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Thinking Beyond the Myths and Misconceptions of Talent: Creating Music Education Policy that Advances Music's Essential Contribution to Twenty-First-Century Teaching and Learning


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At present, there is growing scientific evidence of music's powerful, positive influence on the neurological, cognitive, and social-emotional development of all children. At the same time, a flurry of new studies now show that extensive, deliberate, and deep practice supported by an ability growth mindset—and not a fixed degree of talent—is the primary predictor of future expertise in music, as it is in other disciplines. This article argues that parents and educators today must therefore shed the outdated myths and misconceptions of predetermined talent in order to embrace substantial development of “acquired expertise” in music as an agent for engaging and optimizing every child's capacity to learn across many areas of a school's academic and social curriculum. Thus, music education policy stakeholders need to support innovative teaching practices that are free of lingering explicit, implicit, or unconscious assumptions of “innate talent” in order to craft and implement public education policies that will lead to early, ongoing, and equitable access to an intensive study of music that is aligned with the evolving twenty-first-century views of this area's essential contribution to all children's human development.
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Arts Education Policy Review
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Thinking Beyond the Myths and Misconceptions of
Talent: Creating Music Education Policy that Advances
Music's Essential Contribution to Twenty-First-Century
Teaching and Learning
Lawrence Scripp a b , Devin Ulibarri b & Robert Flax b
a Center for Music-in-Education , New York , New York , USA
b New England Conservatory , Boston , Massachusetts , USA
Published online: 06 May 2013.
To cite this article: Lawrence Scripp , Devin Ulibarri & Robert Flax (2013): Thinking Beyond the Myths and Misconceptions
of Talent: Creating Music Education Policy that Advances Music's Essential Contribution to Twenty-First-Century Teaching and
Learning, Arts Education Policy Review, 114:2, 54-102
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ISSN: 1063-2913 print / 1940-4395 online
DOI: 10.1080/10632913.2013.769825
Thinking Beyond the Myths and Misconceptions
of Talent: Creating Music Education Policy
that Advances Music’s Essential Contribution
to Twenty-First-Century Teaching and Learning
Lawrence Scripp
New England Conservatory, Boston, Massachusetts, and the Center for Music-in-Education, New York, New York, USA
Devin Ulibarri and Robert Flax
New England Conservatory, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
At present, there is growing scientific evidence of music’s powerful, positive influence on
the neurological, cognitive, and social-emotional development of all children. At the same
time, a flurry of new studies now show that extensive, deliberate, and deep practice supported
by an ability growth mindset—and not a fixed degree of talent—is the primary predictor of
future expertise in music, as it is in other disciplines. This article argues that parents and
educators today must therefore shed the outdated myths and misconceptions of predetermined
talent in order to embrace substantial development of “acquired expertise” in music as an
agent for engaging and optimizing every child’s capacity to learn across many areas of a
school’s academic and social curriculum. Thus, music education policy stakeholders need to
support innovative teaching practices that are free of lingeringexplicit, implicit, or unconscious
assumptions of “innate talent” in order to craft and implement public education policies that
will lead to early, ongoing, and equitable access to an intensive study of music that is aligned
with the evolving twenty-first-century views of this area’s essential contribution to all children’s
human development.
Keywords: education, human potential, music, policy, talent
This article emerged from years of discussion—sometimes
contentious—with colleagues in the field of arts education
about why and how the conception of talent may be the
chief obstacle standing in the way of a truly equitable music
education for all children.
For example, I have witnessed many times parents ter-
minating their children’s music lessons because they were
certain that their children were not musically talented. That
Correspondence should be sent to Lawrence Scripp, New England
Conservatory, 290 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115, USA. E-mail:
is, after their child’s one year of half-hour lessons, one-hour
music classes, and two hours of practice a week through-
out a forty-week school year, these parents felt qualified to
make a judgment about their child’s lifelong learning poten-
tial in music. Some parents actually say that since they are
“not talented” in music themselves, it is unlikely that the
“talent genes” exist in their children. Unfortunately, parents
who excuse themselves from music learning on the basis of
their lack of talent are all the more likely not to support the
presumed pointless and expensive task of providing a music
education for their “untalented” child.
In other instances, I have continued to talk with school ad-
ministrators who profess to be aware of the purported social,
cognitive, and neurological benefits of a music education and
yet have refused to require students to participate in school-
wide music programs because they do not believe all stu-
dents would reap these benefits from musical study without a
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sufficient level of “innate talent.” Why not have an after-
school program only for those children who really want
the lessons? Even music teachers openly declare that some
of their students are “talented” and some are not. These
same teachers routinely explain these students’ unusually
advanced skills as indications of “innate” talent rather than
the result of other factors, such as family support, and then
deem the talented students worthy of extra time, even though
this extra time is needed far more by those students who do
not get family support in order to catch up.
But what if innate talent is a myth or giftedness a mis-
conception about the learning process? Without a critical
examination of where expertise comes from, “talent” could
become a self-fulfilling prophecy that can be used too easily
to demonstrate to children that it is not worth trying to learn
something difficult, something that does not come naturally,
something that requires commitment to countless hours of
practice from which only the “talented few” will profit.
This article is written to investigate the belief in “innate
talent” and its impact on teaching and learning. Some of the
motivation for this book is personal, some professional. As
a young musician, my schoolmates declared me “Most Tal-
ented,” and this label followed me into the annals of my high
school yearbook. But I knew deeply that this concept was
misguided because of the lack of verifiable criteria for ei-
ther a designation of talent or, in terms of presumed genetic
origins, so-called “inherited talent.” I was relatively better
than some people at certain aspects of musical performance,
while many others were still better than I at different skills.
The more I studied music later in life, the more I discov-
ered what I did not know. As I discovered new boundaries
in human potential, I then had to work harder to progress
toward these new potentials through the near-infinite realm
of skill development. Suddenly, the talent label seemed a dis-
turbing misconception. Ever since that time I have had many
experiences, personal and professional, that have revealed
the vexing problems associated with the concepts of innate
talent versus human development in relation to teaching and
As a parent, I have witnessed my daughters being de-
scribed as talented when they did well at something that
they had worked hard to achieve and conversely being de-
scribed as something far less than talented when they tried
to do something without yet putting in the time or dedication
to do the hard work required: that is to say, practice. From
my perspective as a parent, I couldn’t conceive of my chil-
dren not being able to learn anything on which they chose
to focus. However, I noticed that their self-confidence and
self-conception as learners needed to be reinforced continu-
ally, particularly at early stages of skill acquisition or when
competing against others with more experience.
When my daughter went from being a community theater
star at age eleven to being a beginning cellist at age twelve,
I was not sure if she could emotionally survive the humility
that would inevitably be required to learn the cello alongside
six-year-olds. I also found it challenging to patiently listen to
my fellow music teachers as they tried to persuade me that her
talents lay elsewhere. Many anxious years later I discovered
she had developed a work ethic and a learning mindset that
enabled her to attain a scholarship in music graduate studies
and success in artist competitions, and to finally become the
artistic director of a professional chamber music group that
conducts education residencies in schools and concerts at
night in communities across the United States.
Later on, as a professional educator and researcher, I pro-
posed and gained approval to create a state-chartered Boston
public school dedicated to providing an intensive, compre-
hensive “Learning Through Music” program for all K–5 stu-
dents, regardless of any notion of talent. I wanted to investi-
gate the talent issue by creating a school culture in which the
notion of talent in music was rejected and all students were
required to study several musical instruments in the context
of music’s further integration with language and math stud-
ies during the school day. Subsequent to my co-directorship
during the first four years at the Conservatory Lab Charter
School, the CLCS has succeeded artistically and academ-
ically, and it now features an “El Sistema”–inspired after-
school and in-school curriculum for students in grades pre-K
through 6.
In the decade or so since initiating the CLCS, I have re-
ceived a doctorate in human development and psychology
from the Harvard Graduate School of Education while con-
ducting research at Harvard Project Zero. For many years
I have researched musical development in schools, and I
formed a national network of Music-in-Education Labora-
tory School partnerships dedicated to exploring the essential
role of music in education. Yet, in all these efforts, I have had
to do my best to discourage the notion of “special talent” in
an environment in which some parents and colleagues might
see broader access to music instruction as a way to find out
how “talented” their children really are, rather than celebrat-
ing a school culture that values participation and growth in
the learning process over competition for celebrity status as
one of the “talented few.” Personal circumstances such as
these have fueled my motivation to investigate rigorously
the impact of the concept of fixed talent on learning. This
investigation provides the backbone of this article.
As a faculty member at New England Conservatory for
over a quarter of a century, I have seen firsthand how the no-
tion of talent is virtually abandoned in any discussion focused
on learning and performing music at the most intensive levels
of training. As some students put it, calling someone talented
at the conservatory is an insult, because it means you have
ignored the fact that musical expertise is the result of hard
work and is not made easier somehow by virtue of a “gift.
At my seminars for the conservatory’s Music-in-Education
program, I have learned from my students how vital the crit-
ical investigation of conceptions of talent is as they dedicate
themselves to facing the challenges and rewards of an edu-
cation in music.
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Two of the most engaged, involved, and productive stu-
dents I have encountered in my classes at NEC, Devin
Ulibarri and Robert Flax, have joined me in a collaborative
effort to articulate the philosophical issues and research find-
ings connected to the matter of innate talent versus acquired
expertise in music education. The goal of the inquiry process
was also to provide the next generation of educators with
frameworks for creating music education programs without
the notions of innate talent or giftedness that may limit the
boundaries of human potential by directing an unfair pro-
portion of resources to the so-called “talented few” rather
than providing much-needed opportunities for all children to
pursue what we believe is their birthright to lifelong learning
benefits from a comprehensive music education.
We believe the myths and misconceptions of talent, while
largely ignored, present one of the most pressing challenges
to music education policy today. If educators, parents, and ad-
ministrators do not understand the implications of the myths
and misconceptions of talent, we will not be able to build
a new consensus on the essential mission and purpose of
music in education for the twenty-first century. It is there-
fore the duty of all stakeholders in music education policy
to discuss critically and build consensus regarding research
focused on the notion of innate talent versus acquired skill
development for all our children, regardless of how difficult
and contentious the process may be. Once consensus has
been reached, we all must urge leaders in music education to
make the effort to craft equitable policy aligned with new un-
derstandings from research related to music’s essential role
in education.
We therefore invite the reader to join our investigation
and reflect on the path of inquiry explored in this article. The
following is the map of our inquiry that begins with an ex-
position of the myths and misconceptions of talent and then
guides the reader through several case-based examples of
what can be accomplished when equitable policies that sup-
port every child’s path of musical development supersede the
assumptions of “innate talent”–oriented education practices
of the past.
1. Introduction: How Does the Designation of Talent Fit
into Arts Education Policy? (p. 57)
When is the designation of talent appropriate?
(p. 57)
Consequences of talent designation in music edu-
cation (p. 58)
2. Twentieth-Century Pedagogical Innovation Has Chal-
lenged the Premise of the Talent Designation in Music
Education (p. 59)
Suzuki’s argument for instruction disregards the no-
tion of inherited talent (p. 59)
The limited success of the Suzuki Method in chang-
ing public attitudes and policy about talent (p. 59)
Confusion over the term “talent” remains problem-
atic in the construction of public school music edu-
cation policy (p. 60)
Further confusion between the term “talent educa-
tion” and the practice of identifying and provid-
ing special resources for so-called musically gifted
children (p. 60)
Distinguishing “acquired musical expertise” from
“innate musical talent” (p. 62)
3. What Research Tells Us about the Nature and Devel-
opment of Acquired Expertise (p. 62)
New consensus on the myths and misconceptions
about innate talent (p. 62)
A former Olympian debunks the myth of innate
talent (p. 63)
Can birth dates predict talent? (p. 63)
The Polgar family experiment (p. 64)
Where does prodigious musical expertise come
from? (p. 65)
4. The Primacy of Deliberate and Deep Practice in the
Development of Musical Expertise (p. 65)
Practice matters from the start (p. 66)
Mozart: An exceptional musician whose develop-
ment aligns with the rule of early and extensive
guided practice (p. 66)
Paganini’s reflections on his self-motivation and the
creativity of extreme musical practice (p. 67)
The art and science of deliberate practice (p. 67)
The neurological consequences of musical practice
(p. 68)
Myelin and deep practice (p. 69)
Deep practice affects memory and skill develop-
ment (p. 70)
5. The Growth Mindset: How Teachers, Parents, and Stu-
dents Can Optimize Learning (p. 70)
What predicts variation in the initial stages of mu-
sical progress? (p. 70)
The “Six Words of Praise” experiment (p. 72)
Mindset differences among music teachers (p. 73)
Implications of the growth mindset for music edu-
cation policy (p. 73)
6. The Consequences of Misconceptions of Talent for
Music Education Policy (p. 74)
Genies, genius, and genetics: Mindsets that
have limited the evolution of music education
policy (p. 74)
Ethical challenges of music education policy based
on implicit or explicit acceptance of student gifted-
ness or talent (p. 75)
7. Acquired Expertise as a Foundation for Advancing
Twenty-First-Century Music Education Policy (p. 76)
A new language for music education policy (p. 77)
Demystifying mastery: Applying the developmental
stages of acquired expertise to policy (p. 77)
Putting the language of acquired expertise into
policy (p. 79)
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8. Music Education Policy from the Acquired Expertise
Perspective: Two Examples of Innovation Compared
Statistically to Current U.S. Public School Norms
(p. 79)
El Sistema: A “human development through music”
experiment (p. 80)
A policy of acquired expertise in the context of
social action (p. 81)
An open-admission music education policy that pro-
vides all children with the opportunity for ten thou-
sand hours of personal and ensemble practice (p. 81)
A system of public policy shaped by Abreu’s life
experience (p. 82)
The acquisition of extreme expertise in the context
of youth orchestra immersion (p. 84)
The development of innovative acquired exper-
tise models of music education policy for U.S.
schools (p. 85)
A public school laboratory for learning in and
through music in Boston (p. 85)
Facing public policy constraints that may limit the
development of acquired expertise music programs
(p. 86)
Emerging indications of the impact of comprehen-
sive, interdisciplinary music programs on academic
achievement (p. 86)
Time and money: Quantitative implications of in-
tensive and equitable acquired expertise music ed-
ucation policies (p. 88)
Implementing a policy of time commitment neces-
sary for advancing musical expertise (p. 88)
Four curriculum paths toward the goal of musical
expertise (p. 89)
The CLCS plus El Sistema experiment: Establish-
ing an elementary public school policy model that
provides equal opportunity for significant musical
expertise (p. 91)
Policy cost-effectiveness: U.S. and Venezuela El
Sistema comparisons (p. 92)
A comparison of U.S. and El Sistema population
statistics (p. 92)
Differences in student program coverage (p. 92)
U.S. and Venezuela funding-level comparisons
(p. 93)
U.S. and Venezuela per pupil expenditure compar-
isons (p. 93)
What can we learn from policy models of equitable
and intensive music education? (p. 94)
9. Closure: The Human Dimension of Shaping Twenty-
First-Century Music Education Policy (p. 95)
Expert musicians evolving as artist–teacher–
scholars (p. 96)
Policy is personal; change in policy requires social
action (p. 96)
A call to action for all music education policy stake-
holders (p. 97)
A policy call to action: Artists (p. 97)
A policy call to action: Music teachers (p. 97)
A policy call to action: Classroom teachers who
incorporate music into their classrooms (p. 98)
A policy call to action: Parents (p. 98)
A policy call to action: Administrators (p. 99)
When Is the Designation of Talent Appropriate?
In early January 2011, I began my keynote address at the
Korean National Research Institute for the Gifted in Arts
(KRIGA) International Conference on Giftedness in Seoul,
South Korea, by challenging music and visual arts teachers
to think about the role of talent in arts education and the influ-
ence it may have on arts education policy. I began this discus-
sion by asking participants to answer the following questions:
1. (a) At a young age, how many of you were told by
others that you were talented in visual arts or mu-
(b) At that time, how many of you believed you were
talented in your art form?
2. (a) As a young artist, how many of you were told by
others that you were talented?
(b) At that time, how many of you believed you were
talented? What did that mean to you at the time?
3. (a) As a mature artist or teacher of the arts, how many
of you believe that you are talented today?
(b) At present, do you tell your students they are tal-
(c) Under what circumstances do you consider the
designation of talent important in the education of
the artist?
Before reading on, think about these questions in the context
of your own personal history of artistic development. How
often did the issue of talent or giftedness come up in your
life? Who were the people who expressed their judgment to
you? To what extent did you think of yourself as talented or
not? If you are a parent or educator, what are the implications
of talent for the education of children?
In Seoul, the responses to these questions changed ac-
cording to the perspectives that the participants had encoun-
tered as a beginning, an advancing, and eventually a mature
artist/arts educator.
