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 [1].  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.


Ericsson points out that there were a particular and unique set of circumstances that allowed Mozart’s musicality to flourish.


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.


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.


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.

[1] Peak, secrets from the new science of expertise (2016). Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. Bodley Head, London.

This post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart, Director and co-founder of The Curious Piano Teachers.

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  1. Gay Jacklin GTCL (Hons), LTCL, PGCE

    It is nice to hear the Trinity syllabus highlighted as superior to ABRSM. I am biased! I trained at Trinity in the 1980’s, and my musical education was exceptional. I usually suggest my pupils take Trinity exams.

  2. Philippa Rose. ARCM. ATCL Musicianship.

    I used to work in partnership with the National Gifted Children’s Association about 20 years ago. Children there just loved their particular subject so much that they congregated on every Sat. all day near North Kensington in a school dedicated to lend free their classrooms for all kinds of subjects. I taught piano there for a few years until I moved to far away. Michel Hambourg was my mentor for many years and put my name forward to teach there. It closed down many years ago, I think due to what pc would called being ‘elite.’ Children who love their subject prosper quickly and happily outstripping their peers who only get the one piano lesson or instrumental lesson per week. We do not take culture of the classical kind seriously anymore. It is all pop and football and iPhones. Children now spend the average of 4 hours per day texting/listening to pop/ gossiping to friends etc. etc. That time used to go on hobbies. Brownies/Guides/scouts/instrumental lessons etc. Also the ABRSM still have 144 scales and arpeggios etc. for Grade 5. as they have done for over 30 years. ( Grade 8 is a Nightmare scale/arpeggio mountain without any knowledge of what they are therefore compositionally. Now youngsters may have as much as 11 different subjects for GCSE and the boards are all different too. I changed to Trinity 20 years ago because there very few scales and arpeggios – instead they offer some very useful studies instead which tackle difficult/different technical problems. Many teachers especially school teachers I know are still wedded to ABRSM. and so we have less and less children interested in taking grade 5. They usually drop out at 4. or turn to film scores and more user friendly music they hear everyday like Adele etc. There is some lovely music that is written for film and I teach it – Theory of Everything. Titanic etc. etc. This then keeps them at the piano enjoying music they know and hear around them. Finally, there will always be a tiny percentage of young children – myself who fell in love with the piano at 5 years old and became a prodigy. Prodigies are not born they just love their subject. I was the youngest child only 6 years old giving my first concert of the whole book of Burgmuller Studies at the Royal Academy of Music and studied with Harold Craxton and a Russian teacher at home called Madame Biek from the Moscow Conservatoire. Presently I teach composing and all my pupils take the composing option that they offer in the Trinity syllabus. Grade 8 included just this December with only one mark lost. I have had children win and get the highest marks for their own work – they love their own work. I took a Diploma at Trinity College in the 1980’s when I was in my 40’s to be able to teach young children from 5 years old improvisation and composition, not just piano from eyes glued to the score, scared stiff of memorising. This improves their total understanding of how music is made and the structures you can use using ALL the notes on the piano from the very first lesson. All the great composers always studied composition alongside playing as you well know. Our ABRSM has been the death knell of classical music and creative work. I find from my daughters books that it is also full of Jazz options too now!!! What will they offer next to keep their multi dollar industry going. When I took an exam it was an honour and you had to be a certain standard to even be considered to take one at the RAM in the 1950’s. England is so far behind as Fanny Waterman quoted – and I know her well – ‘The last Leeds had no pianist good enough to enter our Leeds competition I am ashamed to say.’ – that tells it all…. Our Festival Hall has all kinds of pop culture and Jazz etc nowadays otherwise I expect it would have to close down – apparently the audience for classics is called the grey brigade. In Berlin their famous Concert Hall programme is still completely classical!!!! What is happening is so very sad indeed…… The ABRSM has a lot to answer for – it is a Dinosaur…… It’s in the training and students think because they can pass the teachers exam, they can teach 5 year old’s without any training…… Would we do that in Reading lessons at school. They just pick up a Me and My Piano and go from there!!! I use the Bastien series which is harmony based of course from the US team. I studied at Julliard with Adele Marcus in the early 80’s and that was an eye opener. The teaching was remarkable, so was she……

    I would like your views on the above if you have a moment. I love your pages….
    Anything I can do to help would be lovely……
    Best wishes
    Philippa Rose. ARCM ATCL. Diploma in Musicianship and Composition.

    1. Sally

      Thanks for taking the time to leave your thoughts and comments Philippa. I thought that you expressed the idea that prodigies develop because they love their subject very clearly! As I am sure you will agree the situation regarding the state of teaching is a complex one in the UK and ultimately we all have to take responsibility for it. Here at The Curious Piano Teachers we are trying to do our bit and it is reassuring to hear that you like what we are doing. I have written extensively about the roots of piano teaching in the UKy in the blogs A social history of piano teaching. Tracing it back it is possible to see that the graded exam boards are a product of the system. I believe that both have their strong points and their weaknesses. Regarding ABRSM I just want to point out a couple of things: the organisation is a charity and is answerable to the Royal Conservatoires. Any profits that it makes go to the Royal Conservatoires and I believe that this money is used to fund scholarship students who wouldn’t be able to otherwise afford the fees. Whilst I agree that in the past it has been slow to respond to the changing situation this is no longer the case. Michael Elliott was appointed CEO two years ago and since his appointment ABRSM is forging ahead with all sorts of exciting new ideas. It has become fully aware of the central role it plays in the musical life of the country and, as someone who is part of their Music Education Advisory Committee I know that it is fully committed to raising the profile of music and music education at both governmental and local level.


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