Are Virtuosos Born or Bred? New Paper Renews Debate Over Practice

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Piano lesson (Noam Armonn/Shutterstock)

For the past 20 years, some psychologists have made an appealing argument: that it's possible to achieve success or expertise in your craft by putting in lots of practice time. It's a nice idea: work hard enough and you have a shot at becoming, say, a great violinist. But this is an active debate among psychologists, and a new statistical analysis of 88 studies suggests that the exact opposite is true: that success mostly reflects other factors, like innate talent.

The new meta-analysis finds that practice only accounts for only about 12 percent of performance differences across all areas of expertise. For games like chess and scrabble, practice mattered the most (26 percent). In music, it was less important (21 percent). In sports, it accounted for 18 percent and in education, four percent.

This week's podcast features a debate over the findings of the new meta-analysis. Our guests are:

  • Dr. Brooke Macnamara, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University and one of the three co-authors of the analysis. The paper appears in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science.
  • Dr. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University. He authored a pivotal 1993 study which found that made a strong case for the importance of practice in determining success. It has been featured in best-selling books such as Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and David Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us.

Segment Highlights:


"We concluded that deliberate practice is undeniably important – it's just not as important as proponents of the deliberate practice view have claimed." (Deliberate practice is high-quality practice, and often refers to one-on-one lessons in which a teacher pushes a student continually.) "Basic cognitive abilities, other types of experience such as competition experience, the age at which a person begins their training, and personality factors are all likely to play a role above and beyond deliberate practice alone."


"When I looked at the studies that Dr. Macnamara included, virtually none of them had training that was individually supervised by a teacher. It's interesting that our original study, when they analyzed it, they found that 80 percent of the variance was explainable by practice, but they decided to throw out that observation because they claim that it was an outlier."


"We actually did not throw out the 1993 study. It came out as a statistical outlier so we curbed it down a bit. Even if we look only at the studies where Dr. Ericsson is an author, the overall amount of variance comes out to about 10 percent."

Weigh in: How much do you find practice matters in achieving success? How much do other factors play a role? Listen to the segment above and share your comments below.


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Comments [16]

Scott Taylor from NY, NY

The classic nature/nurture debate applies to all areas child development and the study of music is no different. Children require guidance from their teacher, support at home to form healthy practice habits and effort to put in the hours required to build musicianship and technique. And different aspects of musical training come more easily to some people and less easy to others. Whether or not a student ends up pursuing a musical career, the purpose of musical training is not only to produce virtuosos, but also to expose students to the world of creative expression and develop a life-long love of the arts. In my role here at Lucy Moses School, a community arts school in NYC, we strive for both rigorous music training and fostering a love of the arts.

Jul. 30 2014 02:22 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Sure a lot of hard work is involved but there is someone up there, who looks down on us and says, "You, you son of a b---h,(or daughter) I will bless you." The Lord God has a sense of humor.

Jul. 29 2014 03:13 PM
Ed Lubin from Florida

Who doesn't want to earnestly believe that if you put in your 10,000 hours you'll be a virtuoso, whether in music, or any endeavor for that matter? What might be hard to accept is evidence that something innate, hard-wired, or uncontrollable is really at the heart of true talent and success. It's a blow to an egalitarian ideal of reward for hard work. The end of this type of research and debate should not include resignation. Let's keep plugging away at it!

Jul. 28 2014 09:05 AM
Dean Chambers from Oakland Calif

Well, I definitely think the greatest musicians have to be born, if you look at much of the contemporary artists who are truly great and have revolutionized music they are musicians who are self taught, they rarely know how to read music. True they play a lot because they enjoy music, and I think they allow themselves to explore, practice helps. Basically I think people are born with perfect pitch, perhaps you can improve here but not to the extent a truly gifted person will advance. Let's consider, Jimi Hendrix, Sly from Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, the list goes on, none of these people couple read music or studied composition?

Jul. 28 2014 03:52 AM
Howard Aibel

Just ask the most famous pianist in the world, Lang Lang how important it is!
Everyone has talent to a degree. How that talent is developed does depend on how hard a student works, under who's guidance, and the desire of the student !

Jul. 26 2014 03:16 PM
notsofast from Upper West Side

This is an extraordinarily stupid debate. These people have too much time on their hands. And who's funding this so-called "research"?

Jul. 25 2014 10:28 PM
Emily White, piano faculty, Special Music School from New York

Time is important, but there are many functions served by musical repetition toward the attainment of goals that are more efficiently managed by a compatible mentor than by hours of isolated discipline: first, the decoding of notation, the tightening or loosening of strict rhythmic pulse, the incremental building of speed and note articulation, and the solution of the spatial-muscular problems associated with the instrument; but later, the exploration of sound colors and the communication of the world-view and psychology of a composer, the use of imagination and taste in portraying the composer's theoretical style, and the simmering of meditative processes that will give authority to a performance. A teacher's pedagogical lineage and personal attention can affect the progress of a student as much as the expenditure of time, shaving hours off the excess hacking mistakenly called practice and interspersing moments of leisure and reflection in order to foster meaningful, healthy playing.