For example, the first question (1a)—“Did others think
of you as talented?”—elicited an immediate, unanimous re-
sponse. Every person had been told that he or she was
talented at an early age. The responses to the second
question (1b)—“Did you believe you were talented?”—were
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not nearly as uniformly positive, nor did the hands go up as
Why did the participants respond to the second group of
questions a bit differently? Thinking back to their years of
studying the arts seriously later in life, participants reported
that their teachers and peers were far less likely to use the
word “talent” and, as young artists, they were less apt to
believe that it was true of themselves—even though they
realized that those outside the world of arts education were
still willing to think that all arts students were to some degree
Last, responses to the final group of questions (3a, 3b,
3c) were completely different. Virtually no one was willing
to admit that they now considered themselves talented! Not
only were no hands raised, but what followed was a collective
burst of laughter in the room. The irony was clear to everyone:
the concept of talent fails to make sense when applied to the
reality of learning a skill comprehensively throughout devel-
opment toward expertise. As for the question about whether
or not they now designate their students as talented (or not
talented), participants responded with furrowed brows and
quizzical expressions, which led us into a lively discussion
about the culture of identifying young talent and the ethics of
teaching with the labeled or unspoken designation of talent.
Consequences of Talent Designation in Music
The informal analysis of responses to my questions about
talent does not constitute a rigorous scientific study. Yet,
having posed this question to numerous in-service and pre-
service music educators over the past few years, I now believe
that virtually every musician grapples with the issue of talent
in a different way according to a “Three Stages of Partici-
pation in Arts Education” model, to which my conference
questions alluded and which is summarized in the following
Stage 1: The Designation of Talent at an Early Age
The predominant assumptions about talent at the early
stages of education are that it is genetically, culturally, or
environmentally predetermined; and that this talent can be
identified before exceptional levels of performance have been
demonstrated. That is, some kids have capacity and most
others do not. Having “talent” means your child is special
and will remain exceptional in his or her aptitude for mu-
sic for the rest of his or her life. This early designation also
implies that skills that come easily to the talented few are
unattainable to the unfortunates born without musical gifts.1
Furthermore, adults whose only musical activities and mem-
ories date back to early childhood often are burdened with
the self-conception that they are not talented and therefore
will never be able to carry a tune, learn rhythm, and so on,
sometimes even declaring themselves “tone deaf.
Unfortunately, early designation of innate or natural talent
is the preoccupation of many parents and is often articulated
and acted upon by music educators within and outside of the
context of formal music education. The formal or informal
identification of the musical proclivity, interest, and capac-
ity of young children to learn music can influence parents’
decisions to begin or continue music instruction, determine
which students are admitted into musical classes and ensem-
bles, and affect the quality of instruction students receive in
these classes. Talent comes up far more frequently as a com-
pliment or as a matter of encouragement in the early years of
musical development, but it is unclear to teachers and parents
what positive or negative effect these statements have on the
attitudes or learning capacities of these students. Finally, the
designation of talent in early schooling and adolescence is
often cited as a prerequisite for qualification for an intensive,
comprehensive musical education.
Stage 2: Within a Prescreened Group of “Talented”
Individuals, the Label of Talent Begins to Have
Different Connotations
Having made it through Stage 1, a student now enrolled
in a gifted music education program among similarly labeled
peers begins to interpret the designation of his or her own
“talent” differently. A student once enthusiastic about being
known as “talented” may now feel that this belief in his or
her faculty is threatened. Many students begin to question
whether they were appropriately labeled as “gifted,” since
they are now competing with others with similar or greater
levels of skill and experience. In fact, to be called “talented”
at this point may suggest that the student is being guided to
a fast-track performance career at the expense of studies and
other interests, in which case the label of “talent” is now a
limiting burden.
Stage 3: The Designation of Talent Becomes Moot
as the Artist Matures, Yet It Resurfaces as an
Important Issue When the Mature Artist Teaches
Talent becomes irrelevant to the mature artist, and dedica-
tion to a career matters far more than the early prognostica-
tions of talent. Previous assumptions of being considered tal-
ented fade from consciousness at this stage and are replaced
by the awareness that lifelong skill development based on
ongoing dedicated practice and application to one’s career in
the end is the true determination of success.
Nonetheless, when mature artists become teachers of
young children, the concept of talent becomes pertinent
again. As a teacher, one must confront the talent designa-
tion as a matter of personal ethics and policy. Do you now
believe musical talent is innate? When we speak of “devel-
oping talent,” do we mean the expansion and refinement of
“innate talent”? Or does the development of talent mean that
the capacity to learn and excel in the arts, or in any discipline
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for that matter, is determined by hard work along common
stages of progress available to every student?
The final two questions (3b, 3c) posed to the conference
attendees—“Do you [and should teachers] tell students that
they are talented?” and “Under what circumstances do you
[and should teachers] consider the issue of talent important
in the education of the artist?”—were vexing because of their
ethical implications for arts education policy. Should teach-
ers and parents focus on discovering and serving the talented
few when, in the case of arts learning, it seems that educators
no longer believe in talent designation later in their life
as mature artists? Or, more simply stated, is it ethical
to provide more services to young students designated
as talented, knowing that talent becomes a moot issue
later in life? Conversely, is it ethical to deny education to
students considered by some measure incapable of future
achievement in music? The answers to these questions will
serve as the initial basis for inquiry into music education
policy reform conducted in this article.
Suzuki’s Argument for Instruction Disregards the
Notion of Inherited Talent
Science does not pretend to explain what it does not under-
stand. So people who know anything at all about science
should not voice opinions, such as “inborn talent,” with re-
gard to human ability. What does science really know about
human potential at birth? Superstitions about talent training
should be discarded. To reason whether one has talent or not
is to no avail. Abandon these thoughts, and use your own
power to create talent. (Suzuki 1983, 38)
This passage constitutes a call to reform the underlying
premise of the role of innate talent in music education. Dis-
tressed by what he considered unscientifically substantiated
views of innate talent, Sinichi Suzuki, considered by many
the most important music education innovator of the twen-
tieth century, demonstrated new levels of human potential
through the use of instrumental teaching methods based on
the ability of all children to learn the natural language of mu-
sic. His movement advanced instrumental performance for
huge numbers of young children and created a new gener-
ation of parents who were led to believe that their children
could succeed without the determination of innate musical
talent as a prerequisite for success.
In his books Ability Development (1969) and Nurtured
by Love (1983), Suzuki explains very clearly and succinctly
his view on talent. He rejects any assumption that innate tal-
ent can be determined at birth, and he regards the belief in
inherited ability as a matter of superstition rather than scien-
tific fact. Furthermore, the determination of inborn potential
by parents or educators at birth is useless. Thus, the best
that music educators can do is to apply their own powers of
teaching to create talent.
From the standpoint of a music education policy based
on Suzuki’s beliefs: If you agree that talent is no accident of
birth,2then we must realize that talent, not only in music, but
in other fields as well, is not inherited. And it should follow
that, as Suzuki says, “we must study how to develop talent
through education,” because “any child can be developed, it
depends on how you do it.
Suzuki’s publications make it clear that he believed that
ability development is the true purpose of a music education
for every child. The development of this ability depends on
an environment that includes the teacher’s mindset that every
child has the innate capacity to achieve in music, depending
on a learning environment of family support, the availability
of key resources such as violins that are resized to fit the
growth cycle of each individual child, and the guidance of a
master teacher.3
What is striking is that Suzuki’s profound achievement in
music education was born out of great personal struggle to
come to terms with the word “talent” throughout the course
of his personal development as a violinist and later as a
teacher. Similar to the teachers at the KRIGA conference
discussed previously, Suzuki revealed that his rejection of the
belief in inborn talent only occurred during the later stages
of his life. Before his epiphany regarding talent, Suzuki had
lower expectations of his and others’ musical potential that
depended on assumptions of the limits of one’s innate talent.
He chronicled his struggle in his first publication:
Some thirty years ago, I also believed that talent was in-
born. “I was not born with enough talent to become great,”
I thought. A long time ago, I noticed that this common way
of thinking was a mistake. Since then I have spent some
thirty years proving a method about which it can truly be
said, “Look, advanced ability can be nurtured in any child.
(Suzuki 1969)
The Limited Success of the Suzuki Method
in Changing Public Attitudes and Policy
about Talent
To the general public today, the name Suzuki has come to
mean excellence in musical instruction for young children
at the beginning stages of their musical development. The
success of his teaching and learning philosophy can be mea-
sured by the worldwide acceptance of his methods that can
be linked with generations of musicians who began their mu-
sical development with Suzuki lessons and classes. However,
the Talent Education brand—chosen by Suzuki to represent
his philosophy that advanced musical ability is grown and
not born—has not had the impact he might have imagined.
Suzuki blurred the message of his innovative practices for
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all children with his use of the term most associated with
a naturally endowed capacity that only a few have—that
is, the word “talent.” Though Suzuki chose to supplant the
misconception of inborn talent with the mission to create
talent, many parents and music teachers today, only vaguely
aware of Suzuki’s philosophical disposition, might assume
that “talent education” provides yet another opportunity to
detect and further develop those children who demonstrate
talent at very early ages. This confusion of terms may explain
why the methods of his Talent Education program remain at
the status of an extracurricular music education elective for
a small minority of public school students, thus ensuring
that Suzuki’s important contribution to our understanding
of musical capacity common to all children remains out-
side of mainstream music education policy in public school
Regardless of the confusion over the term “talent,” we
know this today: thanks to the availability of Suzuki mate-
rials, teacher training, and music schools, far more children
exhibit the ability to play violin well, even at a young age,
than they did forty years ago. Thanks to Suzuki, children who
play concertos at a young age are no longer capriciously des-
ignated as prodigies. Nonetheless, it is particularly vexing to
those who have come to the conclusion—as Suzuki did—that
the concept of innate talent can be counterproductive to the
student learning process when parents and music teachers
commonly refer to their children as “talented” or “not tal-
ented” depending on the speed and quality of the child’s
achievement with regard to another’s within the prescribed
sequence and repertoire of early Suzuki training.
Confusion over the Term “Talent” Remains
Problematic in the Construction of Public School
Music Education Policy
According to Webster’s and the American Heritage Dictio-
nary, the word “talent” (without the modifier “innate”) is
defined as “a natural aptitude or skill” or “people possessing
such aptitude or skill.” This definition tilts “talent” toward
a “natural aptitude” that is innate, fixed, or fully developed.
Leaving out the word “natural” in the definition of “talent”
suggests that talent has more to do with development, growth,
or a skill acquisition process that is always in progress. There
are dizzying arrays of alternatives that seem to blur further
the lines between “innatist” words such as “gift,” “genius,”
and “knack,” and development words such as “strength,” “ex-
pertise,” and “skill.
As seen in Figure 1, there exists a confusing spectrum of
words that stand for talent. Some of these words suggest a
categorically fixed idea of talent—the idea that one is born
with or without it. On the other end of the spectrum are
words associated with talent that suggest that talent is only
a matter of development—much the way Suzuki uses the
word. Last, there are also words associated with talent that
straddle both ends of the spectrum—words like “flair” or
“facility,” which give no further insight into whether the skill
FIGURE 1 Words associated with the word “talent.
is a genetic endowment or a hard-won ability. Thus there
can be no clearly intended use of the word “talent” without
further clarification.
The difficulty of parsing the overlapping or contradictory
meanings of the word “talent” reveals that a significant am-
biguity exists in the views of our society at large concerning
the relationship between (a) the belief that an inherent mu-
sical aptitude is necessary for any child to attain high levels
of achievement and (b) the philosophy that every child has
an innate capacity for advanced musical development that
depends on external support and hard work.
Suzuki states that since we cannot predict musical
achievement at birth, we should rather assume that all people
have the innate capacity to develop high levels of musical
ability, and that this ability, which depends greatly on envi-
ronmental factors, can be guided and shaped. Ultimately he
did not consider the implications of using the word “talent”
when naming his institution, and therefore he was unable
to draw an indelible semantic distinction between notions
of talent and notions of development. He reached for a new
description of his discovery by asserting that every child
can develop his or her musical “mother tongue” but failed
to use consistent terminology for this new paradigm. How
else can we explain why Suzuki supplanted his earlier con-
cept of “ability development” (1969) by later coining the
phrase “talent education” (1983) as the name and mission of
his entire enterprise? As a result of this semantic ambiguity,
some might wrongly interpret the phrase “talent education”
to suggest a comprehensive education primarily for those
who display an exceptional talent at a young age.
Further Confusion between the Term “Talent
Education” and the Practice of Identifying and
Providing Special Resources for So-Called
Musically Gifted Children
Although Suzuki and other music educators have tried to
take a firm stand against assumptions of inherited talent, the
widespread business of talent identification and policies of
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channeling resources to those identified as “gifted or tal-
ented” have long been a part of our society.
Because the de facto effect of current music education
policies does little to provide every student with a rigorous,
ongoing education in music, families are forced to decide
whether or not to provide a rigorous music education for their
children on their own. The establishment of over one thou-
sand community schools of music in the United States—most
of which offer Suzuki programs for young children—attest
to this consumer demand for music education not provided
by our public schools.
For those families who decide music is important for their
children’s development and can afford private lessons, the
designation of musical talent could be a deciding factor
in their investment. For those who cannot afford a serious
music education, there are foundations that raise money to
provide an intensive education for those deemed musically
MusicLink, for example, is one of many organizations
that advocate for special education for exceptionally
talented children and youth. The group supports the use
of standardized tools for determining musical giftedness
and provides free private lessons in music as a way to
support those students beyond what public schools can offer
(Haroutounian 2000; Haroutounian 2002). Their mission
statement begins thus: “Any child who has musical potential
deserves the opportunity to nurture this talent to its full ex-
tent” (MusicLink 2012; italics added). Elsewhere, the group
contends that “MusicLink’s LessonLink program is unique
among many other outreach programs that offer music
instruction to disadvantaged students because it begins with
the recognition of potential talent” (Haroutounian 2002, 192;
italics added). This stance is elaborated in the FAQ section of
the website as: “Every child deserves a chance to realize his
or her musical potential” (MusicLink 20124; italics added).
These two statements are somewhat contradictory. On
the one hand, MusicLink promulgates a policy of providing
expanded opportunities in music education for young
students who demonstrate “musical potential.” The first
statement implies that not all children have musical potential.
However, the FAQ section suggests a policy that “every
child” has musical potential and he or she should have the
chance to realize this potential.5This second statement has
a categorically different meaning from the first and states
quite clearly that every child possesses “potential.” A third
possibility exists: perhaps all children have potential, but
the degree of potential is not equally distributed. If so, this
stance suggests a veering back to talent-based designations
of a student’s ability to learn.
MusicLink’s executive director, Joanne Haroutounian, has
done extensive research on giftedness and talent, which
may provide some clarification of what “musical poten-
tial” might mean and how this relates to notions of
Gifted programming in music, to me, serves two essential
purposes. The first seeks recognition of students who show
potential talent, offering them opportunities to fully develop
this talent. The second, equally important, purpose is to pro-
vide challenging opportunities for outstanding music stu-
dents who have demonstrated commitment to advanced mu-
sical study. (Haroutounian 2002, 192)
The very fact that one must recognize a “student who shows
potential talent” before offering opportunities to develop this
talent creates an exclusive policy of musical education that
suggests that musical potential is innate.
Looking further into Haroutounian’s ideas of talent iden-
tification, one can see how the continual ambiguity of the
word “talent” can affect broader policy decisions:
A majority of performing musicians and music teachers prob-
ably agree that musical talent evolves from training and de-
velopment. The basic sensory capacities are inherent, but
musical talent is developmental rather than a “gift.” In the
nature-nurture debate over the substance of musical talent,
those involved in music education or performance would
pose a strong argument for the “nurturing” of talent. A stu-
dent may have a high music aptitude, but the development of
musical talent relies on student commitment, physical capa-
bilities, and teacher guidance. (Haroutounian 2002, 43)
If one truly believes that “talent evolves from training and
development,” how can one also claim that a gifted program
“first seeks recognition of students who show potential tal-
ent” and, furthermore, create policy that states, “Any child
who has musical potential deserves the opportunity to nur-
ture this talent to its full extent”? One can see from this
example the degree to which categorically different policy
decisions could be generated from these statements. One
must first decide whether the music education policy is to
be founded upon assumptions of innate talent or acquired
expertise. Then, and only then, can the scope of inclusivity,
or exclusivity, be determined and accounted for.
Like most gifted programs in any domain, those individ-
uals who are perceived to display musical talent—innate or
not—are apt to receive the most instruction and resources.
Without further resources, this talent would be wasted. Those
students who will be denied musical training resources as a
result of an early lack of talent are left to their own devices to
learn on their own. Thus a policy of gifted education raises
ethical issues: if only those who exhibit early talent for mu-
sic deserve intensive musical education, how can music serve
both aspects of the broad mission of “equity and excellence”
in public education?6
But if, for example, Suzuki’s Talent Education model of
instrumental music education or Bloom’s Talent Develop-
ment research paradigm for nurturing talent do become vi-
able models for music education policy in the twenty-first
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century, we argue that an overhaul of language surrounding
the concept of talent is in order.
Distinguishing “Acquired Musical Expertise” from
“Innate Musical Talent”
The assertion of this article is that the creation of music ed-
ucation policy is hampered by the use of the term “talent”
when it is used explicitly, implicitly, or informally to mean
two different things: either (a) a natural ability that can be
further developed with training; or (b) the result of a conflu-
ence of factors that result in a high level of skill, giving the
impression of an innate gift.
One solution to resolving the impasse between these views
is to frame clearly the difference between (a) the innate view
of human potential, based on a fixed amount of inborn mu-
sical talent; and (b) the acquisition of expertise view of the
virtually unlimited potential for significant musical growth
for all youth.
