talking about the rarified atmosphere of the circle of great violinists (living and deceased) who are discussed on this website, you probably need to have the innate talent of Category 1.

As to Category 2, I remember a friend from high school who tried for a couple of years to learn to play the bass fiddle. He literally could not tell any of the fingers of his left hand to touch the string without intense concentration and working up a sweat. He loved music, was highly motivated to learn, and worked very hard at it. I'm surprised that he had enough finger independence to dial the phone.

Anyway, cheers. Sandy

September 9, 2006 at 03:02 PM · Hi,

Sander's post is excellent. And yes, category three is the most all encompassing and it is the balance of these elements that influences the development of an artist/musician/person.

As a teacher, I am noticing that there are many factors that go into everything, and it is not only a question of nurture, nature towards the instrument, but a host of factors.

Milstein once answered to the question of why there were so many great violinists of Jewish extraction that it was not so much a question of just race as social conditioning. That is true.

I think that the combination is important. To acheive the level of lets say a top violinist of one's generation, you have to have the right elements of excellent teaching, the highest level of talent, lots of quality work, and the right personality with the right qualities.

But at the highest level of acheivement, there is also simply another level of talent. There are kids, or musicians that are on a level of talent not common to the general population. The talent has to be properly shaped and directed, but even then, it is something else.


September 9, 2006 at 10:41 PM · Sander and Christian, you said what I wanted to say far more eloquently and effectively than I did.

September 12, 2006 at 11:22 AM · I wanted to add something from a parent's perspective. This thread started, in part, after Howard and I were debating the topic on the "cultural issues in music teaching" thread.

I was being provocative by posting that I didn't think the idea, articulated by Suzuki in _Ability Development from Age Zero_, that "It All Depends on How Children Are Raised" was correct. Regardless of what has been necessary and right and helpful in the past, I question how much this belief should continue to inform and form the basis of modern teaching practice.

I'm much less concerned about how many little Heifetz's the world can or can't produce than the effects this belief may have on "average" students, parents, and teachers (the category where I count myself and most of my friends and acquaintances--category #3 above).

On one hand, when/if a belief that a class of students can't do something is holding them back and denying them opportunities, then the opposite belief, that "anybody" can learn to play the violin, and nurture is vital to success, is a breath of fresh air. "Anybody" in the sense of anybody of any ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic class, religion, and at least some physican/mental disabilities, can indeed learn to play the violin. To the extent that this is what Suzuki was getting at I think it's important that the idea is recognized, applauded, and widely disseminated.

However, as I posted in the other thread, what I have observed as a parent in the trenches in 2006, particularly as a mother, is an attitude about nurture and maternal influence among today's middle-class parents (the main population in the U.S. that can afford violin lessons), and some teachers that goes overboard and no longer has anything to do with promoting diversity and inclusiveness. I think that "anybody can" has unconsciously evolved in some cases into "everybody should." And there are negative collateral effects of this attitude on parents, especially mothers, driving them toward perfectionism, making them feel guilty and as if they are never good enough parents no matter what they do.

Many thoughtful teachers and parents will refine the belief to say, well, the point is really that "anybody who *wants to*, can." But even that is kind of problematic, in my opinion, because "wanting to" has as much variability among kids as any other type of skill or talent. Some kids just know from an early age what they want. Others change their minds from day to day and hour to hour. The first may be better for becoming a little Heifetz, but there are many kids who are the second, nonetheless.

Finally, on the other thread, in defense of the nurture position, someone quoted Suzuki as having said "where love is deep, much can be accomplished." This is a nice quote and I think it gets to the heart of what I was trying to say, both here and there.

Yes, where love is deep, much can be accomplished, but accomplishment is really not the goal or purpose of deep love. Kids are not blank slates where loving adults can just write whatever they want. I learned to respect "nature" over "nurture" more when I had kids myself. They have taught me there are limitations to what can be taught/learned, and have dramatized the role of temperament in development across the board.

So I think that taking a nurture philosophy to an extreme can be harmful to the kids, especially when you get into situations where the kids feel that adults won't love them anymore, or not as deeply, if they don't learn and perform at the highest levels of adult standards. I think it's important to love kids for who they are, not because of what they can do, because there are real limitations to how much that "who they are" can be changed and "improved," no matter how good the environment is.

Karen Allendoerfer

September 12, 2006 at 01:58 PM · Karen,

I think I get what your saying now. I actually addressed this in another post (Anne's post about feeling uneasy about her son's teacher.) Any situation in which a child feels that love is only given to them on the condition of accomplishment is unhealthy. I have students who will go far with violin and some who won't go as far but will certainly continue to play for their enjoyment but I love and respect each of them, regardless of ability. I'm grateful to have the opportunity to teach each one, regardless of how they play from week to week. Of course, I want each one to improve and do their best, but even if they aren't fulfilling their full potential because academics or sports or dance is more important to them, that doesn't change the fact that I care about them. Suzuki's goal was not to create little Heifetz's. His goal was to help develop character through music. The ultimate goal is to develop beautiful qualities in a person through the study of music. Playing well is a nice added benefit. In my view, those qualities are already there and just need to be nurtured to appear. THAT'S the goal. Yes, I want my students to play as best as they can and yes it's very exciting when a student shows an aptitude for the violin, but that doesn't change my goal of trying to help each child become the best person they can be.

