Monday, November 17, 2008

Re-telling the Mozart story

I spent this Friday night reading a book called Talent is Overrated, which I'm reviewing for The American (the fact that I spend Friday nights working should give you a sense of just how fun I am...) The book, by Fortune editor-at-large Geoff Colvin, bills itself as a look at "what really separates world-class performers from everybody else."

I won't give my overall impressions of the book since the review hasn't been published yet. But one thing I don't discuss much in the review is how Colvin retells the story of that quintessential child prodigy, Mozart. That's a part of the book that matters more to readers of Gifted Exchange than readers of The American, so I thought we should discuss it here.

As he writes, "Mozart is the ultimate example of the divine-spark theory of greatness. Composing music at age five, giving public performances as a pianist and violinist at age eight, going on to produce hundreds of works, some of which are widely regarded as ethereally great and treasures of Western culture, all in the brief time before his death at age thirty-five -- if that isn't talent, and on a mammoth scale, then nothing is."

But, as he writes, "the facts are worth examining a little more closely." The reality? "Any divine spark that Mozart may have possessed did not enable him to produce world-class work quickly or easily, which is something we often suppose a divine spark will do." Mozart began studying the piano and composition at age 3. He put in hours of practice daily, coached by his father Leopold, a composer in his own right and by all accounts a rather intense man. Leopold gave Mozart constant feedback, showing him exactly where he was going wrong, and having him study the intricacies of other composers' works. He studied these other composers so intensely that some of his early works hew very closely to previous works of the era.

We don't perform these works now except as curiosities because, frankly, they aren't that good. Mozart's first "major" work (defined by the number of recordings that exist now) is his Piano Concerto No. 9. He composed this work when he was 21. As Colvin notes, "that's certainly an early age, but we must remember that by then Wolfgang had been through eighteen years of extremely hard, expert training." A golfer who'd been training that hard, daily, since toddler-hood, would, at age 21 be... Tiger Woods.

In other words, as Colvin admiringly quotes critic Alex Ross, "Mozart became Mozart by working furiously hard."

It's an appealing way of retelling the story, in that it redefines the divine spark. It is not so much a gift, fully-formed -- it's a slight inclination and the divine gift of persistence (whether jump started externally through a coach like Leopold, or internally). Personally, I don't think this in any way changes the idea of how, ideally, we should educate talented children, even if "talent is overrated." When someone shows a slight gift at a topic, and an extreme interest in it, and the willingness to work furiously hard, we should do our best to nurture that. We should nurture those inclinations by accelerating the child until she has to stretch herself, and giving her the best coaching possible.

Unfortunately, we don't do that now, which may be why world-class performances are as rare as they are. We settle for gifted education which gives students 90 minutes of pull-out per week to study enrichment topics like origami or the culture of Japan. If the key to world-class achievement is "deliberate practice" -- hours of work shoring up your weaknesses and honing specific skills -- then we're about as far from efficacy these days as one could possibly be.


Siiri said...

i love your blog. i have a young gifted child myself and there are days i don't know what to do with her. Its shame that educational institutions don't really care or don't have time and resources. i feel that i have a jewel in my hand, but just having it is not enough. My guts tells me that i do have to work hard with her and let her work hard as well, not pushing but working. Developing her work habits. And with this story you proved me right. And Mozart and Tiger Wood are good samples as well. They both had dads who trained them early on.

Rosie Williams said...

I tend to be skeptical when authors draw conclusions about people who died hundreds of years ago to back up the views they hold today. Even if Mozart's earliest pieces were not as remarkable as his later ones I can't see how that makes him any less of a genius.

I think most parents of highly gifted children know the relationship between how gifted our children are and how much they want to practice their favoured skills. So it is not a matter of the practice leading to the talent but the talent leading to the practice.

Opportunity and education play a role as do social changes and history. Society obviously plays a part in deciding who they declare a genius and indeed who are the villains (great political leaders and political prisoners). You can not rise to eminence in society without the cooperation of a certain number of people.

However I don't think this means that the potential for this level of success is not an original part of the individual.