The same dictionaries used earlier, Webster’s and Amer-
ican Heritage, provide a very different definition of “exper-
tise” in comparison with that of “talent.” Expertise is defined
as “skill or knowledge in a particular field,” and this definition
is almost entirely aligned with “growth” terms such as “skill,
“proficiency,” “competency,” and “know-how,” with only the
occasional fixed capacity connotation such as “aptitude.
“Innate talent” is therefore defined in Figure 2—in con-
trast with the previous figure—as a belief in the predisposed
abilities that are primarily associated with fixed terms such
as natural or genetically determined “proclivity,” “aptitude,
“faculty,” or “genius.” There is no ambiguity in these terms.
Colloquially, “innate talent” is an assumption of inher-
ited ability and a fixed amount of that ability; “developed
expertise,” in contrast, implies a growth model for acquiring
expertise that is essentially open to everyone who works hard
to achieve expertise. “Innate talent” is a matter of degree of a
preordained capacity; “acquired expertise” is a matter of level
in an ongoing course of development. This philosophical
distinction will serve to clarify the positions, but problems
remain: assumptions of innate ability are hard to disprove.
Development is never uniform from one person to the next.
But if development can be proven to be the best predictor
of achievement, then arguments about inherent talent will be
deemed irrelevant.
In a society preoccupied with prodigies, talent shows on
television, and exceptional behavior of all kinds, can music
education philosophy based on acquired expertise survive
in the face of still-lingering assumptions of innate talent?
What differences would exist in the minds of public school
policymakers or parents if acquired expertise in music were
not assumed to be dependent on giftedness? What ethical
considerations are based on these distinctions?
If innate talent does not predict musical expertise, it is up
to education policymakers to discredit both the implicit and
explicit meaning of the word “talent,” because it too easily
slides into the default view of talent as innate. The best way
to achieve this end would be to utilize contemporary research
that would make explicit the process by which musical ex-
pertise is really acquired and then develop new policies based
on these findings.
One thing Suzuki did not anticipate is that his beliefs in
the development of musical ability would eventually be sup-
ported by a flurry of scientific studies, in many different
disciplines, that expose the myths and misconceptions of
New Consensus on the Myths and
Misconceptions about Innate Talent
More than 75 percent of professional educators believe that
singing, composing and playing concert instruments requires
FIGURE 2 Words associated with “innate talent” and “acquired expertise.
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a special gift or talent; a higher proportion than those who be-
lieve particular talent is necessary in any other field. (Colvin
2010, 17)
As stated here, it appears that a majority of educators still be-
lieve in the fixed, innatist meaning of the word “talent,” and
these undue proportions are bound to have unwarranted con-
sequences for young children, particularly when this belief
is applied to musical abilities. There are, however, a growing
number of researchers and authors who argue the opposite
idea quite passionately.
The talent theory of expertise is not merely flawed in theory;
it is insidious in practice, robbing individuals and institutions
of the motivation to change themselves and society. Even if
we can’t bring ourselves to embrace the idea that expertise
is ultimately about the quality and quantity of practice, can’t
we accept that practice is far more significant than previously
thought? That talent is a largely defunct concept? That each
and every one of us has the potential to tread the path to
excellence? (Syed 2010, 112)
A Former Olympian Debunks the Myth of
Innate Talent
Matthew Syed, quoted in the previous section, is an unlikely
champion of those now intent on debunking the myth of tal-
ent. A sportscaster and award-winning journalist, in his youth
Syed was a three-time table tennis champion in Britain and a
two-time Olympian. Since there are 2.4 million participants
in table tennis and major financial rewards for those who rise
to the top, it is hard for anyone to think there is not something
singular about Syed’s talent. As he relates in his book Bounce,
he was tempted, like many others, to explain his success by
writing a story of the singularly gifted athlete who triumphed
over thousands of other aspiring champions. If competitive
sports is a meritocracy, he might have reasoned, then, given
equal opportunity for success, it must be the athlete with
the best “speed, guile, gutsiness, mental strength, adaptabil-
ity, agility, [and] reflexes” who is most likely to win (Syed
2010, 3).
Yet, upon further reflection, Syed realized that there were
opportunities afforded to only a very small group of athletes
that seemed far more predictive of success than his alleged in-
born talent. Syed had early access to a tournament-specified
table provided by his parents, connected with a top-notch
coach who happened to teach at his local primary school,
incessantly practiced with an older brother who shared his
passion for table tennis (and who himself became a num-
ber one junior champion, until he suffered a career-ending
injury), and enjoyed access to a local table tennis club that
fostered an unusually high degree of championship-caliber
players. As Syed has come to believe, it is far more likely that
his accomplishments resulted from the odds being stacked in
his favor.
Although his parents continue to harbor the opinion that
Syed was born with uncanny advantages—and therefore
completely disagree with the premise of his book—Syed
is confident that the competitive edge he had in sports was
made possible by opportunity, and not by his singular “talent
traits.” Syed concludes that singular achievement as a result
of unique talent is a myth—simply because it is a “crime to
statistics” to assume that out of 2.4 million other table tennis
competitors, he would have succeeded without the extraor-
dinary advantages of the conditions and circumstances of his
Can Birth Dates Predict Talent?
To further support his case, Syed refers to Malcolm Glad-
well’s famous detailing of how date of birth has become
a significant predictor of success in hockey in Canada
(Gladwell 2008). Because of a policy of classifying youth
hockey-playing levels according to birth dates within the cal-
endar year, people born early in the year have an advantage
because of the huge benefit of physical and mental matu-
rity they enjoy compared with others born later in their age
group for their entire life in the sport.7This early advantage
results in early determination of advanced ability, with those
deemed as advanced more likely to benefit from increased
playing time and the attention of the coach. This competitive
edge accumulates to the point that the early birth date pre-
dicts, to a significant extent, who becomes a top performer in
every year of hockey development, from early years to youth
leagues, from professional and finally to all-star status as a
hockey player.
Given this compelling example of how a policy of oppor-
tunity to excel in sports results in inequities that are statisti-
cally related to birth dates, do we still think of top athletes as
exemplifying singular, innate talent, or as those favored by
somewhat arbitrary circumstances? As Syed tells the story,
elaborating its implications for education in general:
But now suppose you suggested to the hockey fan that his
hero—a player whose talent seems irrepressible—might now
be working in the local hardware store had his birthday been
a few days earlier; that the star player could have strained
every sinew to reach the top, but his ambition would have
been swept away by forces too powerful to resist and too
elusive to alter. (Syed 2010, 20)
And if opportunities for excellence in sports are statisti-
cally dependent on an athlete’s date of birth, so is children’s
ability to succeed within grade levels in public schools. As
most elementary school teachers will tell you, the differ-
ence in school readiness—both cognitively and/or social-
emotionally—between children within the first few months
of their fifth birthday and children who are up to a year older
is highly significant.
An example from Kenya demonstrates that the world-
renowned success of long-distance runners is not determined
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by genetics or race, but by circumstance. Based on prior
research by Pitsiladis and by Bengt Saltin and colleagues
(Syed 2010, 258–60), Syed reports that a significant majority
of Kenyan Olympian runners come from the tiny district
of Nandi within Kenya, which features a unique array of
circumstances favorable to long-distance running and not
sprinting: high altitude, lack of public transportation, and
lack of schools.
When you also factor in the remarkable fact that many of
Kenya’s top runners ran extraordinarily long distances to
school, sometimes in excess of 20 kilometers per day, it is
possible to see the beginning of a persuasive explanation for
the Nandi running phenomenon. Kenyan youngsters do not
run to school for fun, of course, but out of necessity—public
transportation is virtually nonexistent—but the cumulative
consequences have been dramatic. At a speed of 15 kilome-
ters per hour, this adds up to 80 minutes of running per day,
500 hours per year, and in excess of 6,000 hours by the time
of their 16th birthday. (Syed 2010, 272)
This finding shows that environmental factors that influence
a particular group of people—and not genetics or race, as
is commonly believed—are linked to excellence. The color
of one’s skin has nothing to do with an ability he possesses;
rather, that ability involves other concrete, circumstantial,
and often-hidden forces.
Syed also points out that that genetically determined “tal-
ent traits,” such as enhanced memory or reflexes, have not
been shown to correlate with differences among elite perfor-
mance in any field. Instead, it is domain-specific knowledge
accrued from long-term experience that matters:
Top performers are not born with sharper instincts (in the
same way that chess masters do not possess superior mem-
ories); instead, they possess enhanced awareness and antic-
ipation. In cricket, for example, a first-class batsman has
already figured out whether to play off the back foot or front
foot more than 100 milliseconds before a bowler has even
released the ball. (Syed 2010, 31)
Syed explains that while special circumstances may be neces-
sary, they are not sufficient to explain success. Very hard work
and the development of domain-specific skills are clearly part
of the equation. These additional factors provide a far broader
understanding of the underpinnings of expertise and a more
accessible, and therefore equitable, view of the development
of expertise available to everyone.
Freedom from policies of arbitrary birth dates, misunder-
standings of environmental factors, and misconceptions of
genetic traits allows policymakers to think more carefully
and constructively about the ethics and practices of youth
education and the opportunities to develop expertise in any
area of study and skill. As Syed warns: “The tragedy is that
most of us are still living with flawed assumptions: in par-
ticular, we are laboring under the illusion that expertise is
reserved for people with special talents, inaccessible to the
rest of us” (2010, 23).
The Polgar Family Experiment
When Susan [Polgar] stormed to victory in a local [chess]
competition at the age of five, everyone present was con-
vinced that this was the consequence of unique talent. She
was described by the local newspaper as a prodigy, and Pol-
gar (her father) remembers being congratulated by another
parent on having a daughter with such amazing talent....But
this is the iceberg illusion: onlookers took the performance
to be the consequence of special abilities because they had
witnessed only a tiny percentage of the activity that had gone
into its making. (Syed 2010, 70–71)
While sports examples can be used to debunk the myths
and misconceptions of innate talent, this example from the
study of chess provides a stunning experimental case study
of how the disposition of parents toward talent can produce
world-class performance.
Laszlo Polgar is an educational psychologist who was
driven to conduct a bold experiment designed to make soci-
ety aware of the need to unlock the extraordinary potential
that resides in every child. His purpose was to challenge the
assumption that excellence is open only to a small number
of people. As he saw it, the problem in education is that
people do not want to believe that excellence is possible for
all children; in the words of Dr. Polgar, “they seem to think
that excellence is only open to others, not themselves” (Syed
2010, 65).
The experiment was simple, yet completely audacious.
Laszlo advertised for a wife who would agree to take part in
an experiment to train their future children to achieve a high
degree of expertise and success as world-class champions
in chess. Though Laszlo and his new wife Clara had no
particular skill in chess, they agreed to nurture their children
through intensive training in chess as a constant focus of their
childhood, knowing full well that no women had ever ranked
as chess grandmasters in the entire history of the game.
Hours spent on deep practice and the provision of highly
motivating support over time resulted in all three daughters
achieving the status of world-class chess masters. Susan is
still the only chess master to win the chess Triple Crown,
Sofia has been awarded the fifth-highest-rated performance
in chess history, and Judit became the youngest grandmaster
in history and has been the reigning female champion for
over a decade.
Although the first sister was initially considered a prodigy,
the “inherited talent” designation became suspect when all
three sisters exhibited such high levels of success. These
high-achieving sisters also lived full lives, becoming painters,
teachers, and homemakers who reared many children. The
experiment, controlled by the lack of any indication that ei-
ther parent displayed expertise in chess and conducted by
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the parents and other adults teaching the joy and skill of
chess, provides compelling evidence of the human poten-
tial that is theoretically present in all children. The odds
of these two parents producing three children with enough
innate talent to become chess grandmasters without the ad-
vantage of extreme support for learning are unthinkable.
Raising three children to become chess masters depends on
the conscious intent to teach expertise well and to instill deep
practice in the habits and minds of children—rather than any
innate talent.
Where Does Prodigious Musical Expertise Come
“Genius is patience”—Niccol`
o Paganini8
o Paganini, one of the most revered musical prodi-
gies and successful touring musicians in the history of
Western music, provides an interesting example of how the
early emergence of musical ability in the late eighteenth cen-
tury was developed through extreme practice but presented
publicly as innate genius. Biographers have concluded that
once Paganini’s father (an amateur musician) assumed that
the young Niccol`
o had a particularly strong proclivity for
music, he forced the child to practice and compose music
incessantly in order to market him as a prodigy, ostensibly
for the purpose of financial gain.9
Nicolo was now eleven years of age and he had not yet known
the meaning of a moment’s freedom.... He had become a
patient practising-machine—indeed, later in life he adopted
Buffon’s Le genie, c’est la patience [genius is patience], as
his motto—and he scarcely noticed his father’s goading. The
paternal severity was accepted as a matter of course. Antonio
had done his best to bring his son, by fair means or foul, to his
present position, and he caused him to appear in public as a
real wonder-child of nine. The crafty impresario realized that
a prodigy of nine would attract far more attention than one
of eleven. Even Nicolo himself believed that he was but nine
years old at this period, and from this innocent deception was
no doubt derived the erroneous date so often assigned to his
birth (1784 [instead of 1782])” (Pulver 1936, 25–26)
This quotation is one of many produced by Paganini’s biog-
raphers that suggest that despite the craven motives of his
father, young Niccol`
o embraced long hours of musical prac-
tice early in life, benefited from the guidance of many of
the best teachers who lived near his birthplace,10 and aligned
himself philosophically with the views on genius espoused
by George Leclerc,11 one of the most famous natural histori-
ans of his time.
We know also that, later on, Paganini became extremely
protective of his method of practice and the violin tech-
niques he developed.12 The following anecdote suggests that
Paganini knew his success stemmed from his extreme and
meticulous work ethic and was aware that sharing this method
of practice might breed musical prodigies who might com-
pete with his success as a touring violinist.
This system—the mysterious “secret of Paganini”—was jeal-
ously guarded, and only two or three fortunate people were
permitted to benefit by it. From time to time Paganini
promised to give this secret to the world, but postponed the
fulfillment of the intention so often that in the end death sur-
prised him before he could carry out his plan. (Pulver 1936,
Paganini’s lifelong adherence to Leclerc’s idea that “ge-
nius is patience” suggests strongly that he did not subscribe
to a belief in innate giftedness but instead credited the pa-
tience necessary to sustain an ethic of extensive, hard hours
of practice13 over time as the primary secret of his ability to
thrive as a musical artist, long after his child prodigy years
were over.14
If those considered the most likely to have benefited from
innate abilities instead believe that their rare ability is due to
long, hard work and patience, then music educators should
be compelled to reject entirely policies based on implicit or
explicit assumptions of innate talent. But since we cannot
expect all students to attain the status of world-class virtuosi,
is it nonetheless reasonable to base music education policy
on the mindset and practices of those who attained extreme
expertise? And can we do this in ways that will put all young
students on the path toward meeting the progressive chal-
lenges that music presents to all learners?
A consensus has been reached from recent research on the
development of musical expertise: expertise requires that an
immense amount of time be committed to high-quality prac-
tice. Most researchers now agree that ten thousand hours
of practice are required for advanced expertise in any field
(Dreyfus and Dreyfus 1986; Trotter 1986). Using the “Ten-
Year, Ten-Thousand-Hour Rule” that was first formulated by
Simon and Chase and has since been reported by many others
(Coyle 2009; Gladwell 2008), we now know that there are
no known world-class musical experts who have not invested
this amount of time and effort into their development. There
may be musicians who have put in the hours and not achieved
top-notch skills,15 but there are no elite musicians who have
not spent these long hours on intensive practice.
As a former professional musician now committed to neu-
rological research in music, Daniel Levitin puts it thus:
The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thou-
sand hours or so of practice is required to achieve the level
of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in
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anything.... Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly
three hours a day, or twenty hours a week, of practice over
ten years. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people
don’t seem to get anywhere when they practice, and why
some people get more out of their practice session than oth-
ers. But no one has yet found a case in which true world class
expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes
the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to
achieve true mastery. (Levitin 2006, 197)
Practice Matters from the Start
Evidence of practice as the best predictor of musical exper-
tise surfaces relatively early in musical development. In a
study reported by Geoff Colvin in his book Talent is Over-
rated, based on the work of Anders Ericsson (2006), students
matched by age, gender, instruments, and family income re-
ceived instruction over the same period of time and were
rated for progress at regular intervals for their grade level
of instrumental ability. All students were interviewed to find
out about their practice habits throughout the course of the
study. Results were clear:
One factor, and only one factor predicted how musically ac-
complished the students were, and that was how much they
practiced.... You would expect, of course, that the students
who went on to win places at the music school—and this
was a school whose graduates regularly win national com-
petitions and go on to professional music careers—would
reach any given grade level more quickly and easily than the
students who ended up being less accomplished. That’s the
very meaning of being musically talented. But it didn’t hap-
pen. On the contrary: The researchers calculated the average
hours of practice needed by the most elite group of students
to reach each grade level and they calculated the average
hours needed by each of the other groups. There were no
statistically significant differences. For students who ended
up going to the elite music school as well as for students
who just played casually for fun, it took an average of twelve
hundred hours of practice to reach grade 5, for example.
