Parental Education and Peak/By Patrick

           Over the past two years, Sarah and I have been brainstorming about what we can focus on in our studio to help our students reach their highest potential.  One of these is parental education.  We are committed to cultivating intelligent musicians with the help of supportive and helpful parents.    

            In particular, I’m hoping to contribute to parental education by using this blog space to discuss one important book each semester.  The parents in my studio will be invited to read the book along with me and contribute to my blog posts with their own comments and insights.  The books that I choose will sometimes deal with music, but will more often delve into broader issues of education and parenting.  I’m proud that the first book that we will read as part of this parental education program is Peak by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. 

            Peak is different from other books that I’ve read in my time studying pedagogy.  While many of the books that I've read are filled with anecdotes and pseudo-science, Peak is based on research.  And the implications of this research are truly encouraging.  Peak makes me excited to be a teacher and I can’t wait to convey the important findings in it to the parents in my studio. 

            Anders Ericsson, the author of Peak, is a psychologist at my alma mater, Florida State University.  He has spent the last thirty or so years studying a new academic area that he calls the “science of expertise.”  If you could boil down his research into one statement that defines this burgeoning field, it would be something like “innate talent doesn’t exist.”  In other words, no one is born with exceptional skills in certain areas. 

            Well, you might be saying “what about those prodigies that I’ve seen on TV or read about in books?”  Excellent question!  Ericsson debunks this idea using perhaps the most famous example of a prodigy: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  If we look more closely at Mozart’s actual biography (and not just the mystique surrounding his genius), the picture is not one of innate talent but one of consistent, systematic, and deliberate training. 

            Mozart’s father, Leopold, wrote one of the first treatises on violin playing and he had practiced his teaching skills extensively on Mozart’s older sister, Nannerl.  So, by the time Mozart was three, Leopold began teaching young Mozart full time.  By the time Mozart was six or seven and performing for kings and emperors, Ericsson estimates that Mozart had probably accumulated several thousand hours of musical practice. 

            Ask yourself: do I think I could develop significant skill in an area if I spent several thousand hours practicing it?  The answer for almost everyone is “yes,” which is why I found Peak so uplifting!  As Ericsson explains, the secret to acquiring skill isn’t innate talent but how much time you spend doing what he calls “deliberate practice.”  With enough good training, anyone can become an expert.  I’ll be blogging more about Peak and deliberate practice in the coming weeks as Sarah and I get ready to start our first semester here in Catonsville.