Practice Makes Perfect!

from “Examined life —What Stanley H. Kaplan taught us about the SAT,” The New Yorker, Dec 17, 2001

The great selling point of the SAT has always been that it promises to reveal whether the high-school senior with a 3.0 GPA is someone who could have done much better if he had been properly educated or someone who is already at the limits of his ability. We want to know that information because...... we prefer naturals to grinds: we think that people who achieve based on vast reserves of innate abilities are somehow more promising and more worthy than those who simply work hard.


British Psychologist John Sloboda

But is this distinction real? Some years ago, a group headed by the British psychologist John Sloboda conducted a study of musical talent. The group looked at 256 young musicians. between the ages of 10 and 16, drawn from elite music academies and public-school music programs alike They interviewed all the students and their parents and recorded how each student did in England’s national music examination system which the researchers felt gave them a relatively objective measure of musical ability. “What we found was that the best predictor of where you were on that scale was the number of hours practiced,” Sloboda says. This is, if you think about it a little hard to believe. We conceive musical ability to be a “talent”—people have an aptitude for music—and so it would make sense that some number of students could excel at the music exam without practicing very much. Yet Sloboda couldn’t find any. The kids who scored the best on the test were, on average, practicing 800% (eight hundred per cent) more than the kids at the bottom. ‘’People have this idea that there are those who learn better than others, can get further on less effort,” Sloboda says. ‘’On average, our data refuted that. Whether you’re a dropout or at the best school, where you end up can be predicted by how much you practice.”

Sloboda found another striking similarity among the “musical” children. They all had parents who were unusually invested in their musical education. It wasn’t necessarily the case that the parents were themselves
musicians or musically inclined. It was: simply that they wanted their children to be that way. ‘’The parents of high achievers did things that most parents just don’t do,” he said. They didn’t simply drop their child of at the door of the teacher. They went into to the practice room. They took notes on what the teacher said, and when they got home, they would say, ‘remember when your teacher said to do this and that.’ There was a huge amount of time and motivational investment by the parents.”

Does this mean there is no such thing as musical talent? Of course not. Most of the hard working children with pushy parents aren’t going to turn out to be Itzhak Perlmans; some will be the second violinists in their community orchestra. The point is that when it comes to a relatively well-defined and structured task, like playing an instrument or taking an exam—how hard you work and how supportive your parents are have a lot more to do with success than we ordinarily imagine. Ability cannot be separated from effort.

submitted by Jim Doyle

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