It can be inspiring to watch a virtuoso play when you’re trying to learn to play an instrument. When Yo-Yo Ma plays his cello, there’s something magical in the performance that strikes a chord and makes you stop to listen.
But while Yo-Yo Ma is regarded as one of the most talented cellists of our time – and began playing early thanks to his great talent – he is one of many who would caution you against believing that talent is all it takes.
As he said in a 2016 interview: “When I talk to young people with extreme talent, I tell them, “When you’re excellent at one thing, you want to keep doing it, but after a while, that just doesn’t work. What is special when you’re seven is no longer special when you’re 30.”
“When I was a child, people said things to me I wish they hadn’t: “Oh, you’re such a talent, such a genius.” That’s dangerous, because it can overwhelm the decisions you make about yourself.”
Rather than rest on his talents, Yo-Yo Ma tells the interviewer that he trained and learned to dissect problems and indulged his hunger and curiosity for knowledge by going to college.
Learning to break down music into sections that you can more easily learn is also a key lesson that we teach in the Practice Music Right system, with drills and worksheets to make it easier for our students.
Talents versus Skills
A talent is a natural aptitude. Some musicians have a natural ear, and can hear even the slightest sour note. Others may have a natural rhythm or feel for how to manipulate their instrument.
A skill on the other hand is a learned ability – or even in some definitions a developed aptitude.
It can be disheartening when you’re first starting to learn to play if you see someone else in your music class able to pick up an instrument and play better than you. Some may have started learning earlier than you, and others may truly have a natural talent that they are just learning about.
But you don’t need to have a natural ability to have perfect pitch with your flute the first time you try – you just need to practice and develop that skill.
As Yo-Yo Ma and others have said, having the natural talent can even be a hindrance to greatness if you rely only on what nature gave you and neglect to develop skills to enhance your natural ability.
Musical talent and genetics
From an early age, our families may notice signs of innate musical ability. Anything from the ability to remember melodies to rhythmic tapping may have had your parents investing in baby pianos and ukuleles in order to give you an outlet for that musical inclination.
Thanks to scientific research, we don’t have to rely only on our assumption that some people seem to just know what to do.
In fact one Finnish study identified actual genes related to musical ability. Among people who were able to recognize pitch and other musical structures, they identified genes related to the reception of auditory signals in the brain and the region of the brain that connects memory and emotion to music.
But even among those with a real genetically suggested innate talent with music, the researchers found that “musical talent also requires exposure to music and that is where music culture has an important role to play.”
To become a virtuoso, you need not only talent but opportunity and hard work!
What it means to develop skill
Even if you’re just learning to play an instrument for the first time, it’s not the first skill you’ve ever learned. You may have experienced the work it takes to learn to ride a bike, or to sew on a button, or to cook breakfast.
Even learning to walk is a skill – and as your parents will likely tell you, not one that you learned overnight. It took months in which you first learned to crawl, then to put your feet under your body and find your balance before you could take that first step. Most humans have the natural ability to walk on our two feet, but skill is involved in developing the ability – and eventually running!
If you’re trying to learn a new instrument while you’re in school, you’re learning all the time. It may seem like learning an instrument is just another class to take or more homework to do and another test to prepare for. But it may be frustrating to learn to play music if you approach it as just another class.
For example, you may think of your chair tests and performances as your end goal. However, one tip to developing a skill is not to save up your best practicing for a “test.” Instead, try testing yourself throughout your study process. If you’ve just learned a new section of music or a new set of scales, test yourself in your next practice session rather than waiting for a tutor or music teacher to do it. Keep notes on what you’ve learned and quiz yourself in between big tests or performances.
In fact, there are studies that specifically show that cramming for a test is less effective than distributed practice – also known as spaced repetition. Spaced repetition is a key component of the Practice Music Right system, which will teach you how you can get the most out of every practice session and how to break music down into chunks that you can manage.
And the more your practice, the less hard your brain has to work and the more connections your brain makes, according to this excellent Lifehacker article on the science of learning new skills!
Is it too late to develop a musical skill?
While many musicians start to play an instrument in school, it truly is never too late to pick up a skill! You may be able to still exploit a latent musical talent, or develop one that you’ve never felt you had before.
“A lot of people believe the brain isn’t very plastic after puberty. In fact, the brain maintains its ability to change,” says Norman Weinberger, a neuroscientist at University of California Irvine who has done pioneering research on the auditory system and the brain, in an interview with NPR. “Is it as easy to learn something when you’re 65 as it is at 5? No. But can it be done? Yes.”
As an adult, you may bring decades of music appreciation and understanding of hardwork and practice to bear on learning to play an instrument. And learning to play an instrument at any age can yield benefits for the brain!
There are now pages and pages of results in your phone’s app store for apps and games to help your memory and brain, but science suggests that learning a musical instrument is one of the best things you can do for your memory. From school-age through to advanced age, a wide-range of studies shows structural differences in the brains of people who play music versus those who don’t.
While you may not become famous, developing any skill is a good use of your time. And you never know, don’t forget that influential jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery famously didn’t pick up a guitar until he was married and in his 20s!