Yes, You Have What It Takes to Be a Musician (psychology of talent and learning)
Do I have the talent to be a Musician?
So many students wonder, should I major in music? Should I try against odds to make a career in music? Will I be happy and successful following what I currently think is my dream. Will I have a job that makes me happy? I can’t answer those questions. There are innumerable factors from resources to desire to the economy that will affect those answers. The question I can answer is, Do I have the talent? And the short answer is, Yes.
There is a certain underlying fear among students that they will not be good enough to master their instruments because of some aspect inherent to them. But instruments, like any other skill you can think of, are learnable. Whatever your ability now, there is evidence that you, as a human with a brain, have an astounding potential to learn. And knowing how to take advantage of that potential is the real secret. The people who succeed are people who have taken advantage of the incredible capacity of our brain to adapt and change and who used the learning process more effectively than most people. But we all have the power to do that.
This Post has 3 parts :
1) why I know you have the potential to learn and succeed
2) the learning process and why I know you can use it
3) how teaching fits the learning model and where to go from here.
Part 1: Our Learning Potential
Here’s what we know about how the average 95% of humans learn and how we all have to potential to master a skill
- Intelligence and ability are not fixed
“Intelligence,” something many of us seem to conceptualize as a stable representation of ourselves, is changeable, and our abilities on our instruments (and in basically everything else) are similarly capable of growth.
Your ability is not fixed because our world is generally made of learnable skills. And we know you can learn because the human brain is a beautifully adaptive gift that we all have. We start off incredibly helpless compared to other newborn animals, and one reason for that is because our brain is set up slightly differently. Our brains are relatively blank and undeveloped but come ready to form knowledge and learn We can develop skills like driving, which probably don’t have much basis in evolution because rather than being hard-wired with ready-made skills, we have have systems ready to adapt to whatever we teach our brain.
You can change your ability at anything because you can change your brain on a neurological level through learning. And studies show those changes through synapsys in our brains as well as more visible results of students succeeding. There are studies and stories of students of all backgrounds learning across all kinds of topics when given the right conditions (access to the learning process), and you have the same raw materials as they do.
- Your current ability has NO bearing on your potential to improve or succeed.
In a study on Chess Grandmasters, there was no correlation between starting ability and grandmaster status. Some grandmasters showed what we might call “aptitude,” or “talent” right away, and some did not. But there was no relationship between their “natural talent” or starting ability and whether or not they reached the pinnacle of being a Grandmaster (the highest level). Some students had good instincts about how to strategize and which moves to make, and some had no way of thinking ahead and conceptualizing a plan. But all of the steps to developing good strategy are learnable. And, compared to grandmaster level, all the beginners were far from skilled.
Similarly, some students feel musical early. Some have a good sense of pitch or a good sound or faster technique. Some feel that no matter how hard they work they are always behind those who seem to succeed effortlessly. And that certainly may be true as a beginner, or even as an intermediate player. People can have different aptitudes, starting abilities, or natural tendencies that seem give them a small head start. It can make us feel like no matter how hard we try, that person will always be a few steps ahead of us because they started there. But studies like this one show us that improving doesn’t work that way in the long run.
They show us that starting ability has no bearing on future success and those early differences don’t have to be life changing or defining. By the time we are looking for music jobs, any differences based on natural “talent” will be erased through productive practice. Let me say that again. Differences in starting ability do NOT predict expert performance later. The message is not that less “talented” people might be able to catch up if they fight against the odds. The message is that the odds are exactly the same no matter your initial talent level. This is the case because we ALL use learning to excel in our chosen field. Which brings me to my next point.
- There is no such thing as talent
At least not how most of us normally conceptualize it. As I mentioned above there are certainly differences in starting ability, but mostly they are superficial, and they do not translate to real differences in potential.
Caroll Dweck illustrates this well with her re-telling of the tortoise and the hare. We think of this story of as an example that hard work can overcome natural ability. But that story is not really that accurate. It doesn’t reflect the relatively small differences in starting abilities or potential as I’ve seen it nor does it reflect the improvement a “tortoise” can make through learning. It says that a tortoise will always be a tortoise, and implies that his success depends on the failure or laziness of the hare. But that is not how learning works.
