We’ve all seen people that astound us with their abilities. Considering we’ve just had the Olympics and we’re in Baltimore, Michael Phelps comes to mind. It’s common when seeing these amazing abilities, people react by saying that they’re “gifted” or have a “gift.” Ericsson, the author of Peak, agrees that these people do have a gift. But it’s not the gift that most people assume!
To make his point, Ericsson uses Mozart and a recent study performed in Japan as an example. Mozart possessed absolute pitch (often referred to as perfect pitch), an ability where a person can remember and identify a single pitch without any reference to another pitch. It’s a relatively rare ability, so rare that it is perfectly reasonable to assume that some lucky people are just born with this rare gift. Indeed, this was the general consensus concerning perfect pitch for the last few hundred years.
Yet, a study conducted in Japan in 2014 directly refutes this idea. A Japanese psychologist studied 24 children aged two to six years old. He devised a simple system designed to teach them to have absolute pitch. I won’t get into the details of the system or the study too much, but the result was that at the end of the training with the children, every single one of them had developed absolute pitch (this is why the development of aural skills especially in younger students is such an important part of our teaching philosophy). Thus, it can’t be an innate ability that a person is born with if every single child can be taught to develop it!
So, to get back to the opening, Ericsson writes that there is a gift, but it’s not the gift that we assume. He writes: “In short, perfect pitch is not the gift, but, rather, the ability to develop perfect pitch is the gift – and, as nearly as we can tell, pretty much everyone is born with that gift.”
The rest of the book goes on to describe the implications of this idea beyond just perfect pitch. After researching expertise for over thirty years, Ericsson has found that everyone is born with the ability to develop skill as long as they go about it in an effective way. This has huge implications for how we understand concepts like talent and also for how parents might raise their children. It’s also why Sarah and I know that each and every one of our students has the potential to play with artistry and ease. I’ll continue blogging about Chapter One and “purposeful practice” in the next couple of weeks.