Also, you are right. Not EVERY child should. I've had students come to me who have not been well suited to the violin. They do not continue long. It's just not their instrument. That's not to say music isn't for them, they just haven't found their instrument yet. I played flute for a while in elementary school, but I didn't keep with it because it just wasn't in my blood to be a flute player. I had to be a violinist and I've known it since I was 6 years old. That doesn't mean that I couldn't learn to play the flute well, but I just wasn't suited to it so it wouldn't be as positive an experience as violin for me.

I would disagree to some degree that some element of the Suzuki philosophy wouldn't work for every person. EVERYONE has learned to speak their language because of hearing it continually and having it be part of their environment so it has worked for every person in that respect. I do think that some students benefit more from a more purist Suzuki approach and some benefit more from an approach that just contains some Suzuki elements. Everyone can benefit from being immersed in music though, and that's the main point of Suzuki's philosophy. The beauty of it being a philosophy rather than a method though is that it makes it entirely pliable. I can choose which of my students need a more traditional approach with some Suzuki elements and which students need a more typical Suzuki experience. Every teacher needs to have this kind of flexibility though. Inflexibility in a teacher is very detrimental to students. No child learns in the same way and we must cater our teaching to each individual.


September 12, 2006 at 10:46 PM · Greetings,

Leopold Auer once stated that a major criteria for becoming a superstar was having known hunger.

I wonder if Yura is mucnhing on a stack of twinkies right now?



September 14, 2006 at 03:16 PM · Laura,

From reading your messages on this forum, I think any thoughtful parent who cared about their children's musical education would be happy to have you as a teacher.

I don't think the issues I encounter as a parent are unique to Suzuki or even unique to music education; in fact, they pop up distressingly often in many contexts. The devil is always in the details. As a parent, one often has to sift through a lot of different offerings and it can be disorienting and bewildering to know where to start. It makes it even harder when the underlying philosophy for an activity seems to be that the method or activity can be made to fit everyone, and/or that anyone can learn to fit in and succeed there, and so if there ends up being a problem, it must be the fault of you or your child, not with them.

I wasn't even looking for Suzuki instruction for my daughter but I ended up there anyway, because in the three local music schools I investigated that were close by and weren't a huge logistical pain for me to get to, that was all they offered.

Although, I'm actually considering enrolling my son in one of those Suzuki programs when he's 4. My sense (which could turn out to be wrong, but this is where I am now) is that he'd get a lot more than my daughter did out of the group learning and performance aspects of that type of instruction. He doesn't take anything as personally as she does, and he's more of a ham and an extrovert.

You mention that flexibility and respect for the individual are important parts of your own teaching philosophy too, so I don't think we're all that far apart, really.


September 14, 2006 at 05:57 PM · I'm not a parent, so I have no right to post opinions on parenting.

All I can say is that I'm admiring this discussion, particularly the one between Karen and Laura. I'm learning a lot from both of you as well as everybody else on this thread here.

September 15, 2006 at 11:13 AM · Laura wrote that (Suzuki's) goal was to help develop character and "beautiful qualities" through music.

Maybe that's really where the nature/nurture debate needs to focus. How much can character really be developed anyway, through music or any other means for that matter? Sports supposedly builds character too, but I've never been convinced by that, especially not at the elite level.

One of my violin teachers when I was growing up was a big fan of Heifetz--like many teachers, I suppose. He showed his students "They Shall Have Music," an uplifting message movie starring Heifetz (from 1939).

But in all the talk about what a great man Heifetz was, all the character-building up-by-the-bootstraps messages aimed at kids, it started to bother me when I was a teenager how *nobody* ever talked about the passionate or emotional side of the violin. The raw sexual energy in Heifetz' playing is never mentioned in polite company. For students, it's all character-building, all the time.

People like to rag on Vanessa Mae (and sometimes I join them; I only listened to her "Four Seasons" CD once before I sold it on eBay), but I think she's onto at least something: the violin is sexy. It's not, or shouldn't be, solely the province of sweet little every-day practicers building their characters.

September 15, 2006 at 12:02 PM · Hi,

Karen, I am intrigued by your last post... Yes, the violin is and can be a sensuous even sexy instrument. And yes, Vanessa Mae does showcase that, and that sensuousness is audible in the playing of many greats.

However, how do you discuss that (especially me as a male violin teacher) in this day and age where every word, every gesture has to be measured?


September 15, 2006 at 05:31 PM ·

September 15, 2006 at 04:11 PM · Karen,

For me I think the character building comes not only in learning to be patient, disiplined, and humble. (violin is certainly one of the most humbling experiences. The better you get the more you realize you have to learn.) A large part of music I think is respect, learning respect for the music, for yourself for your parent, for your teacher, for your instrument. On the parent's side it's learning how to treat your child with greater respect and patience (this is VERY trying at times, especially when you're practicing with a very young child) treat the teacher with respect and patience, and yes, even treat yourself with more respect and patience. I don't believe that guilt is something that should be a part of a parent's experience in music. You do the best you can and you continue to improve and that is enough. As a teacher, I continue to learn more respect too for parents and my students.

