Finsbury Park N4 piano teacher

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Piano progress is more a result of practice than genetics

But don't just play the same things over and over again!

Are some children born with natural talent at the piano? Or is the talent cultivated over countless hours of practice? Famous child prodigies such as the Classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart are often quoted as examples of the former, to support the theory that some children have a genetic ability to acquire musical skills that results in them performing and composing all by a very young age. After all, Mozart wrote his first concerto and gave his first public performance before he was ten. And the internet is awash with videos of three or four year-olds hammering out tunes on the piano. But does the genetic theory really hold any water?

The thinking of hereditary skills has influenced social thinking since the nineteenth century, when Francis Galton, half cousin of Charles Darwin, published his book Hereditary Genius. Galton aimed to demonstrate that skills were transferred from parent to child, and in his own words, that "a man's natural abilities are derived by inheritance, exactly under the same limitations as the natural organic world". Galton also claimed to have no patience with the idea that "all babies are born pretty much alike and that the sole agencies in creating differences are moral effort and hard work."

To put it another way, Galton believed you were born with a pre-determined level of ability.

An apple tree cannot aspire to be a great white shark, no matter how much training and hard work it does.

Galton spends a large proportion of his book using selected examples to explain his own hypothesis of transferred genetic ability. Just as his half cousin would go on to expound the theory of evolution, Galton's book reads like an On the Origin of Species but on the subject of skills and ability rather than physical characteristics.

It is worth noting, however, that Galton was not against the principle of hard work. In his book, he explains that hard work is still necessary, but only so you can live up to a predetermined potential.

Galton’s idea of a fixed, pre-determined level of ability still pervades many levels of modern society. We encourage our children to work hard and “live up to your potential”, to fully realise the ability they have inside them – to use a very cheesy expression.

But is ability really genetically pre-determined already?

Anders Ericsson, a psychologist, undertook an extensive investigation with two other colleagues at the Music Academy of West Berlin, studying three groups of violinists. The first were outstanding students, earmarked for solo performance careers; the second were on course for music careers but of less distinction, in orchestras, but not as soloists. The third were studying to be music teachers. The ability levels of these violinists were what separated them – the more skilled ones were the ones who would go on to solo careers, for example. Yet after hours of painstaking interviews, the research uncovered little differences between the students. Most started formal lessons at the age of around eight, decided on a career in music just before turning fifteen. They had an average of 4.1 music teachers and the number of music instruments studied beyond the violin was 1.8.

The only stark difference was that by the age of twenty, those in the first group, the excellent students, had accumulated two thousand hours more practice than those in the second group, and more than six thousand more hours than those in the last group.

It is practice, and purposeful practice in particular, that makes more of a difference than a pre-determined level of ability.

I write with my right hand. But I can write fairly decently with my left hand too, particularly on large whiteboards. Why? Or rather, “how”? I did not have a genetic level of ambidextrousness. None of my parents or four grandparents wrote using both hands, and if there were some resident gene lurking from further back, it must have been fairly dilute by the time it sidestepped my elder siblings and arrived at me.

When I used to teach in a classroom, the students sat in eight columns of five students each. And if I was writing on the extreme left of the board with my right hand, those seated at the right of the class would have their vision of the board obstructed by my body as I was writing, and would always have to wait a second or two for me to get out of the way. And if I was explaining while I was writing, that extra missed second of visual information could make a crucial difference in their understanding. So I learnt to write on the left side of the board using my left hand, and I would write on the right side of the board with my right, to maximise the students’ view of the board. The left hand writing is not fantastic and the quality is distinguishable from my normal right hand, but it reflects the amount of time I have spent writing with my left hand.

With my right hand, I can also write upside down. I can also read a text upside-down. Now I think it is fairly safe to say that we can downplay the role of any genetic ancestral ability in this area. When I sat facing a student at a desk, and got them to correct their English compositions, I found that a lot of time was wasted if we had to flip the book backwards and forwards. So I learnt to read and write from the perspective of the student opposite me. I had lots of practice reading and writing upside down.