Jul. 25 2014 08:05 PM
Edward Scheier from Somerset NJ

The following are attributes of great musicians. An exceptional ear, a great sense of rhythm,great musical memory, excellent finger dexterity and reach, a natural emotional connection to the music. Some of us are born with some of these gifts. A very few people have all or most of them. Without these natural gifts( with lots practice) you might become a competent musician, but you'll never be soloing at Carnegie hall.

Jul. 25 2014 07:39 PM
George from NYC

Hmm... Here we go again... There are SOOOO many sides to this issue, but I, being a musician, and having taught myself and other musicians, must come down on the "deliberate practice" side of the argument.
But I do NOT concur with the "10,000 hour rule" either. That, too is somewhat of a misconception.
I would say to Robert from NJ above, that my observation is that we are "wired", if you will, to find pleasure and joy in truly learning anything - especially physical/motor skills, the more intricate the better!
So if you are not enjoying yourself as you learn and acquire skill through practice, then something is wrong - either the methodology or the teacher or SOMETHING..
Case in point - your ability to understand read and converse in the English language is undoubtedly more complex than ANY virtuoso skill on an instrument. And yet you were already sufficiently competent as a kid - without hours and hours of "practice".
Yes - practice - But make sure you are doing it right so you get somewhere!

Jul. 25 2014 06:45 PM
robert jahnke from Bergen County, NJ

I guess I could go on and on about my experience in picking up (finally) the guitar in my late teens. And I also believe I speak for many male boomers who tried their hand(s) at something so inspiring to many of us during the good ol' 70's. After a disastrous start in trying to learn from a very 'talented' friend of mine, one who was more adept at the keyboards and yet taught himself to play guitar, I found a very good instructor/player in mid-town and got started. Starting at point zero, knowing nothing, he got me going in th right direction with a bunch of chords and basic music reading and I progressed slowly for three years before losing him as an instructor and letting the instrument go when I found it hard to find a good replacement teacher.
In short I believe my problem was, even though I practiced pretty hard for those years, was that I simply did not enjoy practicing. Sure, I learned quite a bit in three years and playing along with records was fun but just not enough fun. I was always a good athlete and never had to work very hard at picking up a new game such as tennis or skiing, and I thought learning the guitar would be similar if I just put the energy into it. Wrong.

Jul. 25 2014 12:01 PM
MusicDoc from NJ

Isn't this the old discussion of nature vs. nurture; Darwin's study of natural selection?
The true virtuoso/virtuosa has reached the pinnacle of their art form by both means. Without the hours of practice can the most gifted accomplish anything?
Advice to all: simply purchasing an instrument but never practicing it will not make you a virtuoso! :=)

Jul. 25 2014 10:17 AM

Any particular individual won't know about how far he/she can go unless he/she tries. Of course, all things being equal, trying to reach the top 1% has a 99% chance of failure, so as always, trying to reach the top 1% is taking a huge risk. There is no shame in trying and failing; and I hope the society and economy supports various levels of accomplishment - we encourage risk-taking and striving for excellence by making the cost of failure not be excessive.

Jul. 25 2014 07:40 AM
Lyn from NJ

My former clarinet teacher, Mr. Sidney Forrest (NSO) insisted on "PERFECT practice makes perfect". This focus made a huge difference in my ability as a musician and as a private instructor and public school educator. It wasn't necessarily the amount of time put in but the quality of your practice time. Finally, at age 31, I became a more accomplished musician under his tutelage and practicing correctly I made significant progress as a performing musician. Maybe this needs to be taken into account also.

Jul. 24 2014 10:10 PM
Shirley Kirsten from Berkeley, CA

Dr. Ericsson is correct, without a doubt. Quality of practicing is critical.. and mentors who nurture high standards of practicing with a student from a young age are a big factor in seeding a virtuoso. LANG LANG is a case in point of SUPER INTENSIFIED practicing.. Lang Lang's father actually could have been a deterrent re: the dysfunctional relationship he had with his son. Lang Lang is a super talent in re: musical and coordination gifts. This discussion re: music is ridiculous if these meta analyses discount the type of practicing Ericsson has singled out. (with the understanding that those who practice intensively have certain gifts that are not shared by a majority of the population.) I will be blogging about this and gathering the opinions of well seasoned piano teachers. I find the hypotheses of the Millennium researchers to be superficial and of little value where musical virtuosity is concerned.
They are beating up the wrong path...

Jul. 24 2014 06:39 PM
shirley kirsten from Berkeley CA

To become unusually adept at playing the piano, for instance, requires intense, almost obsessively driven, detailed, finite, and minute practicing of high quality over decades. Having innate coordination skills is also pivotal, because musical expression has an athletic component. Being cognitive, musical, coordinated and having consistent DRIVE to excel are YES essential ingredients to achieve virtuosity. As a long time music teacher, and performer, I'm speaking from first hand experience. Starting to play a musical instrument at a young age, and having lessons with a SKILLED mentor are obviously critical factors in developing and nursing along excellence to the supreme level of virtuosity.
Yet being a virtuoso in and of itself does not guarantee public recognition or success as measured by a glittery career in the arts. (That's a whole different discussion)

Jul. 24 2014 05:28 PM
Mindy from NYC

How do you gt to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!

Jul. 24 2014 04:21 PM

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