Happy Birthday Mozart!
This year is his 261st birthday and his music and story continues to inspire and delight people all over the world. Many of us have been brought up with the idea of Mozart as a young child genius, with an exceptional gift that only a few are born with. Is this really the case though? It appears that it might not be.Professor Anders Ericsson, the world’s leading researcher into deliberate practice, examines the evidence into Mozart’s exceptionality in his recent book, Peak . He presents a compelling case for how Mozart’s ‘gift’ developed. Ericsson does know what he is talking about; his research is at the heart of the 10,000 hours theory. The premise of the theory is that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert at a skilful activity such as becoming a concert pianist or becoming a top-level athlete.
WhAt lies BEHIND MOZART’S EXCEPTIONALITY?
Ericsson points out that there were a particular and unique set of circumstances that allowed Mozart’s musicality to flourish.
#1 HIS FATHER
Leopold Mozart was a musician and set himself the job of raising his two children as child prodigies. He dedicated his life to this and developed his teaching skills to support his goal. Leopold wrote the first music training book for children.
According to Ericsson, all really exceptional children have parents who have decided to dedicate much of their time to helping their offspring develop.
#2 HIS SISTER
Nannerl, Mozart’s sister, was four and a half years older than Wolfgang. Mozart would have heard her working away and practising from the moment he was born. Like a lot of siblings he would have wanted to copy what his big sister was doing! By the time Nannerl was 11, she was already fully proficient at the keyboard and able to play far better than many adults. What’s more, she was Leopold’s testing ground for his teaching ideas. As a result, by the time he taught Mozart he’d tested and refined many of his approaches.
Again, Ericsson points to several similar cases, the Williams sister for one, where the younger child outstrips the older one.
So Mozart was born into a family where music was forever present; he had a dedicated father to teach him and a sister to inspire and motivate him. Furthermore, Leopold built on his experience of teaching Nannerl and had already started teaching Mozart by the age of four. He made sure that Mozart learnt the violin and the keyboard but also got him to copy, analyse and write out pieces by other composers. The apprenticeship was extensive and deep with no area left unexplored.
The result? By the time Mozart was 6-7 years old he had already clocked up many thousands of hours of practice and was astounding audiences with his playing ability and perfect pitch.
THE GIFT WE ALL SHARE
Ericsson doesn’t dispute that Mozart was indeed born with a gift.
[Mozart] was endowed with a brain so flexible and adaptable that it could, with the right sort of training, develop a capability that seems quite magical to those of us who do not possess it’.
But he suggests that Mozart’s gift was not the exceptional, one-in-a-million one that is often assumed. Instead he maintains that the evidence is strong that all of us have highly adaptable brains and, given the right conditions, all sorts of things are possible. For example, a systematic research study in 2014 actually developed perfect pitch in 24 otherwise non-exceptional children. They were all between the ages of 2-6 and were involved in an intensive regime of listening for 12-18 months.
Our gift as teachers is to recognise the learning potential of all our pupils. We can start to lead the way in dismantling the myth of ‘talent’. We can create a rich and stimulating learning environment through teaching in engaging and creative ways.
That way our pupils benefit but I suspect our brains will also gain from the mental nourishment.
 Peak, secrets from the new science of expertise (2016). Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. Bodley Head, London.
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