I feel pretty safe in saying, there is no one with a natural ability so far ahead of the rest of us that it is like comparing a turtle to a rabbit in a race. There is growing evidence that even those considered prodigies are just people who learned very efficiently (often with help and resources of the right conditions) at a young age (Anders Ericsson summarizes this nicely in Peak). They usually have resources such musical parents who teach them, money, time, an unusually focused interest, etc. But the important thing these prodigies seem to have that others don’t is successful use of the learning process–not some innate musical ability with which we can never compete. The good news, then, is that we can use that same process to succeed as well.
Think of the best, most naturally gifted musicians you know. They are as much of a tortoise as you are. Maybe they happened to blow through their horn in a way that was more helpful than your first guess. Maybe they have a better sense of pitch. Maybe they already know about music theory or history. Whatever the difference is, it is nothing that you cannot learn. And once you do, the starting difference in your ability will disappear. This matches the story the chess studies tell us. It does not matter how good you are now, it only matters that you are willing to learn and to practice correctly (and a lot).
The types of things people become experts at (like music performance) are almost laughably complex. They take a huge amount of time and effort to begin to grasp the many moving parts that go into them. Talent could never take you all the way through that process on its own. In fact, for many professionals, attributing their success to talent shows a lack of respect for the amount of hard work they put forth for years and decades. The great thing about this, though, is that you can do it too. Each of those moving parts can be broken down and learned until you are ready to do them all together. (we will talk about the learning process in the next post)
What about nurture vs. nature?
Yes, there are definitely differences in nature, genes, etc. And we are not born the same or with the same resources. But, evidence continually supports the idea that well-executed continual practice, rather than “natural” ability, is the determining factor in future ability. Moreover, there is no evidence that people have ever stopped learning because they reached some innate limit in their capacity to improve–in fact there is no evidence that such a limit even exists for us as humans. That’s crazy! As Dr. Ericsson explains, people stop learning because they stop practicing correctly. Again, it seems the skills we learn are so complex and that our capacity to learn is so great that starting ability does not make a difference.
- Your belief in whether you can succeed is hugely important.
For a few reasons. First, there is evidence that belief is important if not required for growth and change. It is difficult to succeed if you think you can’t. And the journey to mastering your instrument is long–it will last your whole musical life. Doubting your ability has been shown to negatively affect your motivation to work through the challenges every day.
But even more than that those fairly obvious effects, your belief (or lack thereof) in your inherent ability to learn affects you in a lot of unconscious ways. In “Mindset,” Dr. Carol Dweck tells us that people can have a “fixed” or “growth” mindset about their abilities. Growth mindset people believe you can continually learn if you work hard and evaluate flaws appropriately. Fixed mindset people think that while you may have to work a little to develop some abilities, your general ability level (or talent) is set for life in any particular area. You either are intelligent or you aren’t. You are musical or you aren’t. You are mathematically inclined or you aren’t. You are a hare or you are a tortoise. What you do with that has consequences, but you cannot change what you are. That mindset is dangerous, unproductive, and, because it does not reflect what we know about learning, basically incorrect. But if you believe it, you can define yourself and your worth this way. One major way that inhibits learning is it makes you afraid to put forth effort. And effort is absolutely necessary to improve.
- Effort is not a sign of inability
Have you ever been in a rehearsal where you or someone else brags about not having to practice a particular difficult passage–or even a whole piece? I heard that many times in high school. The message people convey with that is they are so good they didn’t have to practice. Conversely, if you had to practice you are not as good as they are. But practicing is not a sign of weakness or inability.
You have to put forth effort to learn new and more difficult things, and you have to learn new and more difficult things in order to improve. Usually, you won’t get them right the first time, and that doesn’t matter. Trying different methods of succeeding until you find the right one is not failing, it’s learning. And as Dr. Dweck tells us, any child with a new puzzle or game will tell you that.
So why do we grown-ups think effort is bad? Let’s go back to the story of the tortoise and the hare. As Dweck explains in “Mindset,” fixed mindset people take from this metaphor that a person is either a tortoise or a hare, and if you have to put forth effort, you must be a tortoise. And no matter how hard or long you work, you cannot stop being a tortoise. So you better be a hare if you want to succeed. And if hare is naturally (read effortlessly) fast, you have to succeed without putting forth too much effort. This is a little ridiculous (and a lot dangerous) because effort is crucial to the learning process (obvious, right?) Practicing is just a part of life for anyone trying to improve in any field and it is the only way to do so.
