Bittersweet Distractor

at the intersection of music and psychology

How to become a good musician

I’m currently reading David Brooks’ The Social Animal, which presents an interesting look at how our social networks determine who we are.  Here is an excerpt that I found interesting:

In 1997 Gary McPherson studied 157 randomly selected children as they picked out and learned a musical instrument. Some went on to become fine musicians and some faltered. McPherson searched for the traits that separated those who progressed from those who did not. IQ was not a good predictor. Neither were aural sensitivity, math skills, income, or a sense of rhythm. The best single predictor was a question McPherson had asked the students before they had even selected their instruments: How long do you think you will play? The students who planned to play for a short time did not become very proficient. The children who planned to play for a few years had modest success. But there were some children who said, in effect: “I want to be a musician. I’m going to play my whole life.” Those children soared. The sense of identity that children brought to the first lesson was the spark that would set off all the improvement that would subsequently happen. It was a vision of their future self.

This finding definitely makes sense. Goals – and prospections of ourselves achieving them – are key to proficiency in any arena. And it’s not enough for these visions to be about gaining recognition or awards; they need to be visions of achievement (e.g., imagining going up to the stage to retrieve your Grammy won’t be as effective as imagining yourself writing that Grammy-award winning hit). If you don’t aim for excellence, don’t worry: you will succeed.

The one piece of information that I would have liked to know about this study, however, is how old these kids were. Very young children don’t have a very sophisticated idea about the future, so I doubt that it would occur to them to say, “I want to play my whole life.” And parents often encourage kids to start playing instruments even before they show any interest in wanting to learn. I used to play the piano, and I regret now that I stopped playing. Even if my plan was never to become a musician, it would be a wonderful skill to have, especially given my overwhelming enthusiasm about music. The reason I quit (and it’s shady to piece together my reasoning retrospectively, I know, so bear with me) is probably that I had to whittle down the number of activities that I took part in, and piano-playing was not an activity that offered many short-term rewards. And at that young age, of course I was only thinking about short-term rewards in my activities. Academics were the important thing; extra-curricular experiences just took up my free time and stimulated my mind. But if you grow up in a household/culture in which music is considered important, and being a good musician is an identity that one must strive to have, then you may end up practicing more and becoming more proficient. And having the identity of “musician” does not preclude ownership of other identities, such as “student”, “lawyer”, “mother” and “wife”.

So, if you want to learn music, then tell yourself that you’re going to be a musician. If you want to dabble in writing, tell yourself that you’re going to be a journalist or a novelist. I wouldn’t be surprised if that strategy – making a hobby into part of who you are – helped you to excel.


June 3rd, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments