In the United States, there has been a strong push to reform our general education in recent years, with federal initiatives like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top capturing headlines as innovative ways to improve the worst-performing schools in our country. On the other extreme are teachers like me who are working primarily with students one on one in intensive hour-long lessons on a weekly basis to achieve the pinnacle of possibility. One thing that has always fascinated me is the question of talent: is it innate, or can one learn it? Many of my teachers have made statements such as “anyone can be taught how to play the cello, but there are some things that are innate and cannot be taught,” “That’s god-given talent” and so on. I have had the pleasure to work closely with many students over the past 13 years of my professional career in the Chiara Quartet. Some were beginners, some very advanced, some were considered prodigies, others were considered untalented by their teachers or their peers. In many hours of lessons with these students, I have found both cases that support and contradict this conventional wisdom.
After years of work as a teacher and an observer of my own improvement in areas such as music, chess, soccer, programming and writing, I have come to believe that there is a process by which all human beings are capable of speeding up the learning process to approximate what we think of as “talent.” In short: you can improve your talent. Lately, I have begun to actively implement these ideas in my own teaching with very interesting results. Before I continue, I should state the caveat that this is not a scientific paper, and all results are anecdotal. There are many resources available that address the question of how we learn, should you wish to examine the field further. I will only be speaking of my own experience as a teacher and as a learner. In addition, I am going to speak from the perspective of assuming some basic motivation is in place for the student, such that the student is at least attempting to improve already, and has no active animosity to learning the task. Developing a love for music is a separate but equally important part of improving, and I may blog about that in the future, as there are some ways to help that along, but it is one of the great challenges of education that I still find to be an unsolved mystery. Continue reading