The music student reached grade levels at earlier ages than
the other students for the simple reason that they practiced
more each day. (Colvin 2010, 18–19]
In another study, K. Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychol-
ogist and leading researcher on expertise, asked professors
at the Music Academy of West Berlin to categorize their
college-age students in three ways: (1) those considered the
very best performers on the violin who also had the poten-
tial for careers in music (proficient expertise), (2) those who
were clearly not as good (though still highly competent), and
(3) those who were admitted to the school at a lower standard
(competent). The interview protocol contained questions de-
signed to elicit details about the student’s life, practice habits,
time allotment for practice, and how enjoyable he or she
found practice to be (Colvin 2010, 58–59).
Overall, the data reveal that all students started at about
the same age, every student studied for a decade previ-
ous to his or her enrollment, and all spent relatively the
same amount of time on various musical activities (fifty-one
hours a week). Although all students rated personal prac-
tice as the most important factor in progressing in their
studies, practice was described as far less fun than other
types of musical activities.16 The most striking difference
was that the proficient and highly competent students prac-
ticed by themselves twenty-four hours a week on average,
while the lowest-rated group only practiced nine hours a
Ericsson’s interview data also reveal that, over time, the
advantage of spending more time practicing is cumulative: by
eighteen years of age the top performers on average had prac-
ticed 7,410 hours; the less proficient 5,301; and the merely
competent group 3,420. While the effect of accruing practice
habits at critical periods in the life of a performing musician
may preclude the lowest group from catching up, this ad-
vantage is not due to a more fortunate birth date (as in the
case of the Canadian hockey players described earlier) or a
genetically endowed ability to learn music easily, but rather
to the sheer determination to practice more (and the support
to do so within a given environment).
Summing up his study, Ericsson observes that:
The search for stable heritable characteristics that could pre-
dict or at least account for the superior performance of emi-
nent individuals has been surprisingly unsuccessful.... [Yet,]
the talent-based view of high achievement was still the ex-
planation most widely favored.... The conviction in the im-
portance of talent appears to be based on the insufficiency
of alternative hypotheses to explain the exceptional nature of
expert performers. (Colvin 2010, 63)
If the ten-thousand-hour threshold is to be considered a
far more reliable measure of what used to be attributed to
innate talent, then talent should now be seen as the acqui-
sition of advanced expertise. Given contemporary research,
the practice habits of our best-known prodigies of the past
thus need to be reexamined.
Mozart: An Exceptional Musician Whose
Development Aligns with the Rule of Early
and Extensive Guided Practice
When seeking the prime example of a musical genius who
exhibited prodigious talent—seemingly from birth—we find
Mozart. In isolation, Mozart appears as a traveling prodigy,
admired and known to all of Europe for his performances and
compositions at a young age. But more than that, his com-
positions are among the best known, most performed, and
highly acclaimed works of the classical period. His output
was prodigious, including an enormous catalogue of com-
positions for piano, string, voice, mixed chamber groups,
orchestra, and opera. He also died at a relatively young age,
at the peak of his creative output. Surely this must be the
case that most clearly provides proof of the possibility of the
supremely gifted musician.
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Yet however rare or special Mozart’s abilities prove to be,
this exceptional case nonetheless appears to support the ac-
quired expertise outlook. Mozart’s early training illustrates
how a musician can reach the ten-thousand-hour point early
in life through the fortunate circumstances that often accom-
pany prodigious achievement.
With the guidance of his father—a famous composer and
performer and the best-known music pedagogue at the time
in Europe—young Wolfgang started a program of perfor-
mance practice and composition at age three. By the age of
six, young Wolfgang was touring with his father and sister
and also became known for the highly precocious music he
composed (Colvin 2010, 25–29).
Further investigation reveals that Mozart’s skills can be
understood as developmentally ordered and benefiting enor-
mously from circumstances that supported a prodigious
amount of guided practice. Not unlike Laszlo Polgar, Leopold
Mozart had a strong hand in ensuring the best possible sup-
port for the development of his young son. By the time
Wolfgang was six, he had studied 3,500 hours of music with
his father, “a fact that places his music [skills] in the realm
of impressive but obtainable” (Coyle 2009, 52). His musical
manuscripts were written down by his father and were often
corrected. His compositional training was revealed by the fact
that his earliest “compositions” were in fact arrangements of
music by J. C. Bach, with whom Mozart had studied, and that
these arrangements served as models for later composition
(26). Furthermore, Mozart’s stature as a mature composer, let
alone a musical genius, was not clear until he had completed
eighteen years of musical study, as determined by audiences’
reaction to his ninth piano concerto. The story of the unedited
composer who composes as if the whole composition were
“complete in his mind” before writing down a single note
appears to be a myth propagated by a letter, later determined
to be a forgery (27).17
We may feel compelled to believe that Mozart was a ge-
nius because of his mature works, but looking at his accom-
plishments through the lens of expertise acquired through
early and extensive practice, we have far less reason to as-
sume that his early development was any different in prin-
ciple from that of other musicians (like Mozart’s sister18),
who would also have profited greatly from the constant guid-
ance of a master teacher and responded to the opportunity
for musical practice, performance, and composition—a body
of study that undoubtedly exceeded well over ten thousand
hours by Mozart’s eighteenth birthday.19 Surprisingly, the
music critic Harold Schonberg argues that Mozart actually
“developed late” as a composer because he didn’t produce his
greatest work until he had been practicing music composition
for more than twenty years (Gladwell 2008, 41).
Paganini’s Reflections on His Self-Motivation and
the Creativity of Extreme Musical Practice
We have already discussed Paganini’s emphasis on an ex-
treme amount of individual practice sustained by patience.
But his personal practice habits were also a product of his
interaction with his father, who, according to Niccol´
o, gave
him “the first fundamental principles of my art.” Paganini
developed an enthusiasm to practice the violin despite the
fact that he had an overbearing father who enforced strict
practice regimens, which led to many thousands of hours of
experimental work—including a substantial body of compo-
sitions that were at first guided by his father and later by
several master composers of his day who, by good fortune,
were accessible from his home. These conditions for learn-
ing music undoubtedly lacked the sense of play and fun that
Polgar was able to impart to his daughters, but Paganini’s
self-motivation had been ignited20 early on in his life, and
thus he was willing and able to tolerate his father’s abusive
behavior. As Paganini himself recounted:
He [my father] soon recognized my natural talents, ... and
I owe to him the first fundamental principles of my art....
One can hardly imagine a stricter father; if I did not seem
to be industrious enough, he would compel me to redouble
my efforts by hunger. I suffered very much physically, and
my health began to give way. And yet there was really no
need for such severity. I exhibited great enthusiasm for the
instrument, and I studied it unceasingly in order to discover
new and hitherto unsuspected effects. (Pulver 1936, 23–24)
Paganini’s self-assessment of his musical development
was that he had displayed a natural proclivity for music at a
young age, which could only be sustained through his own
incessant practice. His practicing habits were directed toward
experimentation, shaped by many teachers he had met, and
fueled by his determination to outperform and out-compose
the most famous prodigies and touring artists of his day. It
was the quality, creativity, and resourcefulness of his practice
methods that became most intriguing to his fellow musicians
in the end.
Generations after Paganini’s death, musicians like
American violinist-composer Arthur Hartmann (1881–1956)
continued to ponder the implicit psychological disposition of
Paganini’s practice. In the following excerpt, he comments
on the outstanding quality and range of Paganini’s practice
on both violin and guitar:
I think the so-called secret of Paganini was this: There is one
thing that controls the world of art—the brain. Paganini did
not need endless hours of practice [in later life] because he
practiced with concentration.... He learned concentration in
his study of the guitar. That instrument demands that the eyes
be kept on the finger-board. His study of the guitar with its
large frets also developed his reach and the strength of his
fingers. (Arthur Hartmann, as quoted in Day 1929, 301)
The Art and Science of Deliberate Practice
Although musical expertise surely cannot be developed with-
out thousands of hours of practice, it is just as true that ten
thousand hours of mindless practice is extremely unlikely to
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result in world-class expertise. Extensive and mindful prac-
tice has been described in many ways. For Ericsson, it is “de-
liberate practice” that translates ten thousand hours of hard
work into expertise (Colvin 2010, 61–72). Colvin humor-
ously refers to his golf “practice” as an example of mindless
practice (65–66).
Is it possible that what we now know as “deliberate
practice” is what Paganini alludes to when he describes
the level of experimentation, focus, and patience he brings
to his work? This is not the kind of practice that students
ordinarily do without guidance, a cultivated mindset of
self-examination, and constructive responses to one’s own
strengths and weaknesses.21 Over time, deliberate practice
becomes an internalization of basic principles of action
that depend on constant attention to the development of
sophisticated social-emotional skills such as risk taking,
independence, productive collaboration, respect for teachers
and the accomplishments of others, determination to
succeed, and—above all—resilience (patience) to deal with
constantly fluctuating levels of frustration.
Based on Ericsson’s work, Colvin lists five main elements
of deliberate practice (2010, 66–72):
1. Principle 1: Deliberate practice is highly focused on
the improvement of particular aspects of performance.
That is, for individuals to stretch themselves beyond
their current abilities, they must find sharply defined
elements that need to be refined and then force them-
selves to stay on target.
2. Principle 2: Practice means embracing repetition ap-
propriately. The deliberate practitioner strategically
uses repetition to focus on skill building within the
boundaries of his or her current learning zone.
3. Principle 3: Feedback on the results of deliberate prac-
tice is continuously sought and made available.Formal
or informal feedback is constantly needed in deliber-
ate practice and can take the form of self-reflection,
performing with and for others, and using technolog-
ical resources, such as recordings, for the purpose of
self-analysis and for garnering precise comments from
4. Principle 4: Deliberate practice demands a high de-
gree of mental concentration. Deliberate practice de-
pends on continually applying problem-finding and
problem-solving skills that require careful observa-
tion, rigorous experimentation methods, the invention
of new techniques and refinement processes, and con-
structive reflection on results at every level of skill
5. Principle 5: Deliberate practice is not immediately re-
warding. Instead of doing what we are good at, the
expert practitioner challenges him or herself with the
often-unpleasant task of working on that at which he
or she is not good. As students engaged in intensive
training frequently experience, the success of practice
depends on enormous stamina, concentration, re-
silience, and intrinsic motivation.
Given these five principles, Paganini appears to have ex-
emplified deliberate practice. The Berlin Conservatory stu-
dents whom Ericsson interviewed, for example, also talked
about levels of deliberate practice to various degrees. Merely
putting in the practice hours won’t be much help to someone
who wants to be a great performer. And conversely, insight-
ful practice without long hours of repetition—lacking the
necessary time to recalibrate after failures—will not breed
In an updated excerpt from Expert Performance and De-
liberate Practice,22 Ericsson suggests that there is a sixth
principle of deliberate practice that only can occur after thou-
sands of hours of experience. Evidently experts at the highest
levels of performance can “select the relevant information
and encode it in special representations in working memory
in ways that allow for “planning, evaluation and reasoning
about alternative courses of action” (italics added). This level
of expert meta-cognition allows those functioning at the high-
est stage of deliberate practice to create sophisticated men-
tal tools to “adapt rapidly to changing circumstances” and
“monitor and evaluate their own performance so they can
keep improving their own skills by designing their own train-
ing” (italics added) in order to accommodate and assimilate
new knowledge.
But there is another reason to understand the primacy
of practice as the basis for new policies of music educa-
tion: there is now compelling evidence that extensive practice
deeply affects the brain.
The Neurological Consequences of Musical
Substantial evidence regarding the impact of music learn-
ing skills on neurological development reveals that exten-
sive practice changes certain structural and functional aspects
of the brain. Long-term involvement with music appears to
create differences in the connectivity among brain regions.
Researchers investigating differences among professional,
amateur, and nonmusicians, for example, have found that de-
veloped musical skill and extensive musical practice predict
(a) unusual growth in the cerebellum, a region of the brain
now understood to play an important role in the integration of
sensory perception with motor output and nonmotor regions;
(b) unusual density and growth of the corpus callosum, where
tissues connect the two main halves of the brain; and (c) the
overall density of gray matter (neuron-processing cells) dis-
tributed throughout the brain (Hutchinson et al. 2003; Gaser
and Schlaug 2003; Lee, Chen, and Schlaug 2003; Schlaug
2001). Furthermore, patterns of bi-lateral activity and evi-
dence for the processing of musical skills through shared
neural networks have been detected using perception tasks
relevant to musical skill development (Peretz and Coltheart
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2003; Peretz and Hyde 2003; Ligeois-Chauvel et al. 1998;
Zatorre, Evans, and Meyer 1994).
These findings imply that young children’s regular in-
volvement with musical training predicts changes in both
neurological and cognitive development that affect other ar-
eas of learning. For example, only fourteen months into one
longitudinal study, there were already measurable differences
between the youngsters who had begun music lessons and
those who had not in terms of brain bi-lateral activation and
structural differences indicated by increased levels of gray
matter. Furthermore, the cross-sectional group (ages nine to
eleven) who had been taking music lessons for four years also
demonstrated connections between musical development and
neurological pathways of transfer into other areas of learning
such as phonemic awareness, understanding of mathematical
concepts, and emotional response (Schlaug et al. 2005).
In addition, researchers have found that “mirror neurons”
in the brain become activated both when an action is observed
and when that same action is performed. These findings sug-
gest that neurological research on early training may provide
new insights into relationships between the physically ex-
ternalized and mentally internalized aspects of sophisticated
musical performance fostered by extensive practice:
These auditory-visual mirror neurons exemplify high-level
abstraction in the representation of action—an identical neu-
ral system becomes activated regardless of whether a partic-
ular action is heard, seen or performed.... As musical skills
are acquired, the same kinds of action-sound mapping occur.
The student learns by watching the teacher and/or conductor,
by listening to the sounds that are produced by particular
types of movement, by evaluating self-produced sounds ei-
ther in isolation or in combination with sounds produced
by other musicians, and by translating visual symbols into
sound. (Schlaug et al. 2005)
Thus described through the lens of mirror neurons, the
acquisition of musicals skills through extensive practice is
a catalyst for brain growth associated with highly active,
multimodal, and interconnected forms of cognition, both ex-
ternalized and internalized. It is no wonder that deliberate
practice appears to have multiple effects on cell growth and
synaptic events in the brain.
But there is another neurological manifestation that is
connected to skill acquisition through mindful, extensive,
and repetitious practice: increased myelination of neural net-
Myelin and Deep Practice
Daniel Coyle, in his book The Talent Code (2009, 32–37),
makes the case for the revolutionary implications of myelin in
the acquisition of skills through what he calls “deep practice.”
The importance of myelin rests on three facts:
(1) Every human movement, thought, or feeling is a pre-
cisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain
of neurons—a circuit of nerve fibers.
(2) Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers
and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy.
(3) The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin
grows and optimizes that circuit, and the stronger,
faster, and more fluid our movements and thoughts
become. The more we develop a skill circuit, the less
we’re aware of using it.
Coyle quotes Douglas Fields, myelin researcher and director
of the Laboratory of Developmental Neurobiology at the
National Institutes of Health, as saying, “Getting good at
piano or chess or baseball takes a lot of time and that’s
what myelin is good at” (2009, 32). That is, the insulation
that surrounds particular neurological circuits is created over
time and, depending on the amount of practice, lasts a long
time. As another researcher describes the process:
What do good athletes do when they train? They send precise
impulses along wires that give the signal to myelinate that
wire. They end up, after all the training, with a super-duper
wire—lots of bandwidth, a high-speed T-3 line. That’s what
makes them different from the rest of us. (Coyle 2009, 32–33)
Coyle also includes in his book an unforgettable image of
myelin (reproduced in Figure 3), which shows a cross-section
of two nerve fibers being wrapped in myelin, which some-
times grows fifty layers deep. This stunning image of myelin
helps educators to imagine how the approximately 100 bil-
lion neurons (nerve fibers) fired by the connecting synapses
in our brain can be organized into skill circuits, insulated
and optimized by myelin. Scientists now know that it is these
circuits, and not what many athletes mean by the colloquially
termed “muscle memory,” that are the “true control centers
of every human movement, thought and skill” (Coyle 2009,
FIGURE 3 Image of myelin (Coyle 2009, 31).
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36). Furthermore, when a skill is made automatic by repeated
practice, this “skill, once gained, feels utterly natural, as if
it’s something we’ve always possessed” (37) and most likely
gives the illusion to many that these skills were inborn.
Deep Practice Affects Memory and Skill
As Daniel Levitin, a musician turned research scientist, dis-
cusses in his book This Is Your Brain on Music, the neurolog-
ical impact of music is particularly significant for those who
begin their training early, and it manifests in ways that depend
on the particular musical activities that have engaged music
learning and the circumstance surrounding this learning.
Learning requires the assimilation and consolidation of infor-
mation in neural tissue. The more experience we have with
something, the stronger the memory learning trace for that
experience becomes. Although people differ in how long it
takes them to consolidate information [neurologically], it re-
mains true that increased practice leads to a great number of
neural traces, which can combine to create a stronger mem-
ory representation .... The strength of a memory is related to
how many times the original stimulus has been experienced.
(Levitin 2006, 198)
Given this understanding of the creation of myelin, one
can see its significance in the world of musical expertise.
For example, violinists’ brains “devote more territory to the
workings of the left hand—the one that plays the notes—than
do other people’s brains.” And more myelin is apt to “wrap
slowly around neurons with practice, insulating and strength-
ening key connections in the brain” (Colvin 2010, 171).