Just what is respect though really? I don't think it's just treating people respectfully on the outside. For me, there's that aspect of unconditional love for each person that must be learned and cultivated. Christians associate it with Christ, the Greeks called it agape, whatever you think of it or call it, that's the true respect that I'm trying to help my students cultivate in themselves and in their family. In turn, they help me cultivate it more in myself. That's what I mean by character building.


September 15, 2006 at 11:54 PM · Karen,

By the way, thanks for the nice compliment:) It's nice to hear being such a young teacher still. I make lots of mistakes but I'm learning a lot every week on how to be a better teacher. There's so much to learn. Good thing I get to do this for another 40 or so years!


September 18, 2006 at 08:02 PM · Christian raises a good point, and I don't have a good answer. I understand why teachers are leery of the whole subject of passion, especially sexual passion, in music (isn't there a news item in one of the recent blogs about a violinist going to jail for an inappropriate relationship with a student?)

But I think making the transition in adolescence to becoming an emotionally mature player and finding one's own authentic voice is very difficult, and perhaps made more so if one lacks the full vocabulary to talk about *all* the important issues in music. When I was a teenager, between ages 13 and 16 or thereabouts, I played, among other things, the violin parts for Beethoven's "Eroica," Smetana's "The Bartered Bride," the Russian Easter Overture, Petrouchka, and Ravel's Bolero. There's a tremendous range of emotion and passion just in those few examples, and I don't recall having any forum in which to explore, develop, or even just acknowledge the feelings I had associated with the music. And no, I didn't feel comfortable talking about it with my violin teacher. All we talked about were fingerings, bowings, dynamics, technique, "practicing,"etc. Understandable, on one hand, but on the other, I don't think that one becomes a truly great violinist (or great person) without finding ways to nurture and channel the passions, too.


September 18, 2006 at 08:17 PM · Laura,

I agree with you about respect. One vignette in _Ability Development_ that I love is when Suzuki describes meeting a man who is in a rush and who bumps into him and yells at him "stupid idiot!" And Suzuki responds by smiling and respectfully introducing himself by name, humorously putting the epithet back in the other man's court.

I think about this episode a lot as a metaphor for how other people's angry, disrespectful words and actions say more about them and their own inner life and pain than they do about me or anyone else. I find this lesson is important to remember as a parent, as well, especially when my own child is being angry and disrespectful and I have to remember not to take it personally.

Nonetheless, I think Suzuki takes the idea too far later in the same book where he says he doesn't think anger or angry feelings have any use or benefit at all to anyone, and should be extinguished through education. His description in the same chapter of using his teaching methods on children in juvenile reform institutions reads to me as distressingly naiive.

Even musically, I have a very hard time accepting the notion that anger has *no* place at all and that anger should be "nurtured" out of people during their music education. Would any adult who had listened to Shostakovich, Stravinsky, or even Mozart for that matter, not find that idea somewhat problematic?

I don't have any better of an answer for this than I do for Christian's question about handling other passions in a music teaching context (I was thinking of starting a new thread called "sex and violins" but thought the better of it). I guess I'm just coming to terms with some aspects of my own experience in music education and wondering if there are things that can or should be done differently.


September 18, 2006 at 10:40 PM · Karen, it might be a matter of degree I think, since there are some really angry people. If he means reducing it to a manageable level, or if he instead means reducing it as a motivating force, generally speaking, I'm with him. Otherwise it's naive and utopian and maybe not even desirable, like you say.

September 19, 2006 at 06:26 AM · are there any suzuki followers that became great violinists? i have never heard of any.

i have to agree with anyone that says its 99% nature...1% nurture. if you ask any great violinist...and im not talking about finding quotes online (that milstein quote is pretty funny, because thats what people say when they dont want to sound cocky...) theyll tell you that its not even about practicing for hours...that its all in your head. if you ahve the technique and you have the talent, its all in your head...practicing is almost secondary.

i may be opening myself up for attack...but i stand with my statement.

also, i have known many people that have played since they were 3...have had great teachers...practiced correctly...did everything they were supposed to, but sound horrible. on the other hand, i know violinists who barely practice...start playing in their teens...and could one day win the indianapolis competitions... who knows.

so...i say thank our parents first...for their great genes!....then our teachers :)

September 19, 2006 at 06:51 AM · The easiest proof for nurture is to take the kid with the best genes in the world and don't give him a violin.

September 19, 2006 at 11:13 AM · If the kid is neglected long enough, s/he won't become a violinist. On the other hand, a suzuki kid with average talent may grow up to play in a community orchestra.

Not the same case but similar in my opinion, kids raised by wolves can't speak. Are they not talented enough to learn to speak?


September 19, 2006 at 11:22 AM · Jim,

It's ambiguous. He comes out and says "I have reflected upon anger and concluded that anger is unnecessary in human life". That doesn't sound like a matter of degree. Later, though, he says more nuanced and reasonable things, talks about "reducing anger," and "practicing not being angry." This pattern, to say something outrageous and then modulate it to be more reasonable, is used in the book several times. It also might be that there's a cultural or translation issue. I don't speak Japanese.

