By Joey Tartell, Associate Professor of Music in the Jacobs School of Music
In last week’s article published on Slate.com entitled “Practice Does Not Make Perfect,” the authors investigate two very different kinds of studies in an effort to find out why people succeed in, among other things, music. Their conclusions are as wrong as they are dangerous.
The first study used was on musicians from an elite Berlin music academy.
This was the result: “The major finding of the study was that the most accomplished musicians has accumulated the most hours of deliberate practice.”
Next, the authors examined 88 other studies that they found relevant. The results: “With very few exceptions, deliberate practice correlated positively with skill.”
The second study examined involved measuring twins. They had twins estimate the time they practiced music, then had them take a test on basic music abilities. What they found was: “…although the music abilities were influenced by genes- to the tune of about 38 percent, on average- there was no evidence they were influenced by practice.”
From that, the authors make the leap that, although practice and other factors are important: “…it does imply there are limits on the transformative power of practice.”
No. It does no such thing.
It implies that we all start from a different place. As a teacher, this is not surprising. Having taught beginning musicians to professionals, letting me know that not everyone starts from the same place seems obvious. Some kids have a beautiful sound from the moment they start playing. Others have the coordination that gives them better technique from day 1.
There is no correlation proven in this article between where people start and where they end. The authors do concede that there are many factors that lead to success.
But when they write: “There is now compelling evidence that genes matter for success, too.”, they have made a conclusion that can’t be backed up by their studies.
All they have proven is that, as humans, we’re all different, and that includes what we’ve learned about music up until the time of the tests given.
Let’s go back to the first studies, done on students studying at an elite academy, and the other 88 studies referenced by the authors. They consistently found that deliberate practice leads to higher skill. But in none of those studies were the students given tests before they started playing. Are we to assume that all of the studies show that students with “bad genes” are being weeded out?
And let’s also look at the second studies. After testing these twins, has there been a follow up on those that have gone on to study music, and their success measured against the level of deliberate practice they put in?
Here’s why this kind of wrongheaded misuse of science is dangerous. First, it could encourage students to use the greatest of all excuses: ”they can’t possibly succeed; they don’t have the genes necessary!”
Second, it could encourage teachers to dismiss students who don’t make progress fast enough: “Clearly those students just don’t have the right genes!”
These are just variations on things that have been said for a long time: that person was “born with it,” or that person “just doesn’t have it.” Both are dismissive and wrongheaded. Saying one is “born with it” doesn’t recognize all the work that person has done to succeed. Telling a student they “just don’t have it” can destroy that person’s opportunity to succeed.
These studies have taught me two things:
- Each student is an individual with individual
strengths and weaknesses.
- Deliberate practice leads to higher skill.
Given these studies, I’ll continue doing what I’ve done my whole career as a teacher: work with each student as best as I can to help them become the best they can.
Associate Professor of Music (Trumpet)
Jacobs School of Music