Because bio-neurological patterns can be created within ev-
eryone’s neural anatomy, the effects of practice are powerful
for all. These effects strengthen over time. However, in gen-
eral, musical practice in childhood builds up far more myelin
than does practice in adulthood. The more practice a per-
son does before age sixteen, the more myelin he or she will
have in the critical areas of the brains that maintain fluent
command of these skills.
Starting early holds advantages that become less available
later in life. Although cells may not degenerate over time, the
ability of those cells to produce myelin (called “oligos”) does
decrease with age. But whatever has been myelinated, either
early or late in life, is very likely to last with continuing
practice. Studies show that highly skilled performers in a
very broad range of domains—management, aircraft piloting,
music, and others—show consistently that they “suffer the
same age-related declines in speed and general cognitive
abilities as everyone else—except in their field of expertise
(Colvin 2010, 180).
Conversely, the loss of musical skills established by deep
practice usually correlates with the loss of myelin. The prun-
ing of myelinized circuits can occur early in life if children do
not continue to strengthen their skills with ongoing practice.
Massive loss of acquired skills can occur with degenerative
diseases that can affect the myelin sheath surrounding the
neurons. It has been well chronicled, for example, that the
degrading of myelin from multiple sclerosis tragically pre-
vented world-class cellist Jacqueline Du Pre from continuing
her musical career starting at the age of twenty-eight.
Severe diseases notwithstanding, myelin that results from
deliberate and deep practice optimizes and sustains the acqui-
sition of musical expertise. A new understanding of myelin
has been championed as the key to understanding the auto-
maticity of skills that were assumed in the past to be caused
by innate abilities. Suzuki created a system of violin practice
that “created talent” undoubtedly resulting from myelination.
Because myelination in general is the natural ability of every
child’s cells to produce myelin, it can be stated that myelin
has now been scientifically determined to be connected with
the ability of any child to start to acquire expertise in music
or any other area of skill development.
Clearly, neurological effects now need to be considered in
education policy. Without any special consideration of innate
talent, music programs that aim to provide a significant mea-
sure of deep practice for all children will best be established
by ages five to seven and will ideally continue through ages
ten to fourteen, because these are peak periods for myeli-
nation. Once one’s habits cause myelination to automatize
and sustain musical skills, children will be able to reap the
beneficial effects of a lifelong education in music (Skoe and
Kraus 2012).23 For those adults who keep up their habit of
developing musical expertise, myelination will continue to
make these skills accessible.
Myelination is a neurological reaction to mindful, ongo-
ing practice. But without the motivation to practice, skills
erode and an individual’s education fails to be sustained.
And why is it true that even when music students have an
equal opportunity for instruction and practice, individual stu-
dents nonetheless appear to progress at different speeds and
display different levels of skill acquisition?
Debunking the assumptions and misconceptions of talent is
required to crack, as Coyle calls it, the “talent code.” We
know that innate talent no longer explains nor predicts the
development of advanced expertise in music, and we now
know better what does: fortunate circumstances of human
and financial resources, extensive practice, and the genet-
ics of myelination common to all. However, we have yet to
explain the intrapersonal factors that are involved in motivat-
ing those who have the opportunity to advance in a field of
endeavor to realize their potential.
What Predicts Variation in the Initial Stages
of Musical Progress?
Two researchers in particular have produced results from
their studies that touch on the vital self-motivating factors
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that may greatly facilitate music learning as described by
Coyle. Freed from the misconceptions of innate talent, un-
conscious motivating factors can be elicited by teachers and
parents to build acquired expertise. In studies conducted by
Gary McPherson (Coyle 2009, 102–06), we can look at the
music classroom directly for evidence of what predicts dif-
ferences in practicing habits in relation to musical perfor-
mance assessments. All randomly selected students received
the same amount and quality of instruction for six months;
not surprisingly, the resulting performance variance scores
could be represented as a standard bell curve scatterplot.
And sure enough, those who practiced more tended to per-
form better on instrumental sightreading tasks regardless of
gender; IQ; math skills; family income; or baseline perfor-
mance ratings on tests of aural perception, sense of rhythm,
or sensory-motor skills.
But McPherson had something else in mind with this
study. He interviewed every child (ages seven to eighteen) be-
fore beginning instruction in order to ask this question: “How
long do you think you will be playing your instrument?” It
took skilled interview techniques, but the interviewers even-
tually elicited a solid answer from each child. Apparently,
all the students had an idea about their commitment before
they had their first lesson. The researchers remarked that it
seemed like the interviewees had “picked up something in
their environment that made them say, yes, that’s for me (or
not).” Overall, their responses were categorized into three
levels: short-term commitment, medium-term commitment,
and long-term commitment.
At the end of a six-month period, the children were inter-
viewed again to find out how much they had practiced weekly.
These responses were categorized as low (twenty minutes),
moderate (forty-five minutes), and high (ninety minutes) (see
Figure 4).
When the results were displayed, the implications were
startling: With the same amount of practice, the long-term
commitment group outperformed the short-term commit-
ment group by 400 percent. The long-term commitment
group with a mere twenty minutes of weekly practice pro-
gressed faster than the short-termers who practice for an hour
and a half. When long-term commitment combined with high
levels of practice, skills skyrocketed. (Coyle 2009, 104)
The key to understanding these data is to imagine that self-
perception matters more than teachers or parents may know.
In this case self-identification with commitment to learning
a musical instrument was an exercise in imagination. The
students had to ask themselves questions like: Can I imagine
myself giving up the instrument after a few months? Or will
I continue for a year or two and then go on to do something
else? Or will I actually become a musician and play music
with others for the rest of my life?
In the final analysis, the students’ responses are not repre-
sentations of aptitude; they are visualizations of themselves
engaged in the process of developing expertise in musical
performance. For Coyle, these responses constitute a “pic-
ture of ignition” into the path of acquired expertise:
What ignited their progress wasn’t any innate skill or gene.
It was a small, ephemeral, yet powerful idea: a vision of
their ideal future selves, a vision that oriented, energized,
and accelerated progress, and that originated in their outside
world.... These kids weren’t born wanting to be musicians.
Their wanting... came from a distinct signal, from some-
thing in their family, their home, their teacher, the set of
images and people they encountered in their short lives. That
signal sparked an intense nearly unconscious response that
manifested itself as an idea, “I want to be like them.24 (2009,
FIGURE 4 Association between average weekly practice and performance on the Watkins Farnum Performance Scale (Coyle 2009, 104).
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This catalytic vision of becoming a musician is a social
construct in which learning depends on collective effort and
cooperation from teachers, parents, and peers. Researcher
Geoff Cohen describes this phenomenon of students feeling
the connection of their identity with a group metaphorically:
“It’s like a hair trigger, like turning on a light switch. The
ability to achieve is already there, but the energy put into that
ability goes through the roof” (Coyle 2009, 108).
Acquisition of expertise requires deep and deliberate prac-
tice, and practice requires primal cues that trigger huge out-
pourings of energy. Cohen’s work draws on research on
unconscious motivation for success that may come from ex-
ternal factors such as the loss of a parent at a young age, one’s
place in the birth order of siblings, or even the embedding of
actual birth dates of students into the stories that they read.
Whereas Professor Cohen specializes in the automatic un-
conscious mechanisms that govern our choices, motivations,
and goals in life, Carol Dweck studies how differences in par-
ticular words of encouragement can affect student motivation
to learn and performance in math.
The “Six Words of Praise” Experiment
Carol Dweck has been studying the role of mindsets in learn-
ing for many years. Reported in her book Mindset, one of her
most astonishing discoveries is that the manner in which an
adult praises students immediately and directly affects their
attitudes about themselves and their abilities as problem-
The conceptual underpinning of her work is the idea that
young students are extremely susceptible to words of praise
and are affected significantly by the implicit import of these
words. For example, words that congratulate a student for
his or her intelligence imply that the student has a fixed,
innate, and unusually great ability to understand and solve
math problems quickly and with ease. Words that extol a
student for his or her willingness to spend extra time solving
a problem that might be easier for others imply that the
student possesses the virtue and humility to learn from his or
her problem-solving experiences by trial and error.
Dweck’s experiment, which was replicated five times be-
fore she was able to believe the results, was constructed in
four steps, which are summarized here.
First, Dweck gave every child a math test that consisted of
fairly easy puzzles. After the researcher informed each child
of his or her score, the researcher added a single six-word
sentence of praise. Half of the kids were praised for their
intelligence using the words, “You must be smart at this,”
and half were praised for their effort by stating, “You must
have worked really hard.
Kids were tested a second time, but on this occasion they
were given the choice between a harder test and an easier
test. To the amazement of the researchers, 90 percent of the
students who had been praised for their effort chose the harder
test. The majority of the students who had been praised for
their intelligence, however, chose the easy test.
What can explain these results? Dweck explains, “When
we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that’s
the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mis-
takes” (2006). Presumably, when we praise kids for their hard
work, we are encouraging them to think that problem-solving
is challenging and that the process of working toward solving
a problem is rewarding in itself.
The third level of math tests was designed to be uniformly
harder, beyond the students’ reach. Not unexpectedly, none
of the kids did well. However, the group praised for their
effort became very involved with the test, trying solutions
and testing strategies: “They later said they enjoyed it. But
the group praised for its intelligence hated the harder test.
They took it as proof they weren’t smart” (Dweck 2006).
The fourth step of the experimental sequence required that
the kids take an easy test once again. Those praised for their
effort scored 30 percent higher the second time around; those
praised for their intelligence scored 20 percent lower.
Deliberate, deep practice requires serous effort and pas-
sionate work. Although it may be surprising to many, prais-
ing innate intelligence isn’t productive or engaging for stu-
dents. They are not motivated to tackle problems, because
their identities as quick and efficient problem-solvers could
be challenged. They are apt to think that talent is a fixed
commodity, and they certainly are not eager to discover
the limitations of their skills. In contrast, struggle works to
the advantage of students praised for their effort, because the
higher the degree of effort used to solve problems, the more
myelin is produced, and the more myelination that occurs,
the more skilled that person becomes in his or her field of
Dweck worries about students who become susceptible
to praise based on the “fixed intellect mindset”—which, we
argue, is synonymous with what we call the “innate talent
There was one more finding in our study that was striking and
depressing at the same time. We said to each student: “You
know, we’re going to go to other schools, and I bet the kids in
those schools would like to know about the problems.” So we
gave students a page to write out their thoughts, but we also
left a space for them to write the scores they had received on
the problems.
Would you believe that almost 40 percent of the ability-
praised students lied about their scores? And always in
one direction. In the fixed mindset, imperfections are
shameful—especially if you’re talented—so they “lied” them
away. (Dweck 2006, 73)
What was so alarming to the researchers was that they
had praised ordinary children for their intelligence, and this
feedback turned them into liars. In the end, telling children
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they were smart “made them feel dumber and act dumber,
but claim that they were smarter” (Dweck 2006, 73–74).
Dweck’s advice to teachers is to be real with students
who are not performing well in school. As she remarks in
her book:
When students don’t know how to do something and others
do, the gap seems unbridgeable. Some educators try to reas-
sure their students that they’re just fine as they are. Growth-
minded teachers tell students the truth and then give them the
tools to close the gap. (2006, 198)
Dweck’s advice for all parents is to pay attention to what
your children are fascinated by and only praise them for their
Watchand listen to yourself carefully when your child messes
up. Remember that constructive criticism is feedback that
helps the child understand how to fix something. It’s not
feedback that labels or simply excuses the child. At the end
of each day, write down the constructive criticism (and the
process praise) you’ve given your kids. (2006, 211)
But by far most parents in her studies felt that it was nec-
essary to praise children’s innate abilities in order to build up
their confidence. Dweck recognizes that this strategy makes
sense but again worries about the impact of lauding ability
over effort:
We thought about how people with the fixed mindset already
focus too much on their ability: “Is it high enough?” “Will it
look good?” Wouldn’t praising people’s ability focus them on
it even more? Wouldn’t it be telling them that that’s what we
value and, even worse, that we can read their deep, underlying
ability from their performance? Isn’t that teaching them the
fixed mindset? (2006, 70)
Dweck also thinks that meta-reflection on the neurolog-
ical mechanics of the learning process may help create a
growth mindset in students and improve performance simul-
taneously. To test this hypothesis, she and her colleagues
presented a fifty-minute session on how the myelin mech-
anism works to one half of seven hundred middle school
students. Within a semester, the “myelin-savvy” group had
significantly improved their grades and study habits (Coyle
2009, 217–18).
Mindset Differences among Music Teachers
Conflicts over mindset can result in tension among music
teachers. Dweck tells the story of tensions between teachers
who hold opposite views of the learning mindset. Dorothy
DeLay, a world-class string teacher at the Juilliard School
in New York, studied with a proponent of the fixed talent
mindset. But when DeLay became a fellow teacher at
Juilliard, she gravitated toward the growth mindset in her
own teaching. As the story unfolds, this conflict between the
two mindsets reaches epic proportions:
[DeLay’s] mentor and fellow teacher at Julliard, Ivan
Galamian, would say, “Oh, he has no ear. Don’t waste your
time.” But she would insist on experimenting with different
ways of changing that. And she usually found a way. As more
and more students wanted a part of this [growth] mindset and
as she “wasted” more and more of her time on these efforts,
Galamian tried to get the president of Julliard to fire her.
It’s interesting. Both DeLay and Galamian valued talent [ex-
pertise], but Galamian believed that talent was inborn and
DeLay believed that it was a quality that could be acquired. I
think it’s too easy for a teacher to say, “Oh this child wasn’t
born with it, so I won’t waste my time.” Too many teachers
hide their own lack of ability behind that statement. (Dweck
2006, 196)
The fixed mindset is very tempting, because it allows
teachers to select students who are already on their way to
success and attribute their successes to outside forces, rather
than asking the question, “What can I do? How can I create
an atmosphere of success?” But to those who support the
growth mindset, there are greater ethical considerations and
greater rewards worth pursuing. It is far more work to make
the growth mindset flourish in a learning culture that favors
those students who have benefited from prior advantages in
their development (Dweck 2006, 236).
Whether kids receive praise for their ability or for their
effort, they unconsciously tune into highly motivating cues
from the environment. Thus, the cultivation of a growth mind-
set by teachers and parents is necessary to support students
on their path toward advanced expertise in any domain of
Implications of the Growth Mindset for Music
Education Policy
Dweck’s research points to a need for new criteria for music
education policy. Her work uncovers the dangers of building
any teaching models based on fixed or innate talent that do
not account for the individual mindsets of the teacher and the
learner. These models have usually proven to be lose-lose
situations. Students labeled as “gifted” or “talented” create
false expectations of their abilities—for instance, that they
can achieve with little or no effort—and therefore fall short of
everyone’s expectations. Students labeled as not having “tal-
ent” or “aptitude” in the arts are not assessed appropriately
on the longitudinal continuum of their developing expertise.
The alternative to this kind of policy—one that seeks to de-
velop progressively higher levels of expertise in all students
and shows great concern for nurturing constructive mindsets
for growth—is one based on the belief, now supported by
scientific findings, that the road to expertise is more depen-
dent on the habits and skills of the student as a practician
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than we once thought. Humans have extraordinary poten-
tial to learn through acquired expertise, which takes time,
as the ten-year, ten-thousand hour rule and myelin research
have shown us; similarly, it takes the correct growth-oriented
mindset, as seen from the research by Dweck, to fulfill the
goals of acquired expertise at any level. All of these things
were voiced by Suzuki in the last century based on his own
experiments in pedagogy for the very young. This message
also rings true once educators are able to see through the
misconceptions and myths of innate talent.
The artist, teacher, and policymaker should feel empow-
ered by the potency of this research to create new policies.
Innate talent, by definition, is not something that we have
any power over—nor is giftedness or aptitude, for that mat-
ter. However, we do have the power to achieve through hard
work in our craft, we do have the power to encourage oth-
ers to do so as well, and we do have the power to create
policy that recognizes these facts. Teachers should feel a cer-
tain responsibility to create an atmosphere and classroom
policies that reward effort and progress rather than display
current static, even if impressive, cognitive skills. There is
something that can be done by everyone at every level, and
furthermore, these changes will help us move toward a more
inclusive education policy that will ensure that music is not
left behind in twenty-first-century education.
Genies, Genius, and Genetics: Mindsets that
Have Limited the Evolution of Music Education
We’ve changed our views on a lot of important matters
since then—how the planets move, where diseases come
from—but we have not changed our views on what makes
some people extraordinarily good at what they do. We still
think what Homer thought: the awesomely great, apparently
super-human performers around us came into this world with
a gift of doing exactly what they ended up doing.... We still
say, as Homer did, that great performers are inspired, mean-
ing that their greatness was breathed into them by gods or
muses. We still say they have a gift, which is to say their
greatness was given to them, for reasons no one can explain,
by someone or something apart from themselves. (Colvin
2010, 4)
Neither the preoccupation with “God-given” gifts such as
those referenced in ancient literature nor the modern myth
of the innate genius should constitute the basis of twenty-
first-century music education policy. Unfortunately for our
children, the parents who depend on public education to pro-
vide opportunities for musical development, and the educa-
tors who wish to provide these opportunities for all children,
those who still believe in myths of giftedness or the mis-
conceptions of developed expertise continue to impede the
evolution of music education policy.