He also says "music will save the world," encourages people to learn to be ambidextrous because he thinks that's somehow "better" than being right- or left-handed, and says he wants to develop a school where the students all do college-level work and graduate from "college" at age 17 or 18. The last is based on the observation that the forebrain finishes developing at that age, which is true, but very oversimplified, as would be expected from the state of 1960's neurobiology. The book, to me, is a mixture of far-thinking wisdom and naiive utopianism. This isn't bad, nor does it negate my position that Suzuki was a visionary genius. But I still maintain that now, in 2006, we need to complete, refine, and ultimately move on from using that book as a philosophical basis for teaching and child-rearing.


September 19, 2006 at 12:03 PM · There is a great book on the subject of language development (which has obviously undergone much more detailed study than musical development). Well, probably more than one great book, but I've actually read this one! :) The Language Instinct talks about cases like the kids "raised by wolves" and similar. For language, there is a window that closes at a certain point due to brain development, somewhere around puberty. But that seems to be because there are specific areas of the brain dealing with language, and they are far more active in a child's first few years.

The same doesn't have to hold true for music, but I suspect there would be some parallels. Talent can save someone a lot of practicing, it's true, but I haven't met a great player yet who hasn't played a lot... they just may not have considered it practicing!

September 19, 2006 at 01:15 PM · D Kurganov writes:are there any suzuki followers that became great violinists? i have never heard of any.

i have to agree with anyone that says its 99% nature...1% nurture. if you ask any great violinist...and im not talking about finding quotes online (that milstein quote is pretty funny, because thats what people say when they dont want to sound cocky...) theyll tell you that its not even about practicing for hours...that its all in your head. if you ahve the technique and you have the talent, its all in your head...practicing is almost secondary.

I believe that at this point there are many major soloists who began in Suzuki studios, including Josh Bell and Hilary Hahn, but as stated before, it was never Suzuki's intention to produce soloists.

To respond to the second part of the comment, it's often said that parents of one child believe in "nurture" and parents of multiple children believe in "nature". I have four daughters with the same biological parents, same advantages and disadvantages. Two are decent solid musicians without any particular stand-out gifts or qualities. Two are very gifted and of those two, one had focus drive and the right set of physical gifts (the other tends to develop tendonitis and other problems associated with playing.) Of course nurture is part of the equation, but it's also a lottery.

September 19, 2006 at 01:17 PM · Christian Vachon wrote: However, how do you discuss that (especially me as a male violin teacher) in this day and age where every word, every gesture has to be measured?

This is an interesting point that I haven't seen on this board before. For years I've observed lessons by my daughter's teacher (she has been with him 8 years and is now 14). I've noticed that a certain point he will say to the older students (when they are working on a sexy passage, but just missing the point.), "Yes, but it has to be sexier." He says it so earnestly (dropping his voice just a bit, so the subtext is "you're old enough to understand this now" and they always get it right away. It's not so much the message as how you deliver it.

September 19, 2006 at 02:25 PM · I believe there are windows of opportunity for just about everything, language, social development, music included. In fact,my understanding is that the part of brain dealing with music is not too far from language portion.

I went a parenting seminar once. The speaker, a national expert on violence, mentioned that boys who are raised not hit back can't learn to hit back when beaten after about 9 or 3rd grade. He was discussing bullies. Hopefully, they will invent a coping mechanism that doesn't involve hitting back.


September 19, 2006 at 03:14 PM · One thing we need to keep in mind in discussing nurture vs. nature is that nurture doesn't mean creating anything we wish to out of nothing. If inredients are available, we could bring the best out by nurturing. By the same token, superb ingredients may not develop into much in the wrong hands. Do you really believe that if you went through a bad teacher after another, you'd be what you are today?

The case of multiple children always comes up to support the Nature argument. As a scientific study, it is however flawed because they may have the same parents but neither the same genes or the environment. The environment the first-born grows up is vastly different from that of the second born. The second born rarely has the attention the first born gets and the first born misses out learning from the interaction with another child and the interaction between grownups and a child. What is more crucial is that their age appropriate environment is different in the same household. The environment the first born experienced at age 2 is the not same as the second born's at 2. The external environment may be the same at a given moment, but they are experiencing it differently developmentally.


September 19, 2006 at 03:32 PM · Karen,

I do agree that sometimes Suzuki is a bit overly idealistic in some ways. Some of it I think is how he's been translated though. Translations never really get at the real meaning behind the words. Anyway, your comment about anger is very interesting. I do have to respectfully disagree. Anger is never something that should be indulged. It needs to be overcome. I hate being angry. I feel out of control and my head hurts after a while. If you give into anger, it consumes you and makes you out of control, but if you have the self control to tell yourself to get a grip and calm down because this angry person I'm acting like is is not really who I am then it dissapates immediately. Children shouldn't feel guilty about getting angry, but they shouldn't be taught that it's ok. It's not ok and they need to learn how to let it go! If more people learned this today we wouldn't have road rage, we'd have less crime, terrorism, war, divorces, court cases, etc. That being said, I do think you're right that kids should UNDERSTAND anger. They will come into contact with it. They will come across it in their life, it shows up in music too.

As for Suzuki's outdated ideas, I'll agree that some things are outdated. But to say that as a whole the entire philosophy should be outgrown seems a bit extreme. I dislike it when Suzuki enthusists say Suzuki is the only way. That is narrow minded in my view, but it is equally narrow minded to assume that Suzuki's philosophy cannot be adapted to today's kids. For me, I like the philosophy because it fits very well with my own personal religious/spiritual beliefs. The concept of every child can is the central idea. The concept that certain children lack ability violates everything I believe in. It's like if you're looking for something, but the light is off so you don't see it. It's always been there, but you just don't know you have it. Turn on the light and you'll see you had it all the time. I never mention my beliefs to my students, but my beliefs certainly are the basis of my teaching.