Conclusion: You DO have the potential to master your instrument
The goal for this article is for you to stop worrying about whether or not YOU are enough. Because you are. Never mind the fact that you are a human being and you are valuable as an individual life (that is already, hopefully, a given). You are enough as a musician because you have the natural ability to learn. And that natural ability is the only one that matters. All worrying about whether you can be a good musician will do is distract you from learning and improving, and likely make you miserable. If you stop worrying about proving you have what it takes, it, first of all, removes a huge amount of stress (from personal experience), and secondly opens you up to actually learning.
I don’t know if you will get a job as a musician, and I don’t know if that job can make you happy. But I can tell you the science of learning is overwhelmingly positive and optimistic in that it continually points to the idea that we all have the potential to grow and learn incredible skills. And if you want to, you can accomplish incredible things with your instrument.
These posts are based primarily on studies and findings from “Mindset,” by Dr. Carol Dweck and “Peak,” by Dr. Anders Ericsson. They are compiled and adapted to be relevant to young musicians based on my experience as a student, performer, and teacher. I encourage anyone interested in or helped by these points to go to their original source and to continue learning from psychology after this introduction just as we learn from our music instructors. Any source that talks about sports or performance psychology, or educational psychology can also point you in the right direction. Another favorite of mine is the bulletproof musician blog: http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/about/ If you have any questions or comments feel free to reach out at email@example.com or check out what else I’m learning about at http://www.jessicapollackclarinet.com/
So science tells us we can learn. How should we do it?
Part 2: The Learning Process
There are two things you should take from this post.1) There is a best way to learn long term and it is a process you should cultivate every time you practice/learn. 2) Every aspect of mastering your instrument is learnable, and complex skills like this can be broken into steps for you to manage.
As we said in the last post, there is no evidence of a quality inherent to someone like Ricardo Morales or Sabine Meyer or Martin Fröst or Mozart or any other prodigious musician you admire that allowed them to be amazing musicians other than that they figured out how to learn and then worked really hard at doing that.
The great thing is, you can too.
We forget sometimes that practicing is really just learning. And the process of learning anything is the same whether you want to learn chess, chemistry, a sport, an instrument, or anything else. It is made of some basic parts that you might recognize from various aspects of daily life or school. Once we purposely seek them out though, learning happens much more effectively.
Basically, to learn, we need to know what is correct and we need immediate and accurate feedback about when we are reaching correct and how to fix it when we are not.
As Dr. Ericsson explains in “Peak,” we should always be practicing with a specific goal in mind (knowing what correct looks like, while evaluating whether we are there) . The goal might be to improve sound quality, fix pitch, increase tongue speed, phrase a certain way etc. This is called purposeful practice.
The best way to practice, though, is deliberate practice. Deliberate practice, Ericsson explains, is “purposeful practice that knows where it is going and how to get there.” (p 98) How do you improve your sound quality, recognize and fix pitch, increase tongue speed, or phrase more musically?
For me, deliberate practice can be broken into 4 steps:
- Knowing what correct looks like
- Being able to tell what is different (and the same) between what you have and what you defined as “correct”
- Identifying what is preventing you from reaching“correct”
- Knowing exactly how to change what is preventing you from being “correct”
- Knowing what “correct” looks like
This might be knowing what all the correct rhythms, fingerings, and pitches sound like. Or deciding precisely what phrasing expresses your musical idea. Or having a beautiful tone despite range or dynamic challenges. For the advanced student it might involve all of those and more. “Correct” is whatever your ideal performance would be or sound like. Often, as we improve, our idea of “correct,” will be more and more complex, adding in subtleties of great performers. But you have to know what “correct” is before you can attempt to reach it.
- Being able to tell what is different between what you have and what you defined as “correct”
Now that you know what “correct” is, how close are you to achieving it? Did you play a note or rhythm wrong? Were you able to play the phrase as beautifully and musically as you wanted? Was your tone always your best and the way you wanted it to be? It is important to be able to recognize when you succeed and when you are not quite reaching your “correct.” And as mentioned before, accurate and immediate feedback is vital to learning because you need feedback about what part of your practicing is working and what is not.
- Identifying causes of the differences between step 1 and step 2
What is it that is causing your incorrect pitch or rhythm? Is it difficulty with fingers, the actual rhythm, or something else?
What is causing your tone to change? Is it something with air support, embouchure, tongue position, poor equipment, or something else?
If you are focused on fixing a specific source of the problem, you can fix it much more easily than by trying to overhaul every aspect of your playing (or simply playing it over and over hoping it will improve through sheer will power–a popular unproductive practicing technique).