According to a growing consensus of researchers who
look across fields of endeavor for common elements of ex-
pertise and artistry, the myth of inherited, genetically de-
termined talent is a misconception of what matters in the
development of expertise. We now know, but have been slow
to accept, that advanced musical abilities can progress to a
significant extent in all children through deliberate, mind-
ful, deep practice, in conjunction with the development of a
growth mindset that disregards the belief in a fixed amount
of innate ability.
Many researchers in the field of giftedness and talent as-
sume that somehow musical giftedness is endowed to very
few, yet they may still concede that lots of practice is re-
quired to draw out and refine the talent that already exists
(Haroutounian 2002). Some assert further that there may be
neurological mechanisms that allow innately gifted musi-
cians to learn differently from all others.25 Though many
researchers in giftedness may admit that basic neurology al-
lows all of our children to enjoy some degree of musical
development, they nonetheless contend that it may be only
the genetically endowed who will ultimately profit fully from
it. And the syllogism continues to be offered that studies of
those who have succeeded in acquiring musical expertise
demonstrate that these accomplishments depend on innate
What should now be clear is that the data collected and
analyzed by those who study the development of expertise
not only reject the commonly held view of innate talent but
also recognize that any lingering perception of differences in
talent, rather than skill development over time, has become
the enemy of an equitable education policy. And many of
those who are deemed geniuses who have benefited from in-
nate gifts also reject the idea of possessing a “special talent,”
one of many coded terms for inherent ability. As previously
seen, the quotations provided here from these consummate
thinkers and performers are better aligned with the new re-
search on acquired expertise than they are with testimonies
regarding innate talent. It is hard work, fortunate circum-
stances, good teachers, and absolute passionate devotion to
one’s personal growth that predict great performance and
good work. From this perspective the term “talent” is either
misleading or irrelevant.
Einstein wrote to his biographer, “I have no special talent. I
am only passionately curious.”26 Educators and policymakers
should take his remarks seriously. He alone knew how hard
he worked on mathematics and physics to make progress on
his theories of quantum mechanics and special relativity. And
when he told his students at Princeton, “Do not worry about
your difficulties in mathematics. I can assure you mine are
still greater,” we might reasonably assume that he was not just
encouraging students to adopt his growth mindset, but that in
fact he had experienced his own learning challenges later in
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life that led him to consult with mathematical physicists to
understand the implications of his theories. Einstein was not
drawing on an egocentric mindset of genius or special talent;
he was admitting that however gifted or talented he may
have been considered in the past, these designations were
now irrelevant in the face of his present difficulties. Another
of his biographers chronicled Einstein’s remark, “Since the
mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity, I do
not understand it myself anymore” (Sommerfelt 1949). This
is hardly the statement one might expect from a believer in
oneself as the inevitable unfolding of innate genius.
Similarly, when Mozart communicated to his conductor
during rehearsals for the premiere of his opera Don Giovanni
that “it is a mistake to think that the practice of my art has
become easy to me” (Kerst 1906), he was rejecting the no-
tion that, even after tens of thousands of hours of practical
training and experience, his expertise had become somehow
effortless and fluent, let alone innately full-blown. The apoc-
ryphal stories of his “miraculous ability to compose entire
major pieces in his head after which writing them down was
mere clerical work” (Colvin 2010, 27) were cited for two
centuries as evidence of the “divine spark” of Mozart’s tal-
ent. Recent revelations that (a) his father wrote out his early
compositions; (b) ink analysis indicates he did not compose
music line by line, from beginning to end; and (c) the let-
ter detailing his ability to compose with no editing was a
forgery (26–27) all chip away at the myth of genius given
to the few and provide a glimpse of the awesome capacities
human beings can possess when conditions are ripe for the
development of extraordinary expertise.
Ethical Challenges of Music Education Policy
Based on Implicit or Explicit Acceptance of
Determination of Student Giftedness or Talent
Do [we] see the consequences of the way we have chosen to
think about success? Because we so profoundly personalize
success, we miss opportunities to lift others onto the top rung.
We make rules that frustrate achievement. We prematurely
write off people as failures. We are too much in awe of those
who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail. And,
most of all, we become much too passive. We overlook just
how large a role we all play—and by “we” I mean society—in
determining who makes it and who doesn’t. (Gladwell 2008,
To discover and celebrate those with “talent” often ap-
pears to be the default music education policy of our times.
Arts education advocates use famous and “talented” young
musicians as examples of how to understand the value of mu-
sic programs in our schools. As a result, many parents cannot
be sure whether to invest time and money in a music educa-
tion for their children without a guarantee that their child is
(innately) talented. Gladwell alludes to preemptory designa-
tions of talent and success when he expresses concern about
how arbitrary policies based on outdated beliefs about failure
and success undermine an education system that prides itself
on a philosophy of “equity and excellence.” The fact that the
general public is preoccupied with the discovery of talent27
only makes it harder for parents, students, and administrators
to believe that all children possess the capacity for advanced
achievement in music.
As discussed previously, most parents, educators, and pol-
icymakers consciously or unconsciously accept the syllogism
that precociousness is by definition linked with innate talent.
Music educators who use the word “talent” to describe indi-
vidual student achievement reveal that they still assume that
children who have developed precocious musical expertise
are somehow predisposed to consistently outperform all other
students on multiple aspects and at all stages of the spectrum
of skill development. Belief that the practice of identifying
talent and providing a strong music education primarily to
those determined to have this attribute at an early age could be
seen as a rationale for establishing gifted programs for music
students. However, talent recognition by design leads to an
inherently inequitable distribution of resources as a matter of
music education policy, simply because it is assumed that any
policy that advances musical expertise should first and fore-
most be available to those who have already demonstrated
these special talents.
After all, if students are shown to be untalented in mu-
sic, why would anyone want to frustrate these children with
the challenges of a serious music education? And even those
who believe that music generally benefits all children’s per-
formance in other areas of the school curriculum may also
assume that students who are inherently better at music de-
serve more opportunities to pursue it. According to this pol-
icy disposition, equity means granting special programs and
privileges only to those who already display talent. The estab-
lishment of the Office of the Gifted and Talented in the U.S.
Office of Education in the early 1970s has long encouraged
this point of view while trying to assure the public that its
policy recommendations are not damaging to the average or
low-performing student. However, if we change our concep-
tion of a low-performing student from “untalented” to “un-
derresourced,” the picture changes. We believe that a talent
identification approach results in poor education policy, be-
cause it does not take into account the fact that circumstances
of resources, time, support, extensive deliberate practice, and
the inculcation of growth mindsets—and not the designation
of predetermined aptitude or innate talent—are the principal
predictors of individuals’ capacity to acquire advanced levels
of expertise.
Furthermore, in the application of a music education pol-
icy that does not assume that all students can develop ad-
vanced expertise, talent identification becomes a high-stakes
assessment of which the consequences are clear. Because
many children may not audition or test well for unusual tal-
ent at a young age, most will be deprived of or discouraged
from taking advantage of what others think they deserve
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from public schools: equal opportunity for a high-quality
and comprehensive musical education. And when these chil-
dren become adults, many will be left wondering either why
they were judged to have or not have musical talent or why
educators used these assessments to exclude them instead of
determining their current ability to benefit from constructive
In this discussion we have come to a fork in the road
of music education policy. A policy that allocates resources
and special instruction primarily for those students consid-
ered gifted and talented can be seen as ethical only if the
characteristics of special musical ability can be defined pre-
cisely and detected at a very early age and additionally can
be shown to predict achievement prior to the receipt of spe-
cial training. However, the research cited here indicates that
advanced performance cannot be predetermined. It shows
instead that the path toward advanced musical expertise de-
velops out of a course of study that advances mastery of
skills based on time spent in deliberate and deep practice and
training guided by knowledgeable instructors. Given this, it
becomes ethically compelling to create a policy that ensures
that all students have the same opportunity for a rigorous and
comprehensive music education before judging children on
their achievement and understanding of music.
Furthermore, even if the measures used for detecting the
presence of talent traits are deemed reliable and strong pre-
dictors of success in musical studies, other ethical questions
emerge. For example, is it acceptable to adopt a policy based
on the conclusion that talented students need more attention
and resources than others because at some point in their de-
velopment they have demonstrated the ability to learn some
things in music more quickly, more independently, or more
creatively than other students? Couldn’t policymakers con-
clude that the assessment of skills that predict success should
be used to provide more resources and time for those who
have fallen behind the pace of other students? In other words,
if we were to invoke a “no child left behind” policy for mu-
sic students, would we be using talent trait assessments to
close the achievement gap between the initially high-rated
and low-rated learners? Do policymakers really have enough
confidence in the standardization of indicators of talent to
make it ethical to deprive “nontalented” students of education
resources, a policy that would make it all the more unlikely
that they would profit from a less intensive or comprehensive
form of music education?
We assert here that research tells us that innate talent can-
not be measured, and even if it were possible to determine
talent traits at an early age, assumptions based on preor-
dained or early detection of qualities do not uniformly or
universally predict which students will succeed in light of
other more salient factors such as availability of instruments,
teachers, master teachers, time for practice, opportunity for
performance, and the development of a growth mindset that
is supported by teachers and parents.
Thus music educators must create alternative models of
music education that are more closely aligned with what we
now know about the development of acquired expertise and
no longer promote policies that aim to anoint the talented
few with special access to a high-quality music education
that all children deserve. The path toward formulating and
enacting such a policy will depend on clearing out lingering
assumptions of innate talent and developing new qualitative
and quantitative frameworks for elevating music education as
a central discipline that is accountable to measures of equity
and excellence and makes a unique, essential contribution to
a twenty-first-century public school education.
The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false defi-
nition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes
the original false conception come “true.” This specious va-
lidity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of
error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events
as proof that he was right from the very beginning. (Merton
1968, 477)
In music, the language of assessment of ability or critique
of a complex musical work often leads to the characteriza-
tion of the performer’s talent or lack thereof. This is a word
we use to explain what is ineffable: the special ability and
intelligence that are required to perform flawlessly, beauti-
fully, and passionately. The aesthetic experience of such a
performance can leave us at a loss for words. That is when
the word “talent” is evoked.
But as educators we have to notice that the word is an ex-
ample of a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, using words with
mysterious overtones like “special talent” to stand for some-
thing that can be more precisely described with a matter-of-
fact phrase like “artistic expertise” creates a false conception
of musical development as a gift, or something that simply
comes naturally to some but not to others. A false connotation
of talent creates havoc within education policy, because those
who are designated as such receive more training, encourage-
ment, and resources, thus fulfilling the prophetic notion of
inborn talent.
Researchers of “immensely talented individuals,” how-
ever, adamantly disown the self-fulfilling prophecy of talent
by declaring, as researcher Benjamin Bloom has, that “what
any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can
learn if provided with appropriate prior and current con-
ditions of learning” (Bloom 1985, 428). Bloom goes on to
define talent as “an unusually high level of demonstrated
ability, achievement, or skill in some special field of study or
interest ... in contrast with earlier definitions which equate
talent with natural gifts or aptitudes”; he also notes that “at
this point we know of no method by which one could predict
which young children (under the age of ten) would eventually
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become outstanding musicians, athletes, mathematicians,
and so on” (5–6).
The need to avoid the old connotations of talent is
an argument for using less hyperbolic and more scientific
terms to describe various levels of musical development and
A New Language for Music Education Policy
This article argues for the forced distinction between innate
talent– and acquired expertise–based music education policy.
As cited previously, terms such as “gifted” and “talented”
have been surrounded by a great deal of confusion, which
may be partly to blame for impeding the advancement of a
new consensus on music education philosophy, policy, and
practice. In the new acquired expertise–based music educa-
tion policies discussed here, all terms related to either talent
or expertise are defined unambiguously and differentiated
categorically from each other.
Innate Talent
The most common meaning of “talent” in music is the
innate capacity and special ability to do something difficult
very well prior to or at the earliest stages of instruction.
Educators who adopt this perspective assume that students
who demonstrate a special efficiency and ease while trying
to learn music possess this gift. Researchers interested in
gathering evidence of the existence of innate talent define it
something (1) that originates in genetic structures; (2) that
is identifiable at an early stage by trained people who can
recognize it even before exceptional levels of performance
have been acquired; (3) that can be used to predict who is
likely to excel; and (4) that only a minority can be identified
as having it because if everyone were ‘talented,’ the concept
would lose meaning. (Levitin 2006, 195)
Policy associated with this definition of talent assumes
that innate talent can be identified, developed, refined, and
optimized further through hard work and good teaching, but
that ultimately only those who demonstrate special talent
from the outset will profit from the opportunity for an inten-
sive, comprehensive study of music. Adults exposed to, or
who adopt, the innate talent perspective will identify them-
selves or others categorically as musical or nonmusical based
on whether or not they were able to learn fundamental skills
such as the ability to keep rhythm or sing on pitch at the
initial stages of instruction.
Acquired Expertise
Acquired expertise” means that the ability to perform
and think at a very high level of skill is entirely learned, and
that early assessment of musical skill does not predict well
who will achieve the highest levels of musical expertise. The
development or acquisition of musical skills does assume
that baseline neurological functioning is intact and therefore
virtually all students will benefit significantly from music
instruction in proportion to the quality of their response to
the training they receive. The progression toward highly ad-
vanced acquired expertise in music requires substantial, fa-
vorable conditions of support, including exposure to master
teachers, interaction with others at a similar level of expertise,
and a mindset that one can learn just about anything through
dedication to effective practice. The practice time required
for acquired expertise at a given level results in substantial,
virtually permanent myelination of neurological circuits that
are relevant to the many cognitive (listening, performing,
reading, improvising, composing), social-emotional (ability
to learn both independently and collaboratively, respect for
others, ability to deal with frustration, determination to suc-
ceed, empathy for others), and meta-cognitive (goal setting,
self-assessment, reflection practice, awareness of learning
transfer) skills that musical expertise requires.
Acquired expertise policies assume that every student’s
path toward the mastery of complex musical skills is devel-
opmentally ordered and can be followed by all who have the
opportunity to benefit from a comprehensive music educa-
tion. Furthermore, the assessment of standards of musical
progress can be conducted in much the same way that lan-
guage arts and math learning are evaluated in today’s schools.
Students and adults exposed to, or who adopt, the acquired
expertise perspective will identify themselves and others as
music learners who have progressed on a continuum of skill
development from one stage to another, across a variety of
musical skills. Acquired expertise learners will know that
their lifelong progress in music will depend on the degree to
which they are able to work on improving their skills in and
understanding of fundamental concepts of music and their re-
lationship to other aspects of learning and social-emotional
Demystifying Mastery: Applying the
Developmental Stages of Acquired
Expertise to Policy
Acquired expertise music education policy will be better un-
derstood and applied if teachers, parents, and administrators
become better aware of past research in cognitive science that
provides frameworks for understanding the developmental
stages that lead to mastery of their acquired skills.
For example, in 1986, Robert Trotter, then a senior editor
of Psychology Today, published the article “The Mystery of
Mastery,” which was designed to summarize studies about
the skills that experts shared across many disciplines and the
stages they passed through during the development of these
skills. His article, like those debunking the myths of talent
cited here (Syed, Colvin, Coyle, Gladwell), summarized ev-
idence of extremely advanced skill acquisition in terms of
common elements shared across diverse fields. He found:
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Levels of Mastery
Level Characteristics
Novice Learns to recognize various objective facts and features relevant to the skill as well as rules for deciding how to act on
these facts and features
Usually so caught up in following the rules that he or she has no coherent sense of the overall task; these rules allow the
accumulation of experience
Advanced beginner Through practical experience in concrete situations, the advanced beginner learns to recognize and deal with previously
undefined facts and elements.
Experience seems immeasurably more important than any form of verbal description
Competent practician The competent person is taught to adopt a hierarchical view of decision-making. He or she appraises the situation, sets a
goal, and then chooses a plan, which may or may not involve following the rules—that is, he or she takes a calculated risk.
Whether the plan succeeds or fails, the situation and its outcome are likely to be vividly recalled, an important resource for
future expertise.
Proficient practician Important elements of the task will stand out clearly, while others will recede into the background. “Holistic similarity
recognition” triggers the memory of earlier similar situations in which a move was successful, leading this individual to
react immediately.
Expert The expert doesn’t apply rules, make decisions, or solve problems. He or she does what comes naturally, and it almost
always seems to work.1
Notes: Based on Dreyfus and Dreyfus’s (1986) studies of chess players, airline pilots, automobile drivers, and masters of a second language. 1See Ericsson’s
update of Expert Performance and Deliberate Practice previously cited in note 22 to see how Trotter’s fifth stage of mastery is in need of further elaboration.
Cognitive science researchers were able to demonstrate
that experts in particular areas, such as sports, develop
cognitive skills (e.g., pattern-processing skills) very simi-
lar to those seen in experts in other areas of learning, such
as physics and chess (Allard and Burnett 1985; Chase and
Simon 1973).
Researchers demonstrated that situational understand-
ing of sports (i.e., the intentions or positions of
players)—and not superior motor system reflexes or mus-
cle control—explain the procedural knowledge base of
sports. Similarly, basketball players must understand what
a given situation calls for in the same way that chess play-
ers must understand the current position on the chess board
(Trotter 1986, 36–37).