It may be unusual, but I don't think it's outdated.


September 19, 2006 at 11:34 PM · Nathan Cole mentions the book "The Language Instinct". It will be useful to note the author, Steven Pinker. Steven Pinker also expands greatly on this subject in his later book "The Blank Slate" in which he credits much of his insight to "The Nurture Assumption" by Judith Rich Harris. The principal thrust of the Pinker/Harris argument is to debunk the theories of blank slate/nurture assumption and to give much greater emphasis to nature as opposed to nurture. But neither would I think come close to a 99 to 1 ratio. My personal opinion would be nearer 50/50.

September 19, 2006 at 09:41 PM · he case of multiple children always comes up to support the Nature argument. As a scientific study, it is however flawed because they may have the same parents but neither the same genes or the environment. The environment the first-born grows up is vastly different from that of the second born. The second born rarely has the attention the first born gets and the first born misses out learning from the interaction with another child and the interaction between grownups and a child. What is more crucial is that their age appropriate environment is different in the same household. The environment the first born experienced at age 2 is the not same as the second born's at 2. The external environment may be the same at a given moment, but they are experiencing it differently developmentally.

I was speaking primarily in jest, above, but of course you are right. A more valid experiment would use identical twins, some groups separated at birth.

Natural aptitude is one thing, but classical string musicians almost always spring from the upper and upper-middle classes because of the great cost of training (including the luxury of having a parent available to support practices and transportation) and the cost of the equipment.

In our city virtually every musical merit scholarship, at least for stringed instruments, belongs to a child who was already advantaged by early training on high quality instruments. Inner city kids with fewer resources start late, have poorer instruction and less home-based support. By necessity, they play inferior, badly maintained instruments. Regardless of their innate ability, they cannot compete. A musically gifted child in this situation would be more likely to succeed on a brass or woodwind instrument because these are necessarily started later and are generally less expensive.

September 19, 2006 at 11:53 PM · Funny you should mention economics & etc.

ironically, at the turn of the century, all of the great players from Eastern Europe (especially Russia), came from poor families, but showed great talent and aptitude for the violin (piano and other string instruments). These stars ofcourse included, Jasha Heifetz, David Oistrakh, Emil Gilels, Vladimir Horowitz, G. Piatigorsky, Mstislav Rostropovitch, Nathan Milstein and so many many more.

Music was a way out from the (jewish)ghetto.

The key to success was that great teachers found very gifted students (in these poor kids) and they found ways of financing their education. In pre-Soviet Russia, it was sponsorship from the rich. In Soviet Russia, it was state sponsored education with rigurous examinations to find the gifted students. Nevertheless, even a great talent must submit to 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration (when push comes to shove).

Today we can draw similarities in the NBA.

Most of the pro players in the NBA come from poor families and equally poor neighborhoods.

And they are picked by scouts who believe in their abilities and their talents. These very oppurtunities open the doors for them, their education and eventually their careers.

I wish there was more of that in music education here in the USA.

September 20, 2006 at 02:41 AM · i agree...i think the main reason why this trend that gennady is talking about exists is that poor families dont spoil their children (not to say rich families always do...but poor families obviously couldnt even if they wanted to). children are encouraged to develop their skills and generally work harder, as opposed to having everything done for them. This kind of attitude is carried over into whatever that child might have talent in. the work ethic is developed the talent blossoms.

just a thought

September 20, 2006 at 03:54 AM · Gennady,

I agree with you somewhat, but in the case of basketball, there is such a huge reservoir of talent not so much because basketball is a way out, but because it's a way to participate IN the social life of those poor neighborhoods. Do you think it worked that way in the jewish ghettos with regard to the violin?

September 20, 2006 at 05:17 AM · It's a rich/poor thing, but probably moreso an urban/rural thing. Maybe because urban areas had an influx of immigrant families in which classical is a tradition. Urban areas are also more accepting of differences, less likely to impose conformity and also wealthier - meaning leisure time and the ability to dabble, in cases where it isn't an inculturated thing. In Ky there are literally thousands of bluegrass bands ready to play whatever function you might have, but probably no more than a half-dozen string quartets to do something like play a wedding or some kind of banquet. Certainly no more than a dozen. Not exaggerating with the numbers. Even I myself don't know of a single local string quartet of the top of my head, even a kid-level one. I haven't heard a local one in probably twenty-five years.

In rural areas even wealthy families aren't really likely to give their kids music lessons, much less "official" classical training on some instrument, because it isn't part of the culture. If they do anything for the kids with the money, it's build a pool, buy them cars, and so on. It isn't necessarily a bad thing. There are benefits to a "haphazard" musical upbringing. It takes Copland and Guthrie both. That's why I'm so liable to go off when somebody implies that anything besides classical or maybe jazz is less valuable somehow. It's only a cultural prejudice. I can watch somebody performing perfectly on classical violin and sometimes think where's the music in that? They're doing what they've been trained to do, like a factory worker, and it's frustrating to see - even though they're perfect. There are benefits to a musically haphazard culture. Another similarly frustating thing I see is a fine classical musician who isn't able to understand a different kind of music, who just dismisses it. Since he doesn't have the tools do do that, how is it possible for him to understand classical? Is he just a highly-trained finger wiggler who sounds great? Is that sufficient?