It is practice that leads to mastery of any skill.

We can quote many examples of children whose parents only spoke their native language who go on to learn the language of another country they may have migrated to. If skills are genetically acquired, how is it that children whose ancestors are not pre-disposed to language learning, only speaking their own language, go on to master other languages?

Hereditary factors have nothing to do with it. Practice does - but practice has to be focussed.

If someone says “I was revising at the library for two hours”, but this time was broken up by distractions of friends and phones, the quality of revision would be different from the effort of someone else who was undistracted for the whole period.

But even if the second kind of study method can be improved.

We practice to improve our skills. And in the course of practice, the effort must stretch us slightly, so that over a period we end up at a further stage than we were.

Take for example these three piano students.

Peter is sat at the piano for twenty minutes, but while he is there his concentration is distracted by the TV playing in the background.

Mary practises for twenty minutes, going over the three pieces four or five times each. If she makes a mistake she goes back to the start of the line and plays again.

Paul also practices for twenty minutes. Today he starts practising the three songs from the middle portion of each song. On another day he might do the ending first. But he always spends one practice doing the songs as they are written.

Today, Paul is going to practise each song four times but differently each time; right hand loud and the left hand soft on the first playing, and right hand soft and left hand loud on the second playing. On the third attempt he is going to do one of the hands staccato (detached) and one legato (smooth), and reverse them on the fourth. And on other days he might do the expressions not as they are written, but opposite to what is indicated in the music.

Traditionalists may say that of the three, Mary is getting the best form of practice. But this is not necessarily the case. When Mary has mastered her pieces, it will have come from practice, yes, but also from familiarity with the music, and there will come a time when playing the same songs over and over again does not improve her ability. Her progress will plateau.

Paul, however, is extending himself over each practice by giving himself different mental and physical demands.

The only problem is that we are going to listen to Paul at the piano and think he is mucking about, because on some occasions he may not produce the tuneful, polished performances we associate as having arrived at from good practising.

We may listen to Mary play Fur Elise over and over again and while it sounds nice she may not be extending herself. She is playing “safe”.

If you were training to run a marathon, would you run 26.2 miles three times a week? Probably not, because even if you could find the time and inclination, running the marathon distance three times a week doesn’t really teach you anything beyond apart from completing 26.2 miles.

But let’s say you want to run it. Sometimes you would run long distances slowly (unfortunately termed LSD – “Long Slow Distance”), sometimes you would do half-mile sprints. On some occasions you might run up hills again and again. On others you might go to the gym and lift weights. Or do yoga and improve your flexibility. These are a range of activities all focussed to the task of making you a better runner, rather than doing the same thing over and over again.

This is what focussed practice is. It is a bit of an oxymoron – focussed practice involves variety, but focussed to making your ability better.

Returning to Mozart – how did he become so good, so fast?

Mozart’s father was himself a musician and author of a treatise on violin playing. Young Mozart already had countless hours of listening to and internalising the structure of music, and he was also put through many hours of musical practice by his father (although historians are mixed about the kind of influence Leopold Mozart had on his son – some see it as oppressive). But Mozart did not spend all his time playing on instruments, he learnt about music theory from copying manuscripts and study. He did a whole range of musical activities.

We could go on for hours rationalising about the reasons behind Mozart’s ability, but what are the productive points we could take from these?

Your ability at any skill, including learning the piano, is not genetically pre-determined. Reason such as “I come from a non-musical family” are excuses we use to justify a lack of persistence and effort.

It’s similar to people saying “I’m no good at Maths” and using it as an excuse to avoid learning and stretching themselves - preventing them from improving their skills by stopping at the first hurdle. You would be better if you could take the time to learn.

To be good at any skill, do a good amount of good-quality practice. And what is good quality practice? It is practice that stretches you and allows you to grow in your ability.

And if you were aiming to learn the piano – the next post will show you how to draw up what would count as a good quality practice schedule.

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