There is strong anecdotal evidence that the development
of extremely successful people relies on optimal pupil-
teacher relationships (as was the case with the Polgar sis-
ters and the Syed brothers, discussed previously). When
Bloom and his colleagues interviewed 120 “immensely
talented” young people who had become world-class ex-
perts in their fields before the age of forty, they found
stages of development of expertise (due to innate talent or
not) that were common to all areas (Bloom 1985).
Stage 1: Most children who saw themselves as swim-
mers, pianists, or mathematicians at a young age came
from families interested in sports, music, or intellectual
activity, which gave the children a head start in acquir-
ing expertise. The most important role of their first
teachers was to provide praise, encouragement, and
enthusiasm, and, whenever possible, to make learning
playful and game-like.
Stage 2: The middle years featured a growing com-
mitment to expertise in the chosen field by the late
adolescent or teenager. These youth usually connected
with a more advanced teacher who instilled perfection-
ism, a habit of extensive practice, and motivation for a
more substantial and exclusive dedication to the field.
Stage 3: In the final years of education in the chosen
field, a master teacher emphasized the development of
expertise to its highest level possible, the emergence of
a personal style, and a broader and deeper understand-
ing of the larger purpose and meaning of acquiring
There are developmental levels of acquiring problem-
solving skills that all experts go through to attain mastery
of the skills required for high performance in any domain
(Dreyfus and Dreyfus 1986) (See Table 1).
The study of conditions and stages of expertise began with
experimental studies in the late twentieth century that led to
a growing consensus among those synthesizing those studies
today. The message of a policy of acquired expertise, con-
sistent with Suzuki’s personal philosophy, Polgar’s family
experiment, and Syed’s reports, is that “what any person in
the world can learn, almost all persons can learn if provided
with appropriate prior and current conditions of learning”
(Trotter 1986).
Learning is never complete when aiming at the highest
levels of acquired expertise. Therefore, an acquired expertise
music education policy must recognize explicitly that the
journey from novice to expert requires enormous motivation,
support, and resources from family and the local community.
In addition, the student needs guidance from a master teacher
and role model—not to mention an enormous amount of
time and singular dedication of the individuals who, by good
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fortune, have the opportunity to take advantage of the favor-
able conditions needed to acquire extreme levels of expertise.
Putting the Language of Acquired Expertise
into Policy
Given this differentiation in connotation between innate
talent–based and acquired expertise–based music education
policies, we can now evaluate competing sources of philos-
ophy and pedagogical bias objectively. To Suzuki, “talent
education” meant the development of advanced expertise
(artistry) from scratch. He based this concept on the assump-
tions that all people have the ability to learn music as their
“mother tongue” and that this learning proceeds develop-
mentally and not by some special talent (similar to what we
have come to accept in the past 120 years regarding language
acquisition and literacy skill development research; see Chall
1983, 10–24). Similarly, Bloom’s study appears to refer to
the stages of development of expertise without regard to any
identification of innate talent.
Even advocates for talent identification in music education
now increasingly blur the lines between innate and learned
abilities. For example, in her book Kindling the Spark (2002),
Haroutounian repeatedly alludes to innate abilities in music
as potentials rather than full-blown giftedness. If we assume
that the word “talent” in the title of the book implies an in-
nate capacity, and that “potential” is a capacity or aptitude as
yet unrealized, then how does a young musician or teacher
“develop” potential in musical talent? By stating, “Young
children with potential musical talent naturally show ini-
tial signs of expressive performance” and “sing recognizable
tunes before they are two years old and exhibit expressive
rhythmic responses to music,” Haroutounian edges toward
the expected definition of talent as innate (2002, 76). She
also goes on to state the importance of “music-related neu-
rological research that helps swing the education pendulum
toward the recognition of musical talent as a viable educa-
tional necessity” (175–76)—presumably as education for the
gifted few.
As a gifted and talented program creator, she advises as
a matter of policy that “rather than shying away from the
prospect of recognizing music potential at this tender age,
we should seize the opportunity to guide students and their
parents in providing additional musical enrichment for tod-
dlers who clearly show signs of the spark” (Haroutounian
2002, 177–78; italics added). Later in the book, she takes a
more pronounced innate talent viewpoint by proclaiming that
her MusicLink LessonLink program “is unique among many
other outreach programs that offer music instruction to dis-
advantaged students because it begins with the recognition
of potential talent” (194; italics added) and that “the dis-
crimination of sound, prior to any formal training, is where
music aptitude begins” (8). But as our many previous exam-
ples have shown, often what a teacher recognizes as “prior
to training” is not in fact the case.
Though alluding consistently to aptitude and talent-based
education as central tenets of her program policies, she is
also willing to concede that, as is the case with the acquired
expertise policy perspective, the basic sensory capacities are
inherent, but musical talent is developed ultimately through
student commitment to learning with teacher guidance:
The basic sensory capacities are inherent, but musical talent
is developmental rather than a “gift.” In the nature-nurture
debate over the substance of musical talent, those involved in
music education or performance would pose a strong argu-
ment for the “nurturing” of talent. A student may have a high
music aptitude, but the development of musical talent relies
on student commitment, physical capabilities, and teacher
guidance. (43)
From the acquired expertise perspective, the still-prevalent
allusions to concepts of inborn talent and aptitude that sup-
press the growth mindset will not advance a music educa-
tion policy in which progress at all levels of mastery for
all children serves as the overarching principal of musical
The next section provides case studies of the kinds of
innovation that can ignite new aspirations for fulfilling human
potential through music when the myths and misconceptions
of talent no longer limit the evolution of music education
In this section, we examine two examples of government-
sponsored music education programs that are aimed squarely
at the development of significant levels of music expertise
and are provided free of charge for all students who enroll in
the program or qualify by lottery to get into the program. We
will briefly examine the premises of these acquired expertise
program models based on both qualitative and quantitative
dimensions (descriptions of the program’s musical success,
anecdotes, and financial and population analysis) of access
and excellence free of prior assumptions or any measures of
The first example of innovation in music education policy
is a massive government program in Venezuela that began
over thirty-five years ago; the other is a lottery-based Mas-
sachusetts charter school that opened in Boston in September
1999. Both examples are connected to more than a few ad-
ministrators and faculty members at New England Conserva-
tory. These examples demonstrate what kind of innovations
in music education can result from adherence to an unbiased
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policy of musical achievement developed through acquired
El Sistema: A “Human Development through
Music” Experiment
To me, an orchestra is first and foremost a way to encourage
better human development within children. That is why I
always said, and I say today, that this is not an artistic program
but a human development program through music. It is very
important to be clear about this. Because everything that
happened then, and everything that has happened since then,
has been a direct consequence of this concept. (Jos´
e Antonio
Abreu, quoted in Tunstall 2012, 71)
Founded in 1975 by pianist, organist, harpsichordist, com-
poser, conductor, economist, educator, activist, and politician
e Antonio Abreu, El Sistema is a network of diverse mu-
sic education “orchestra immersion” programs that, like the
French conservatory system begun in the early 1800s, be-
gin in many small centers (known as n´
ucleos) throughout
Venezuela and feed into a centralized orchestra and train-
ing programs in Caracas. The Sim´
on Bol´
ıvar Orchestra is
now regarded as a world-class orchestra, and graduates from
“The System” lead and perform in orchestras throughout the
This program serves as an extremely important experi-
ment in human development, because it stands as a model
for a government-supported public school education policy
that adheres to the principles of both access for all children
and families who want to join the system and the pursuit of
musical excellence at all levels of student participation. The
sample size of this experiment is expansive, currently pro-
viding approximately 350,00029 mostly underprivileged chil-
dren30 throughout Venezuela with music education. There are
three primary components of the program.
First, the principal part of El Sistema policy has always
been to ensure that any child can be admitted to the level-one
orchestra regardless of any musical experience or prior ac-
cess to an orchestral instrument. The success of such a policy
was thought by the older generation of classical musicians
in Venezuela to be impossible. To mix less skilled musicians
with skilled ones, and to have them simply learn by doing was
a radically different strategy for building a youth orchestra
system than any that had previously been used, and a radical
departure from a policy of admitting only students who were
already prepared to perform the orchestral repertoire. The
concept of “talent” was deemed irrelevant to program policy.
Rather than any early assessment of aptitude or previously
developed skill, only the student’s attitude and willingness
to spend the required time on musical development mattered
as a criterion for admission to the system.
Like all n´
ucleos, we are a no-exclusion program. Any child
who wants to come can come. And so many want to come
that we need to have several orchestras [of] different skill
levels to accommodate them all. (Rafaeil Elster, Sarria n´
director, quoted in Tunstall 2012, 33–34)
No auditions, no questions, nothing! If you wanted to play,
you were welcome. “You play violin? Okay, here’s your
chair, sit here.... It didn’t matter how much or how little
you knew. Because part of joining the orchestra was teaching
the others, and learning from the others. (David Ascanio,
one of the founders of the Sim´
on Bol´
ıvar Orchestra, quoted
in Tunstall 2012, 65)
Second, every child receives resources and services free
of charge. Resources include not only basic supplies such as
instruments, uniforms, snacks, and family support services
(Tunstall 2012, 168), but also a musical education experi-
ence that provides extensive opportunities for group learn-
ing in music ensembles, student-to-student teaching, private
music lessons with professional musicians, and space and
equipment for long hours of practice. Classes and rehearsals
are all paid for by the Venezuelan federal government and
not-for-profit entities such as the Fundaci´
on Musical Sim´
There is one caveat: all children who choose to be a part
of the system are required to act respectfully and through
their own self-discipline dedicate themselves to excellence.
Kids understand that everything here—the instruments, the
music stands, the teachers—everything is provided by the
Sistema. All we ask of them is that they learn to be disci-
plined, to be respectful. And to be excellent. (Lenmar Acosta
Caracas, n´
ucleo director, quoted in Tunstall 2012, 29)
Third, students are rewarded for their efforts at every stage
of their musical development, principally by meeting the
challenge of positively contributing to the performance of
progressively more advanced orchestral literature. All stu-
dents need to demonstrate complete dedication to the rig-
orous self-discipline of learning and performing classical
orchestral repertoire to remain in the program, and they are
only admitted to higher-level orchestras in “The System”
through effective personal practice and progressively more
competitive auditions.31
The policy of free public access to a music education sys-
tem in return for dedication to self-discipline and excellence
have fueled the growth and success of the system. However,
Abreu sees the growth of El Sistema as more than a music
education or a cultural achievement, proclaiming, “Our suc-
cess, and the fact that the government supported us, allowed
me to show the remainder of the country that an orchestra
could be an instrument for social change” (Tunstall 2012,
Social change is not an incidental goal of El Sistema’s
policy and practices. Two enduring core beliefs of the pro-
gram are that government should support music programs
based on open access and excellence, and that these programs
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will result in personal and social transformation of youth
through their participation in music education. Abreu suc-
cessfully procured funding for El Sistema through the
Venezuelan Ministry of Youth because he was able to per-
suade his political allies that there was a pressing need to
transcend the economic constraints that can limit the devel-
opment of children in impoverished families through music.
Later on, Abreu used his position in the Ministry of Culture
to support the establishment of the new Center for Social
Action Through Music, an innovative conservatory of music
based on the principles of orchestral immersion learning that
became the new home of the Sim´
on Bol´
ıvar Orchestra.
A Policy of Acquired Expertise in the Context of
Social Action
Thus the policies of El Sistema demonstrate how an equi-
table acquired expertise policy–driven program can work. In
El Sistema, there is no mention of the word “talent” with
respect to the students who begin the program. There is no
initial audition, just an invitation for participation. All chil-
dren get the same resources, and all children who put in extra
hours of practice may have the opportunity to audition for the
highest levels of ensemble performance within the network
of orchestras.
This policy of inclusion—supported by plenty of incen-
tives to learn with others and plenty of expert coaching to help
students face the complex challenges of performing classi-
cal repertoire—also requires that those leading the musical
ucleos differentiate instruction and musical tasks according
to every child’s technical progress and insist on collective
performance across all ages and levels of expertise. This pol-
icy of both inclusion and excellence results in what Coyle
and Syed refer to as “hothouse” conditions for establishing
the social and personal learning skills necessary to sustain
every child’s self-esteem as a learner and a citizen in the
musical community.
Because they are beginners we have made them a very simple
part. But they will be able to play in any orchestra along
with the more advanced players when we have our concert.
Because what we are really working on is their self-esteem.
And when they play together with everyone, they feel they
have a place. They feel valuable. (Rafael Elster, quoted in
Tunstall 2012, 33)
The leaders of the El Sistema n´
ucleos explicitly require
all students to develop a sense of civic engagement and so-
cial responsibility by embracing the rigors of disciplined
personal practice, the interpersonal dynamics of playing in
an instrumental ensemble, and the responsibility to build
a dynamic learning community. The idea is that growth in
musical expertise—no matter how small the first steps are–
—will inevitably result in an enhancement of these young
musicians’ family and civic life. And because El Sistema is
driven by open-ended acquired expertise policies that make
no assumptions about innate talent, this system requires, as a
matter of course, that all students invest in an extreme amount
of hours of arduous personal practice and ensemble rehearsal
to remain with the program.
An Open-Admission Music Education Policy that
Provides All Children with the Opportunity for
Ten Thousand Hours of Personal and Ensemble
It’s hard what we are doing but it’s not complicated. This
is simply what happens when you give attention to kids,
five hours a day, six days a week. (Rafael Elster, quoted in
Tunstall 2012, 34)
The quotation here is not an exaggeration of the actual op-
portunity given to all students to acquire substantial musical
expertise early in their life. While U.S. public schools now
spend an average of 1.5 hours per week on music,32 the El
Sistema programs in Venezuela routinely require thirty hours
a week of lessons, classes, and orchestra rehearsals. Thus, as
illustrated in Table 2, it can be said that students who choose
to take advantage of El Sistema study policies will have the
opportunity to develop musical expertise, while U.S. children
who depend solely on the hours of music provided by public
school instruction will not.
This immense discrepancy in hours between these two
publicly supported programs explains why El Sistema youth,
according to reports from virtually all who observe their
concerts and rehearsals (Tunstall 2012), are far more likely
Comparison of Venezuelan and U.S. K–12 Musical Education Policies, as Measured by Hours Students Typically Spend in
Musical Learning Environments
Estimate of program hours that the approximately 6 percent of Venezuelan
students who select El Sistema as the basis for their music education receive,
assuming that they remain in the program throughout all 13 years
13 years ×40 weeks/year ×30 hours/week 15,600 hours
Estimate of average hours of public school music provided to the 73.7 percent of
U.S. children who receive music instruction K–8 and enroll in music classes
throughout high school
13 years ×40 weeks/year ×1.5 hours/week 780 hours
Notes: Estimates assume that students are enrolled in school forty weeks of the year. There are no available statistics detailing dropout rates of students
from El Sistema, but it is entirely reasonable to assume that approximately 6 percent of school-age children in Venezuela participate in the program.
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to develop substantial musical ensemble expertise as com-
pared to U.S. students. Second, the exponentially greater
number of hours that students spend in ensemble and in-
dividual practice also explains why students, families, and
teachers participating in Venezuela assume that all children
can develop substantial musical skills if they fully participate
in El Sistema, while children and youth in U.S. public school
music programs are likely to believe that musical expertise
emerges for only a relatively few students who receive extra
music education support within the means of their families
or through the generosity of private foundations that allow
them to spend more time on rehearsal and personal prac-
tice. The more hours spent on music skill development in
Venezuela also makes it more likely that strong social bonds
among the students will emerge during these long periods
of study. Finally, this discrepancy explains why this open-
admission music program, which insists on self-discipline
and long hours of participation, inevitably has a transforma-
tive impact on children’s social and personal lives.
A System of Public Policy Shaped by Abreu’s
Life Experience
Jose Antonio Abreu is the founder and spiritual leader of
El Sistema; Abreu’s prot´
e, Gustavo Dudamel, is now a
world-class conductor who leads the Los Angeles Philhar-
monic Orchestra and is considered the embodiment of the
principles of the system itself. Out of the context of El
Sistema, both would nonetheless have been considered exam-
ples of extreme musical talent. In the context of El Sistema,
however, they both serve as exemplars of the development of
acquired expertise, coupled with a strong commitment to the
social values of teaching and community-building through
In Abreu’s own words, it is clear that the development
of El Sistema is rooted in the same musical training that
led to his own accomplishments in advanced musical and
academic studies. Abreu then used his ability to synthesize
his experiences to go on to a career in government, culture,
and education.
Precept by precept, it is instructive to see how Abreu’s
life experiences led to the creation of El Sistema as a “human
development project.” Abreu drew upon his early musical ex-
periences to develop five philosophical stances that became
the foundation of El Sistema. Each of these stances, as re-
vealed by his memories of his past teachers’ instruction and
the impact of that instruction on his fellow students, formed
the underpinnings of his philosophy of musical development
that has shaped the policies of El Sistema in Venezuela.
1. Focus on Developing Expertise in Multiple Music
Performance and Literacy Skills
The development of substantial musical expertise and mu-
sical literacy skills is essential to the preparation of students
for advanced musical studies of classical orchestral music.