Part of the rich/poor problem is everyone demanding to be paid. Someone on this site talks about Gingold giving him free lessons as a kid. I doubt he was the only pro bono kid Gingold had. When it's a true part of the culture, that happens, and fathers teach sons, and cousins, and friends, and to a high degree it's a tradition within families. That's the way you learn music in rural areas. You don't pay for lessons :) Much like what Howard's saying in his last post maybe. There though it was also a situation where violin was a way out, I've read.

September 20, 2006 at 06:41 AM · My experience in living in both urban and rural areas is that truly great musical talent transcends geographical roots. I am not talking strictly about classical violin, which is one of the most specialized fields there is.

A great musical talent rises to the surface given even the smallest opportunity.

September 20, 2006 at 06:46 AM · Yehudi Menuhin notes how almost every kid coming from Russia into Palestine early in the twentieth century had a little violin case in one hand. He also talks about the reason it was the violin being that they were the cheapest instrument to buy (and I bet they were not that bad sounding either).

I think there is something in the remark about work ethic, too - there was a tremendous tradition of study/work for its own sake in those Jewish families.

September 20, 2006 at 10:29 AM · Laura,

This may be getting a bit off-topic, but I will try to bring it back when I can.

You write: (Elizabeth Smith--how do you do those italics when you quote someone?)

"your comment about anger is very interesting. I do have to respectfully disagree. Anger is never something that should be indulged. It needs to be overcome."

I guess I wasn't thinking along these lines at all, neither indulging or overcoming. I was thinking of something more like channeling or maybe sublimating. The one defensible "use" of anger that I would still stand behind is that of identifying and responding to moral injustice. There are things on the news, things that happen in our communities that never make the news, that can and should make us angry if we are moral, thinking, feeling beings. To me, the interesting question is not how to train ourselves out of feeling that way, but rather what we do with that feeling, how we transmute that energy into something authentic rather than wasteful and destructive.

I think music, like other art forms, can be one of those channels. There are traditions of music as political protest, as a subversive activity. There are traditions that use music as a thread out of the labrynth of personal pain and emotional suffering; not around it, but through it and out the other side. There is music that evokes the wrath of God.

You also write:

"to say that as a whole the entire philosophy should be outgrown seems a bit extreme."

I agree with you, that statement is extreme. I didn't say the entire philosophy should be outgrown, I said the book, _Ability Development from Age Zero_, should be moved on from. In spite of the virtual exegesis I've been engaged in on some of these threads, that book is not like the Bible. I don't think sacred texts have that kind of place in music teaching anyway.

I'm not convinced that Suzuki wouldn't have thought so too. He often writes about ideas that were prevailing wisdom of the time and proposes (sometimes half-baked) hypotheses and theories in response to them. He employs some form of the scientific method himself, although his writings tend to be long on belief and short on studies/evidence. For example, he mentions the prevailing mindset behind the use of the "Seashore Test" pretty often, and debunks it effectively--but nobody today has even heard of the Seashore Test. We've moved on. We don't need to spend any more time debunking the Seashore Test. If he were alive today, I doubt he would, either. Similarly, he was probably talking about myelination of fiber tracts when he said that the forebrain finishes developing at around age 17. In the 1960's myelination was a hot topic and he was up on the most cutting-edge research. But they were just starting to describe neurogenesis and migration at that time, didn't have a clue about axon guidance, only knew about one neurotrophin, had never heard of hippocampal LTP, couldn't describe emotional hijackings at the level of the amygdala--I could go on, but I won't. Based on his writings, I think Suzuki would have found all this very interesting too, would have followed it, and would have revised and refined his theories accordingly. Maybe he'd have written another book.

I think overall his legacy is a pretty good one. But to the extent that people in 2006 still believe that "it all depends on how children are raised" and that "music can save the world" by training anger out of people, I think that legacy is being misunderstood and misused.


September 20, 2006 at 02:25 PM · It's only science that gets superceeded by science. You need to be careful not to think of Suzuki as a scentist. Somebody like Buckminster Fuller, who Suzuki reminds me of now, seems to do something similar, but doesn't become outdated by science, at least not by the physical sciences. Also, Fuller appears utopian mainly in retrospect - everyone could live in free geodesic domes, but it ain't going to happen. Who knew?

Still voting for nurture. In fact it occurs to me that we might never know enough about nature to say it's nature and not nurture.

September 20, 2006 at 03:16 PM · Karen,

Point well taken. I see what you mean by the book. I do find many things I disagree with in it and his other writings as well. I thought you meant his basic premise of his mother tongue theory was outdated. While I have some problems with some aspects of how Suzuki is implemented, the concept of every child can is still essential to me. The idea that someone even with ideal training and environment cannot learn to play would violate my own personal belief system. Not every child will, and not every family wants to make the sacrifices necessary, but every child theoretically can develop ability in my view. Philisophical and religious texts (and Suzuki's texts shouldn't be read like a religion either- that breeds inflexibility in teaching and is a bit scary) should have no direct place in teaching. That would be a bit frightening I think. But they do have an indirect place in that they shape the views of teachers. A teacher's viewpoint obviously must be the basis of his/her teaching. My world view and how I treat my students is shaped by my own beliefs. I don't share my them, but my actions in daily life, including teaching, are certainly based off of what I think.

