Talent is overrated: What Really separates World Class Performers from Everybody Else Geoff Colvin, Portfolio (published by the Penguin Group) 2008
The long haul; what needs to be done to become world-class "Talented"
What defines and causes great ability, any kind of a "skill" or "gift" is a vital question for any aspiring musician, be they alternate keyboard players or otherwise. The answer is critical.
The western world the tradition has long leaned to a "gift" being just that: a present from the gods/fates/god/chance; a once-in-a-great-while happening; a precious, unchanging possession. And this is not only wrong. it is actually crippling, as detailed in Heidi Halvorson's Succeed, since the holders of "gifts" invariably take a defensive, protective stance, hindering learning and innovation. Colvin details why people are drawn to the (divine/natural/lucky) gift explanation for talent: for the gift-holder it is a seeming boon; for the apparently talent-less it takes away the need to strive and feel guilty.
However, this is very nearly completely wrong: science discovered the contrary quite a while back, and subsequent years have greatly reinforced our knowledge. But such is the strength and siren call of the “innate gift” meme that it persists, still retarding or preventing many of us from aspiring.
Instead, the largest factor in creating great performance ability is what he calls "deliberate practice". Deliberate practice (also called deep practice) is concentrated, hard, on-the-edge-of-your-ability practice, not just going through the motions, or what we do in ordinary work.
"Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance."
Research also indicates that deliberate practice is also key to developing talent in diverse fields from ballet, to music, to chess, all sports, to medical diagnostic skill, to business prowess, and many other fields.
The author laments the near-universal lack of fostering anything resembling deliberate practice, except by accident, in business and spends a fair bit of time on this.
Our focus is on developing musical talent, and this is where the greatest myths lie: in an fairly recent (1990's) English study of education professionals, more than 75 percent believed that musical talents required a special musical gift. Yet in a 1996 study of musical students, making use of excellent English record-keeping, no signs of actual musical preciosity were found: students took the same number of hours of practice to hit the same level of ability. (The numbers seem daunting; 1200 hours of practice to reach "level 5", whatever that is.) One researcher put it: "There is absolutely no evidence of a 'fast track' for high achievers."
This is pretty useful to know - and shame on us all for making this mistake, because it's immensely crippling, changing for the worse the course of lives and companies. It's also immensely pertinent to two of the key design principles of our new alternate keyboards: easy learning and enabling much greater speeds (much of practice is to "build up speed"). Suddenly, those 1200 hours of practice looks less daunting.
The scientific study of the violinists of the Music Academy of West Berlin is edifying. In this landmark, amazingly deep study several major things separated the merely "Good" (music teacher material), "Better" (symphony material) and "Best" (international soloist) musicians. Many things about the musicians were roughly the same: start of study year (8); career choice year (15); and current hours of music-related activities (51 hours/week!) and universal agreement that solo practice was by and far the most important factor in improvement. These four things, presumably were key factors:
One, the Best and Better violinists practiced in the late morning or early afternoon, while the Good practiced in the late afternoon. This ties in well with observations see: New hypothesis explains why we need sleep (Scientific American, August 2013) that we gain skills faster with early practice and lots of sleep.
Two, the Best and Better (let’s call them B/B) musicians took afternoon naps. I would guess that over time the students experimented with different combinations of practice and rest and found the combination that worked best for themselves. Not surprisingly, this usually converged on what the human mind /body combination needs.
Compare this to the sorry excuse for practice MusicScienceGuy indulged in, a couple of sessions late at night, amounting to 3-4 hours per week. It's a wonder any progress was made at all.
Three, the B/Bs practiced about twenty-four hours a week, while the merely Goods practiced a mere nine hours a week, for shame!
Fourth, and key to separating the Bests from the Betters, the total hours of deep, solo practice accumulated prior to the study were vastly different in the accumulated total lifetime solo practice:
Best: 7,410 hours ~14.8 hrs/week for 10 years
Better: 5,301 ~10.6
Good: 3,420 ~ 6.8
Me: 500 (5 years x 50 weeks/yr x 2 hours/week)
Note: my practicing methods were lousy; had to devise fingerings and other things.
Clearly, since they started at roughly the same age and are being evaluated at the same age, someone or something lit an early fire under the Bests and they put in more practice at an earlier age. This fire, called ignition, is discussed well in Daniel Coyle’s Talent Code books.
You can also see that, since solo practice is a largely invisible activity (unless researchers do a god-awful lot of digging), and its end result sure looks like a gift (see the sections on Mozart and Tiger Woods), it's easy for people to assume afterwards that the Best musicians are simply gifted. It's also comforting for the Better and Good musicians.
Which sounds better:
"Alice and I started violins about the same time but she practiced more than I did"
"We started taking lessons at about the same time, but Alice has a natural gift."
So what is 'deliberate practice’?
Deliberate Practice is not just performing an action, any more than lifting a 10-pound weight will build strength when the muscle involved is capable of lifting a 20 pound one (repeated lifts may build endurance, they just won't build strength).
It'a actually a cluster of techniques: focusing specifically on the aspects of performance that need work, or the player may some day encounter (e.g. Tiger Woods stepping on a practice ball in a sand trap and practicing how to get it out ... 200 times).
Step 1 Knowing what you want to do, like Tiger above.
Step 2 Figuring out the next step to achieve that "chunk" of skill.
Step 3 Self regulation: learning to look both further ahead, and to see the fine details.