Book review: Talent is Overrated



I recently finished reading a book by Geoff Colvin that tried to explain what enables someone to become world class in their field, whether it be music, business or sport. Written by Geoff Colvin, I was initially put off by a quote from Donald Trump on the front cover! Seeing beyond this, what followed was an interesting take on how to excel on your instrument. Looking  at successful people from all areas of society, the main premise was that talent wasn’t the factor, but that hard work was the key to achieving in any field.  With studies in relation to musicians it was how much they practiced, with examples from studies on how on average it took twelve hundred hours of practice to reach grade 5.

Colvin dispels the idea that factors we can’t change determine our ability or future ability in a domain. Whether it be genetic or our memory or IQ, he argues that people are not born with a gift, that it is instead hard work and practicing in the correct way that results in high levels of performance.

In relation to music this raises the question of if you are going to work really hard at practicing, what do you practice and how do you approach it? This is where deliberate practice comes in, the idea of tailoring your practice routine to your specific needs. This could be as simple as a guitar player being aware that they struggle with playing in time and that they then devise a specific plan of exercises to work improve this element of their musicianship. This goes back to something I blogged about last year; focussing on your mistakes and practicing what you are weak at, rather than doing more of what you can already do. Colvin summed up deliberate practice as:

‘Deliberate practice is characterised by several elements, each worth examining. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it is highly demanding mentally…and it isn’t much fun’

Whether it is fun is open to debate! I find repetitive practice fun and always vary how I practice things to ensure this. For me the most important aspect is how specific a practice session is at addressing a player’s areas for improvement.  He goes on to add how the greatest performers are able to ‘isolate remarkably specific aspects of what they do and focus on just those things until they are improved; then it’s onto the next aspect’.  In relation to the guitar this could be something as small as how you hold your plectrum, how you fret notes that cross strings or how you pick scales. Once an area is identified it then comes down to a lot of repetition with a specific focus on those weaknesses. This is only useful if you are observing what you are doing, rather than just merely repeating something.  Recording yourself or asking for your teacher’s or another musician’s opinion could help here.  Mindless repetition isn’t what we’re after, the deliberate element of the practice is focusing on specific ways of doing something. This kind of practice requires a tremendous amount of concentration. Colvin found that top violinists could only sustain 3.5 hrs a day of this kind of practice. With the guitar, muscle memory is a blessing and pain, it can lead us into mindless practice and repetition of an exercise.

Colvin goes onto add that ‘ultimately the performance is always conscious and controlled, not automatic’. This is where the word deliberate is important, mindless repetition isn’t guaranteed to help, as you might be repeating something incorrectly! Instead, repetition should be done with constant adjustments and feedback to yourself on the technique/ passage you are trying to learn. With music this might be something physical like the angle of your wrist, or the timing or a new technique. Recording yourself or filming yourself practicing could be a good option here. Colvin argues that those that go onto perform at exception levels have a a stronger sense of perception and make finer discriminations to improve on the finer details. This a presumably a result of habitually practicing in this way.

How could you employ deliberate practice?

  • Identify practice goals (this could be improving specific weaknesses or an achievement like a grade or performance).
  • Work these goals backwards e.g. what practice activities will you need to achieve them?
  • Work on what you can’t do. Practice things in different ways.
  • Practice consciously, giving yourself constant feedback/ self observation(try not to let the feedback be overly positive or negative, instead, be objective/factual)
  • Continue to develop your knowledge of the instrument (this could be harmony, repertoire/ listening/watching other guitar players).
  • Remember that any top players within the field will have put in the same kind of hard work that you’re going to have to do.

Overall, I agree with Colvin’s stance on practice, it is comforting for a beginner to know that sheer hard work and will power can put them on the right track to being accomplished at their instrument.  This one quote really stood out to me:

Auer: ‘Pracitice with your fingers and you need all day. Practice with your mind and you will do as much in one and a half hours’.

This links back to the argument of quality over quantity. For me practicing with a high level of conscious self observation/feedback is essential.  Is it time to spring clean your practice routine?  I better get back to my own practice…..