- Knowing how to fix what is preventing you from playing what you defined as “correct” (i.e. fixing the problem in step 3)
Let’s say the actual rhythm is complex or confusing. How can you practice that aspect? (eg singing the rhythm or adding tongued subdivisions)
If it was the fingerings affecting your rhythm, what are efficient ways to make your fingers more comfortable? (eg practicing slower or practicing in different rhythms).
If your tone is changing because of air support, what exercises can help you fix that here and long term?
If it is your tongue or embouchure affecting sound, how can you remind yourself what a better position is and what exercises can you do to isolate that and help you long term?
So, generally, we need to decide what “correct” is, see where we are in relation to that, determine the causes of our shortcomings, and choose appropriate solutions. That is sometimes simple and sometimes not. And you have to practice using the model the same way you have to practice each individual step. Take this with you into the practice and experiment with putting it to use every time you work a skill or passage. But…
Remember it’s all learnable
Each of those steps can be tricky on your own. You may not always know what is causing a problem, or it might be hard for you to tell if you are playing in tune. You have to be continually working to master this process, but no one is born being able to do or answer every part of it. If you don’t naturally discover the answer right away, it does not mean you lack talent, and it does not mean you cannot learn this skill. As we saw in the last post, you, as a human with a brain, have a ridiculously amazing capacity to learn.
The important part of this model is that it is ALL learnable. The process is learnable and each aspect of each step is learnable. That means you can learn and use this model as a process to generally improve a passage but you can also learn each of the steps in this process.
You can learn to identify pitches or distinguish rhythms. You can learn the logistics behind double-tonguing. You can learn to identify whether air, embouchure, or something else is affecting your sound. And you can learn to find exercises that fix the problems you identified. You can also learn to use this process and practice deliberately. As I said before, you don’t have to naturally practice that way or instinctively have the skills in each of 4 steps above to be able to use them. But you have to be building those skills and critically evaluating your practice in order to improve efficiently.
Part 3: Teaching and the Learning Model, and Wrap-up
In the last post we saw the best way to practice
- Knowing what correct looks like
- Being able to tell what is different (and the same) between what you have and what you defined as “correct”
- Identifying what is preventing you from reaching“correct”
- Knowing exactly how to change what is preventing you from being “correct”
What this model says about teachers
To be clear, you can absolutely learn all of that by yourself. But as we saw in the model, the fastest way to improve requires knowledge of what is causing the problems and how to fix them. Improvement happens more quickly if you don’t have to spend time figuring out the source of the problem and you can go straight to fixing it . That is, it goes faster with a teacher.
If we think of learning a skill as climbing a mountain, we need good climbing technique (the practice model above), hard work, and time. But, as Dr. Ericsson points out in “Peak,” you will always climb the mountain faster and more easily if you have a map or a guide–and that guidance is the difference between purposeful practice and deliberate practice.
In climbing a mountain, you might follow a path upwards only to realize at some point it is blocked, and you may have to retrace some of your steps to try a different path to the top. Similarly, have you ever worked on one aspect of your playing to fix a problem only to realize the solution was really somewhere else? For example, maybe you do lots of exercises to increase your tonguing speed and stamina, like practicing bursts or endurance at different metronome markings. But if you don’t have a good tonguing technique underneath it (eg keeping movements small and at the tip of the tongue), you will hit a physical limit much sooner no matter how much you try to muscle out more speed. In that case, you are addressing the wrong aspect of a problem, and you may not know until days, weeks, or even years into that technique.You can absolutely fix that, but it might slow you down.
Luckily, we stand on the shoulders of generations of musicians and teachers who have found solutions to many technique and musical problems. They have created maps and taught others the way so that we don’t have to repave the same paths. We can build on their knowledge rather than rediscovering it in each generation. That is the idea behind good private lessons or at least individual feedback from a music teacher or advanced friend. Immediate and accurate feedback from a teacher who knows how to answer the questions raised in the steps above is the fastest way to improve. That way you can spend time improving, not trying to understand how to improve. The teacher can also train students to give that feedback to themselves as they improve on their instruments.