Piano and solf`
ege are two of the most common forms of this
study and are often included in El Sistema practices, espe-
cially as training advances. Two of Abreu’s most prominent
former students, David Asconia and Gustavo Dudamel, tes-
tify to his extraordinary level of expertise in music reading
and score analysis. Dudamel, who admired Abreu’s conduct-
ing skills as a student, reminisces:
I remember thinking that the knowledge of Maestro Abreu is
infinite. It’s impossible to say how big it is. His memory for
details! His ability to memorize a score! I was very inspired
by this. (Tunstall 2012, 114)
David Asconia reports on the unmistakable evidence of
musical expertise demonstrated by Abreu’s ability to per-
form, comprehend, and reflect on new compositions:
I once saw a young composer bring him a new orchestral
score. The maestro looked through the score for a few min-
utes, then went to the piano and played through it flaw-
lessly, making comments about it as he played. It was
unbelievable—he could play any piece of music he saw in-
stantly. (Tunstall 2012, 110)
Evidence of Abreu’s far-ranging comprehension of music
and its connections to other disciplines also surfaces in his
teaching, as reported by Asconia:
He taught me not only about piano, but everything about
music: history, aesthetics, mythology. He would surround the
music I was playing with books and art. When we studied the
Jupiter Symphony, he would talk about what was happening
in history when Mozart composed it. (64)
El Sistema’s practice, drawn in part from Abreu’s training,
aims to provide music education in an authentic, rigorous, and
multifaceted way. By blending intensive training in literacy
skills with comprehensive knowledge of orchestral literature,
El Sistema provides a basis for a lifelong love of learning
through music for every member of its program.
2. Create an Open, Resourceful, Collaborative, and
Emotionally Supportive Music Learning Environment
Although it is surprising to many, Abreu’s ideas about his
music education system did not come from participating in
youth orchestras, but instead came from his experiences in
his piano teacher’s studio. According to his interviews with
Tricia Tunstall (2012), Abreu’s teacher Doralisa Jim´
enez de
Medina continuously rearranged musical works so that every
student could engage in complex musical repertoire at his
or her own level of musical technique or understanding—a
principle played out in virtually every El Sistema n´
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My earliest musical memories are of my piano lessons....
[My teacher] had the gift of adapting her teaching to each
student. I loved Mozart particularly, so she started me on a
Mozart sonata almost as soon as I could play a scale. (Abreu,
quoted in Tunstall 2012, 53)
Furthermore, Jim´
enez de Medina’s music atelier featured
seven pianos, which ensured that orchestral adaptations for
piano could be performed at all levels simultaneously. From
Abreu’s perspective, these massive piano ensemble experi-
ences provided an optimal condition for collaborative learn-
ing combined with the joy of playing.
Abreu recalls, “She would go from student to student, and
impart her teachings to each student” while “students worked
with each other and taught one another” (Tunstall 2012, 53,
59). This was no ordinary piano studio. It was a unique op-
portunity to learn music beyond the scope of conventional
instruction. This commitment to arranging complex music
for a piano “orchestra” composed of musicians at very differ-
ent levels of technical skill no doubt inspired the El Sistema
approach to youth orchestra development practices that are
employed today.
My teacher arranged many of the great musical classics es-
pecially for us.... She made two-piano arrangements of all
the great sonatas, so two of us could play them together. And
of symphonies, she made arrangements for three, four, five
pianos. I remember the Jupiter Symphony arranged for seven
pianos! And every part was written specifically for the tech-
nical ability of each student. It was a great happiness for us.
(Abreu, quoted in Tunstall 2012, 54)
It most certainly takes an enormous effort to rearrange and
prepare a large repertoire of complex works in the context
of collaborative learning that aims to serve multiple levels
of expertise. For Abreu, this approach made an indelible im-
pression. Not only is orchestral repertoire incorporated into
all levels of the El Sistema program today, but the influence of
this practice has also become a hallmark of the Sim´
on Bol´
Conservatory of Music in Caracas. This conservatory oper-
ates under a different precept than traditional conservatories:
it emphasizes ensemble and collaborative practice as the pri-
mary goal of its curriculum. At this conservatory, the group
learning orientation begins at El Sistema and remains a pre-
dominant mode of teaching and learning at the highest levels
of conservatory training.
El Sistema also recognizes the essential role of individual
practice, which undoubtedly contributed greatly to Abreu’s
rewarding musical education by developing his technical ex-
pertise on the piano. Thus, the policy of blended practice—in
which socialized group and individual practice are in good
balance—becomes part of the optimization process of ac-
quired expertise through deep and deliberate ensemble and
individual practice.
3. Ensure Optimal Learning Opportunities for
Economically Disadvantaged Children
Abreu’s teacher demonstrated that scaling the price of mu-
sic education to the means of each student in no way com-
promises the quality of the learning environment. Instead,
those who couldn’t afford the price of lessons were also the
hardest working and most appreciative of their experience in
the piano studio:
Her students were mostly poor and middle class...and those
who couldn’t pay... came for free. The loneliest children
looked forward to lessons the most; it was their time to feel
the happiness, and the possibility to expand, that they could
never feel at home. (Tunstall 2012, 54)
One of Abreu’s most famous sayings, “Culture for the
poor must never be poor culture,” undoubtedly draws on
these early experiences. Thus his corollary statement—“The
poorer the community, the more you must aim for the high-
est level of artistic excellence” for all children—becomes a
matter of advocacy for spreading the wealth of a rich mu-
sic education to economically disadvantaged children. That
is, the true value of a high-quality music education program
is measured by its impact on those who otherwise would
have no access to it, and recognizing that helping these same
children to attain the very highest standards of music edu-
cation is the best indication of its success. Clearly, the fact
that El Sistema youth orchestras outperform peer organiza-
tions around the world, as is reported repeatedly in Tunstall’s
Changing Lives (2012), suggests strongly that a policy that
provides high-quality resources for underserved children can
be linked to unanticipated levels of excellence.
4. Blur the Lines between Individual Practice and
Community Performance
The fervor created by an El Sistema n´
ucleo concert comes
both from children preparing orchestral music passionately
for audiences who have a vital stake in the children’s evolving
expertise as musicians and from the success of the program
performance objectives as an agent of social change in the
community. Creating orchestras that act as learning commu-
nities throughout the whole process of rehearsal empowers
the children not only to engage in music for thirty hours a
week but also to understand that the performance of music
is an affirmation of their community action and a natural
consequence of their personal human development through
Abreu mentions that the natural unfolding of performance
that he witnessed in his early piano studio experience later
became an extremely important tool for advancing the policy
of El Sistema through constant demonstrations of its success
to his government sponsors.
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We performed all the time. We performed because it was
someone’s birthday, or because it was some holiday. We
performed on Friday because it was Friday and on Saturday
because it was Saturday. Only later did I come to understand
that she invented all those occasions, as a way to help us
lose stage fright and relax in performing. So we were always
playing for each other and for other people, always enjoying
it. (Abreu, quoted in Tunstall 2012, 54)
5. Aim to Expand Human Potential through Music
Abreu’s personal evolution drew on his positive experi-
ences in musical development, starting with his first lessons
on piano. He discovered what it was like to be a part of a
musical community that overcame the economic constraints
of his peers and the joy of social learning not usually asso-
ciated with piano instruction. By adjusting to differences in
students’ levels of expertise while creating a community of
high-quality musical experience, the culture of music learn-
ing succeeded without presumptions about individual talent.
For Abreu, this environment eventually engendered the im-
pulse to create new education policy based on the impact that
music education had on his successful career:
The way that I learned piano marked me forever. I never had
the pressure of a severe, hard music master on my back. My
teacher taught me the feeling of music as part of community
life and as a fountain of joy. And when I left Barquisimeto to
pursue my education in Caracas, that feeling is what I took
with me. (Abreu, quoted in Tunstall 2012, 55)
Abreu’s interdisciplinary education, which began with
music, prepared him for a successful career in several dis-
ciplines. His eventual leadership in the field of music edu-
cation policy could never have happened had he not spent
many years also training to eventually become a world-class
economist. He graduated summa cum laude in economics,
was awarded a Ph.D. degree in petroleum economics at Uni-
versidad Cat´
olica Andres Bello, and pursued postdoctoral
studies in the United States at the University of Michigan.
After participating in the Congress of Venezuela as a deputy
in the Chamber of Deputies, he worked as a professor of
economics and law at Universidad Sim´
on Bol´
ıvar, where he
later created the Center for Social Action. Along the way, he
studied and taught oratory and, as mentioned before, contin-
ued to develop a very high level of expertise in piano, organ,
harpsichord, and composition.
The hours of time and practice Abreu spent developing
expertise across many disciplines were crucial to his pursuit
of the goal of expanding opportunities for disadvantaged
children through the music education policies he created.
The success of his policy also created new levels of expertise
at the highest echelons of orchestral music, as embodied by
his prot´
e Gustavo Dudamel, who is leading the effort to
expand El Sistema youth orchestra practices in the United
The Acquisition of Extreme Expertise in the
Context of Youth Orchestra Immersion
Abreu designed a socially driven music education model
in which the development of world-class musical ability is
revealed to be the product of a considerable amount of delib-
erate and deep practice, a positive mindset for learning, and a
vision of his future life in music that began at a very early age.
Gustavo Dudamel, mentioned previously as Abreu’s prot´
is at present the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
and the figurehead of the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles,
as well as the most prominent example of highly developed
musical expertise directly associated with El Sistema.
Like the many others who have succeeded in developing
extraordinary musical expertise, Dudamel reaped the benefits
of a high degree of musical activity at a young age. Both par-
ents in his middle-class family were musicians, completely
committed to Dudamel’s music education. Dudamel listened
to live orchestral performances when he was still a baby. As a
toddler, he often pretended to play his father’s trombone and
spent many hours conducting his action figure toys while lis-
tening to classical music. His father played with a symphony
orchestra in Caracas, and his mother sang in choirs and was
the librarian at the local conservatory. As Dudamel describes
it, his early childhood was a time when “to play music, to
hear music, to be surrounded by music—it seemed as natural
as breathing” (Tunstall 2012, 21).
Young Gustavo began his formal musical training at an
El Sistema n´
ucleo that operated inside the very house where
Abreu took piano as a child. Dudamel’s studies included flute,
voice (solf`
ege), and piano, and eventually he took up the vi-
olin in a learning atmosphere in which “everybody played,
everybody sang.” The mindset of becoming a lifelong mu-
sician was established early on in his musical development,
and his hours of social and independent practice accumulated
Films of Abreu conducting the National Children’s Or-
chestra provided something particularly motivating for Gus-
tavo: he now realized what the highest level and emotional
intensity of youth orchestra performance could be, and he
watched the founder and leader of El Sistema conducting in
ways that he had never imagined possible. One day it hap-
pened that Abreu came to the Barquisimeto n´
ucleo to listen
to Dudamel’s orchestra perform. He was so impressed with
Dudamel that he immediately offered to personally guide his
music education. At the age of sixteen, Gustavo became con-
certmaster of the National Children’s Orchestra and began to
study with the master violin teacher of El Sistema, Jos´
e Fran-
cisco del Castillo. Next, Dudamel took the next step in his
musical development, moving from his role as first violinist,
by taking on the musical leadership of the entire orchestra
and acquiring expertise in conducting:
Watching Abreu conduct, that was the best possible school
for conducting I could have had. And soon he said to me,
“Okay, you are my conducting pupil now.” And I worked with
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him every day and when I was eighteen I became conductor
of the orchestra. (Dudamel, quoted in Tunstall 2012, 22)
Dudamel never separated his individual success from the
social dimension of his music education that Abreu had cre-
ated and embodied. He claimed that when Abreu was teach-
ing music, he was also always teaching the social values
that are embedded in the acts of learning, performing, and
teaching music. And although Dudamel enjoyed the benefits
of mentorship with world-class conductors such as Daniel
Barenboim, Clauddio Abbado, and Simon Rattle, he nonethe-
less credits El Sistema as the basis of his success and returns
to Venezuela often to conduct its youth orchestras, no matter
how busy his professional schedule becomes.
Looking backward from Dudamel’s current stature as a
world-class artist, we can trace his trajectory from the initial
supportive conditions and mindset of his musical childhood
to his intensive participation in an open-admission, immer-
sive, and yet merit-based system of music training. Next,
we find his highly socialized immersion into high-quality
orchestral music and the intensive guidance and mentorship
of world-class musicians and educators. This is El Sistema’s
recipe for the highest levels of acquired expertise, mirroring
fully the genesis and trajectory of Abreu’s career in music.
As a policy for music education, El Sistema aligns it-
self with the ideals of human development through music,
whether for the sake of supporting government policy lead-
ership or artistic excellence, or for the relatively humble
purpose of being part of “The System” for the greater good
of every child who participates in it.
Unlike Suzuki and any number of sequenced teaching
methods, El Sistema resists overspecifying the choice and
sequence of repertoire. Rather than franchising and standard-
izing teaching methods such as Yamaha programs, El Sistema
teaching practices vary considerably from site to site. What
is paramount to El Sistema’s large-scale dissemination of its
practices is the explicit focus on the principles of equity and
excellence through the pursuit of musical human develop-
ment. The program’s strategies are socially and aesthetically
significant: seek ways to provide a challenging music edu-
cation to all, ensure that there are intensive hours available
for private practice and collective immersion in high-quality
music from the start, and teach resourcefully and eclecti-
cally with attention to the differentiated support conditions
necessary for each child to prosper in “The System.”
El Sistema requires that a sustained policy of government
support exist in order to adhere to its principles of developing
musical expertise in young children as prescribed here, yet
Abreu nevertheless emphasizes that “El Sistema is not a sys-
tem, it is a project of social action” (Tunstall 2012, 172–73).
This music education program does not depend on one for-
mula for its success. When Abreu inspires his emissaries to
create n´
ucleos in other cities, he warns them that “there is
no system.... I want you to go all over Venezuela and to
create a small chaos that will eventually lead to order” (174).
This is not a glib or facetious statement, nor is it an attempt to
dismiss the need for clarity of method or purpose. It is instead
a call to action for artists, teachers, administrators, parents,
and students to see the “System” as an infinitely adaptable
model for public education policy, an idea that Abreu asserts
is “continually being reimagined” as it is actualized, through
“a highly dynamic balance between constancy of purpose
and flexibility of means” (175).
Yet, even after thirty-five years, El Sistema is a program
that, at present, only serves roughly 6.25 percent of school-
age Venezuelan students in any given year and is virtually
nonexistent in Venezuelan public schools. Is there a possi-
bility that this model of after-school music education can be
adapted to in-school music education policies?
The Development of Innovative Acquired
Expertise Models of Music Education Policy
for U.S. Schools
For American school communities, El Sistema–like models
of music education have inspired the development of many
after-school programs, most of which are sponsored by not-
for-profit cultural organizations such as professional orches-
tras, community orchestras, youth orchestras, choral soci-
eties, and other arts learning organizations that sometimes
have partnerships with faculty from institutions of higher
education. As of yet, none of these after-school programs
has elevated its practices to the level of public school policy.
The adaptation of an El Sistema–inspired acquired exper-
tise program—one that allows for open instruction and wide
access—for public school policy is rare.
A Public School Laboratory for Learning in and
through Music in Boston
A prime example of an acquired expertise model of music ed-
ucation policy is the creation of the Conservatory Lab Charter
School (CLCS). The mission statement of the school states
the premise for creating a state-funded K–5 public school
that is accountable for providing an intensive, comprehen-
sive, and interdisciplinary study of music that is required for
all children who apply and are chosen by lottery to attend
that school:
The purpose of The Conservatory Lab School is to provide
an opportunity for any inner city school child to achieve the
highest standards of academic achievement in the context
of the continuous and comprehensive study of music. This
public school is not intended to serve a limited population of
musically gifted children, but to provide a learning commu-
nity where all public school children will have a chance to
learn academic skills in conjunction with developing musi-
cal listening, performance, composition, and literacy skills.
Based on a growing body of research which suggests that
achievement in reading, math and science is enhanced dra-
matically through association with the continuous study of
music, this school will provide a model learning community
in which music is used to transform even at-risk children
into high-achieving learners, parents into effective partners
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in both academic and music learning processes, and teach-
ers into action researchers and collaborators who will work
with highly experienced consultants and interns to design a
fully accountable “music-centric” elementary school curricu-
lum that is adaptable to other public school settings. (Scripp
Though the charter for this school was awarded to the CLCS
Founding coalition in 1998, it was only one of three initiatives
developed by members of the New England Conservatory
community that year to bring high-quality “music plus music
integration” programs to public elementary schools.
First, under the supervision and guidance of Provost Alan
Fletcher (at present the president and CEO of the Aspen
Music Festival and School), Scripp and his colleagues created
a music-in-education program at New England Conservatory
that provided preprofessional preparation for NEC students
as “artist-teacher-scholars” to contribute to music education
partnership programs with schools dedicated to the serious
study of music and its integration across the curriculum.
Second, under the guidance of Dean Mark Churchill—
now founding director of El Sistema USA—Scripp created
a research and development center now incorporated as the
nonprofit Center for Music-in-Education to study the trans-
formative impact of learning through music as demonstrated
throughout a newly formed national network of “learning lab-
oratory” school partnerships. Both of these initiatives were
supported by federal FIPSE (Fund for the Improvement of
Postsecondary Education) funding that continued for twelve
Third, with virtually no prior knowledge of El Sistema
at that time, a small coalition of NEC Music-in-Education
faculty and administrators proposed the Conservatory Lab
Charter School as an experimental K–5 model of music-in-
education practices to study the impact of an intensive, com-