My vote is still primarily for nurture. Sure, nature has some effect as clearly we're not all going to become Mozarts even with the best training, but we can all at least become competent in music with the proper training.

Now musical genius, that's another issue. That's nature. Not everyone is going to become a Heifetz or an Oistrahk, but that's ok.


September 20, 2006 at 03:45 PM · Howard,

Many athletes have actually pointed out that Basketball was a way out of the ghetto for them, and if it wasn't for that, they could have ended up in a gang getting shot somewhere.

September 20, 2006 at 05:16 PM · Hi Gennady,

Yeah, you're absolutely right and I've heard that many times too. But, what I meant is that pick-up games of basketball are also an important part of socializing in those neighborhoods and skill at the game is important for participation socially. So, ironically, the game is as much about getting "in" as getting "out". I wasn't trying to negate what you said!

September 20, 2006 at 06:00 PM · A parent with four children comes to me for piano lessons. One of the children struggles to remember concepts and finds it difficult to understand rhythms. She plays slowly and with little musicality, making little progress in a year's time, though she tries her best. Two of the other children are pretty quick to pick things up, and they get to work on new music every week.

The youngest one, however, came to me for her first lesson at the age of four and was playing her oldest sister's repertoire by ear, using her own conventional fingerings to accommodate her tiny hands. Then she took the pieces and created her own accompaniment, switching the melody from right to left hand. I'd never seen anything like it. My job is now to show her how to read the notes and rhythms and correct the errors that she picked up from her sisters. She learns most concepts on the first try. She's a natural.

As for the nurture part, I see it as mine and the parents' responsibility to be thorough with our teaching, and to provide every child with every opportunity to move ahead if he or she wants to. An oppressive home life or an ignorant teacher will definitely stifle progress.

Many talented kids are held back by erratic scheduling and unenforced practice habits. No matter how talented a child may be, they do not progress as quickly when they don't show up for lessons and they don't practice, or don't follow instructions.

So, that's my basic take on the issue. It's a balance of both nature and nurture, and I can't see how one could pose a logical argument for only one or the other. People are given different amounts of natural musical talent. People are given different kinds of opportunities which affect their chances of success.

Thirdly, it's up to each person to make the most of their given situation and invest themselves to the best of their ability.

These three factors all contribute to the success of a musician.

September 20, 2006 at 06:16 PM · The littlest one started by copying her sisters. Her motivation comes from that too. If she didn't have sisters where might she be?Environment encompasses more than a good teacher and "supportive" parents. In her case the sister relationship would be more significant than anything else, wouldn't you think? I'm sorry but I'm just not willing to say some people just can't do it:)

Until they discover the violin gene, I'm voting nurture.

And then when they discover that gene, I'm going to say nurture can give it the Heifetz mutation.

September 20, 2006 at 06:25 PM · Jim,

I agree. Yes, some people will have more natural ability than others, of course! But I think that even someone who seems to have NO natural ability can develop ability. They probably won't end up being the caliber of a professional musician, but they can still learn to play correctly and beautifully if the right environment is created for them.

I don't think anyone in the nurture camp is saying that everyone has equal natural talent and could potentially play like Heifetz. That would be absurd.

As for the economics of violin playing, it doesn't stop with kids. It's true of professionals too. I know of terrific violinists unable to have the proper time to prepare for symphony auditions because they have to work every possible gig, teach a million hours, go to school, prepard grad recitals, all at the same time. With such overscheduling to make ends meet, it's impossible to be fully prepared for auditions and do one's best. I may be wrong, but it seems that getting into a good symphony these days almost seems to require having a wealthy enough family to help support you as you prepare for auditions, not to mention help you get a nice enough instrument.

It's unfortunate that the patron system no longer is in vogue. I'd love if I had a wealthy patron so I could just teach and play for free and not worry about all the economics of music. That way I could take students from all classes and not just those who can afford my rate.


September 20, 2006 at 06:47 PM · Laura,

A lot of what has been said is very true in both (Nurture and Nature aspect).

just to put it into realistic perspective:

how do you think that we as working professionals won the jobs that we won (in symphony orchestras etc.)

We had the same things to deal with before those auditions: teaching, freelancing etc.

That is why nature in this case applies a 100%, because it is in those situations that players with that extra % of natural talent and ability are able to overcome the lack of available hours to prepare and dealing with the preassure of winning a job, an audition, competition etc.

September 20, 2006 at 06:52 PM · Laura, you can't take it for granted that that's absurd. It could be countered by saying the most beneficial environment for a particular child almost never occurs.

September 20, 2006 at 06:54 PM · so right Jim.

In fact I could give a million examples of so many very extrodinarily gifted players from Julliard and Curtis, who ended up switching careers.

So much (of life) happens between the school days and the real world, and so much depends on how people are able to deal with growing through the many challenges of life.

I have known some great players who had both Nurture and Nature who quit altogether and are now driving limo's. Go figure................