You don’t have to be taught everything
Just because someone didn’t teach it to you doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Eventually you will get to a point where you can come up with your own exercises and ideas on fixing problems. The great players I know all use a combination of strategies they learned and strategies they made up on their own. All the exercises we learn had to be made by someone. That someone didn’t have any natural talent that you don’t also posses. And eventually, that someone will be you. As you continue to learn about your instrument you will be better at understanding and identifying the causes of problems and you will be able to start creating solutions on your own. And you certainly don’t need a degree to do this.
If you aren’t good at this right away, that’s okay, though. Like the chess players in the first post, some students may have good instincts about what to practice right away and some may not. But eventually we all learn enough to come up with our own ways of practicing that don’t have to come directly from teachers or books just as chess Grandmasters learn to out-strategize any opponent. And if you are thinking critically and evaluating along the way, that is likely something you can do with your current skill level so don’t be afraid to experiment!
Practicing vs Performing
I also want to point out that some teachers agree there are 3 different types of practice: conceptual, mechanical, and performance. That is, one type of practice is to find your artistic concept (eg phrasing). Separately, you practice how to logistically execute that idea. And separately, you practice doing it on command in performance mode. The model above works for any type of learning. Note, though, that not all practice time goes to learning because you have to practice performing. When in performance mode, you don’t want to be distracted by evaluations or feedback about your playing (Bulletproof Musician gives a great intro to practicing performing). You need the ability to turn off feedback and focus on performing even though the evaluation process is key to the learning model.
But, we can evaluate our performance ability after the fact. Practice putting yourself in performance mode, record yourself, and see how you do. When you are not performing exactly the way you practice (“correct”), go back to learning mode and use the model to evaluate why you don’t succeed in practice mode. Do you have trouble focusing, is there a technique issue, or something else? You have to practice performing the same way you practice scales, a passage, or any other musical skill.
This series serves as an introduction on how to practice, but also on why anyone can learn to practice and to play their instrument correctly. If you want more instruction on the correct way to practice, I recommend “Peak,” one of the biggest sources of Part 2, for anyone who has even a little bit of reading time to explore good practice methods. I also recommend signing up for the free mini course from bulletproof musician, which goes through this material a bit faster than a book and is more specific to musicians. There are also lots of blogs like http://www.hoopgains.com/blog/ that give more bite-size tips on practicing to your email. Anything science based about sport/performance or educational psychology is a great place to look for more details about the exciting field of practicing well. Don’t waste time and energy being miserable with bad practice strategies. All of this information should make practicing less confusing and more productive. It is difficult and exhausting, but when it works, very rewarding and hopefully even fun!
What if I don’t have the resource of a private teacher?
Immediate and accurate feedback with the guidance of a teacher is the most efficient way to learn. If you are serious about wanting to be one of the best in the world at something, you want to be working with a teacher as soon as possible to make that difficult journey that much more manageable. But remember that you have that amazing gift of a human brain and you have great potential to learn. The internet gives students of all locations access to teachers through video lessons, but if that is truly not available or affordable, there are continually more free resources (blogs, videos, etc.) that can help provide clues to problem solving until students have access to that immediate feedback. Remember, though a video can show you the right way, but it can’t give you feedback about how well you are following it. Continuing the mountain metaphor above, you can absolutely reach the top on your own, but the more guidance you have the easier it will be. For some students that immediate, accurate, and precise feedback about their own playing may not happen regularly until college, and this post is not meant to discourage them or tell them it is too late to succeed. If that is you, be certain you make the most of the resources available in order to follow this model as closely as possible, and seek out and use feedback wherever possible. Ask more advanced players and music educators for help as often as you can. And when you get to somewhere with more resources, don’t waste any time by not learning efficiently. Again, we know from the last post that you are capable of learning and succeeding. Just be sure to be active and critical each time you hold your instrument so that you actually learn rather than just repeat.
Congratulations on making it to the end!
The information from this post comes directly from Mindset by Carol Dweck and Peak by Eric Andersson. While they apply this information to all people, not just musicians, I absolutely recommend reading it from the source! This post is a condensed conglomeration of the aspects I found most relevant to musicians. I applied it to musicians, but the research, ideas, and implications came from these authors, so check them out!
If you have any questions or comments feel free to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out what else I’m learning about at http://www.jessicapollackclarinet.com/
Thanks for reading with me!
Jessica is a classically-trained clarinetist based out of Florida and Ohio who loves cats, vegan chocolate chip cookies, psychology, and working with as many different types of artists as possible. She has a BA in psychology and BM in clarinet performance from Northwestern University and began her MM in clarinet performance at BGSU in fall 2017.