Never Mind Talent: Practice, Practice, Practice

This essay appeared first, in slightly shorter form, in the Philadelphia Inquirer on December 2, 2012.


Me, I want to be a natural. I want to show up at the first class and discover I have a knack for whatever it is we’re going to study– pottery, Japanese calligraphy, racquetball, oil painting, flute. I want to be the one the teacher praises and the other students look up to. I don’t mind work — as long as it comes easy, with guaranteed results. But, as it turns out, I’m usually the class dunce, or at least that’s what it feels like as I struggle to keep up after the going gets tough. Eventually I quit, loathe to spend precious effort on what could be a mediocre outcome.

Sound familiar?

But my four daughters turned out differently. They don’t think about talent, because it’s beside the point. Like the proverbial tortoise, they make slow-and-steady strides in disciplines that are difficult for them, eventually surpassing more gifted hares. They weren’t born this way. Their approach to learning came about as a lucky accident.

When they were little, it seemed like a good idea to expose them to a smorgasbord of opportunities, so I encouraged them to dabble in this and that. Gymnastics, t-ball, dance, science museum classes– the usual lineup of Saturday kiddie activities. When the oldest was in kindergarten, she had a whim to play the violin, so I signed her up for lessons at the neighborhood Suzuki school. I thought it was cute: the little wooden instrument with its old-fashioned varnish smell, and all the children standing in a line, squawking away at “Lightly Row”, just enough off-pitch to sound comical to my ears. Some musicians I knew warned me that “no great violinist has ever come from the Suzuki tradition.” Fine by me– I wasn’t looking to raise a violinist, just a well-rounded kid.

Gradually, inexorably, and for more than a decade, those violin lessons took over our lives. The younger one wanted to copy everything her big sister was doing, and soon we had a two-year-old strutting around with a tiny violin case, like a miniature Mafioso. I was pregnant at the time, so the baby learned her Twinkle Variations in the womb. As soon as that baby could talk, she, too, demanded a violin. And so it escalated, until we were juggling four weekly private lessons, four group classes, and hours of parent-assisted practicing every day of the week. The house was littered with various sized violins. I learned to play piano with my hands behind my back, so I could keep an eye on their posture, and accompany them as they practiced. Those Suzuki melodies drove me crazy. I’d wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat with “Gossec Gavotte” stuck in my brain on endless loop. At the time, I wasn’t even sure why we were doing all this, only that it seemed crucial in some way I could not define.

Let me be clear: my family was not naturally suited for immersion in the Suzuki method. We’re not joiners. My oldest, an inquisitive and highly verbal child, asked so many questions during lessons that her teacher suggested we have her tested for ADHD (we declined.) The little ones had meltdowns in group class, or refused to open their instrument cases at their lessons. They did not exactly embrace the idea of daily practice. You might wonder, what three-year-old does? But, from the impeccable behavior of the other children in group class, I would have had to say: plenty. Of course, the coterie of families who participate in these programs is self-selecting: they tend to have bright, docile children with nimble fingers who enjoy practicing repetitive tasks. We, by contrast, struggled.

But we stuck it out. They practiced every day, and, lo and behold, progressed. Two of our four turned out to be musically gifted and before long were shuttled out of Suzuki to hard-core classical violin teachers. The baby, now age six, was so in love with music that she was practicing for hours every morning before school. Her new teacher put her on a steady diet of dry 19th century études to reform her technique. This difficult work she embraced with joy, because the habit of daily practice and steady incremental progress had been ingrained in her from infancy. I doubt that she or I would have had the heart to steady that rigorous course without the foundation that had been laid out for both of us by our accidental immersion in the Suzuki world. She’s now a violin performance major at Juilliard.

Flash forward twenty years from that first Suzuki lesson, and three of my four kids have put away their violins in favor of other pursuits. But those early lessons stuck. All four have had the courage to embrace long-term, large scale projects outside the realm of their formal academic training. Each of them credits their Suzuki days for engraining in them the habit of patient practice that has seen them through the long, slow development of mastery.

Sure, talent matters. Talent is the difference between good art and great art, between proficiency and virtuosity. But talent matters a lot less than we tend to believe, and talent alone is rarely enough to get by. In our culture, we have Romantic notion of the artist as a formidable, congenital genius. Obsessive focus on talent alone creates a hobbling anxiety of failure. How many of us are discouraged from trying because we were told we are “tone deaf” or “can’t draw a straight line”?

So forget about talent. If I had a nickel for every parent who told me that their own kid was a “natural” at music, dance, or whatever, but never got anywhere because he didn’t like to practice, I could take everybody out for lunch. Teach your kids to practice. Practice something difficult and complex, where the rewards come slowly over time. It doesn’t have to be music, although music is perfect because it engages body and mind on so many levels. And it doesn’t matter if they’re naturals; the lesson’s more profound when they are not.

–Karen Rile, December 2012