September 21, 2006 at 01:46 AM · Someone wanted to know if there were any famous violinists with Suzuki backgrounds, so here are two:

William Preucil, concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra (parents are Suzuki teachers, and pretty famous at that)

Rachel Barton Pine (first studied with Betty Haag in Chicago-I played a concert in Chicago in 1982 where a 7 yr old Rachel Barton played Haydn #2 with my college orchestra; David Perry was a teenager and played Vieuxtemps #5)

There are more, of course. Just like there are violinists who train in the "traditional" manner who end up as professional musicians and everything else in between.

September 21, 2006 at 02:19 AM · actually there is also Angela Fuller (a Seattle native), new concertmaster of the Houston Symphony Orchestra (who studied with her mom, Sally O'Reilly and then W. Preucil).

September 21, 2006 at 02:10 AM · Jim, I wasn't saying that the younger hasn't benefitted by following the path forged by the older sisters.

Like I said, it's a combination of all three: nature, nurture, and personal choices (motivation, discipline, desire, etc.). And I'm not willing to define the ratios.

September 21, 2006 at 02:25 PM · Jim,

That's very true. A perfect environment is just a theoretical idea.


What you say is true, but everyone has varying degrees of $$ issues. Those who are harder up are going to have a harder time getting into a good orchestra than those who need to work, but aren't working several jobs to make ends meet. Certainly those who win the auditions deserve them though. I'm just saying, there are many a talented violinist, who would have a good shot at winning auditions if $$ weren't such a problem. Some such violinists make it anyway probably through sheer determination, I don't know. Regardless, these days it's so hard to get into a major orchestra so definately kudos to you.


September 21, 2006 at 03:43 PM · Thanks Laura for the kudos.

But really, the issue of $$ has never changed.

Everyone is in that boat.

It is how we deal with the situation and focus our abilities to win on that particular day and that particular moment against other particular candidates, that determines the rest of our lives.

The issue of being free (or not) to practice is very much the same for most people. Each person finds their own way of dealing with it (or not).

Most candidates who audition for orchestras, especially the ones auditioning for concertmaster spots or other principal positions, have even less time to practice than those who audition for rank-and-file. Because most likely they are coming from other orchestras. No matter how you slice it, you lose $$ for taking time off (from your job) and you lose $$ for travel etc, but if one wins, it is an investment.

September 22, 2006 at 03:40 PM · That's true Gennady. But I still stick by my thought that getting into a major orchestra is elite, not just in terms of skills which must be so high, but also in terms of social class and background. This is why it is less common see minorities such African Americans or Hispanic Americans in major symphony orchestras (in America). It's a shame, but it's true. Here in St. Louis it's actually rather diverse, but I think that's outside the norm. I don't doubt that those with smaller orchestra jobs auditioning for a major orchestra lack practice time and prep time. I've heard that too. And of course, some musicians have learned better how to deal with such limitations as well as nerves and all that. But is it really possible to win an audition on a cheap instrument, say like 3-5 thousand dollars? If it is, I'll certainly agree with you. Of course, I'm know you're much more knowlegable on these things anyway since you're clearly experienced in this area and I never even considered auditioning for orchestras. (Unrealistic for me and not my life goal anyway). My thoughts so far are just from my observations of people I've known or talked to and are based on assumptions as well.

It just seems to me that those with more income have some advantage over those who have less, just as they do in every area of life. If you're living on Ramen noodles and worrying about how to pay your next rent check, you're not going to have the resources to devote to the expensive process of auditioning.


September 22, 2006 at 10:47 PM · Laura,

At least in our orchestra (Seattle Symphony), it is a huge mix of people. Many Asians, Russians, our fantastic Principal Percussion is Mike Crusoe (Afro-American).

And honestly, for the emigres/immigrants who came to this country (that includes me), we started with absolutely NOTHING....0 (ZERO).

People I know who are more recent in our orchestra, like a buddy of mine who was the concertmaster in Yuri Bashmet's orchestra, he borrowed a fiddle for the audition, played with a horrible bow, and still won the audition. He left the country with a very small suitcase.

Trust me, most orchestras are very open to equal employment opportunity. It is up to the individual to audition and be the very best on that given day against other candidates.

Did I say that we also have a lot of women in the orchestra............


I completely forgot to mention that a very fine violinist from your St. Louis Symphony where she was Associate Concertmaster Elisa Barston has won the position of Principal second in our orchestra. We will actually be playing some chamber music together in February:

September 23, 2006 at 04:01 AM · Gennady,

That is heartening to hear. Maybe I've been overly cynical on the subject. (I'm quite the idealist in most areas so that's unsual for me!)As for Elisa Barston, she is a fabulous player. We've missed her here. I hope she's getting along well in your orchestra and you guys enjoy working on your chamber music together.

I hear good things about Seattle Symphony. Hopefully one of these days I'll get out there and catch some concerts. I have yet to visit that part of the country.

September 23, 2006 at 04:16 AM ·

September 23, 2006 at 04:15 AM · That would be great. If you do come, feel free to give me a call, I'll be happy to show you around.

Elisa is great, we love her.

September 23, 2006 at 10:43 PM · Thanks, I'll do that. I'd love to see Seattle some day. I hear there's a lot of good stuff out there. I like St. Louis in spite of the mid-west climate, but there's nothing like the west coast.


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