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Graft, not gift, ensures musicians' success

Teachers must broaden own musical knowledge to recognise talent in all pupils, not just the brightest

Teachers must broaden own musical knowledge to recognise talent in all pupils, not just the brightest

Success in the world of music is largely about hard work rather than innate ability, suggests an award-nominated research paper.

The "gifted" musician is widely dismissed as a stereotype by those who might be described that way, and one which holds back children with less obvious talents. Musical ability is "perhaps more accessible than society realises", concludes Glasgow University's Angela Jaap.

She drew on interviews and questionnaires involving 62 of Scotland's leading musicians, across genres as diverse as pop and classical, as well as focus groups with 14 pupils at one of the four Scottish schools deemed a musical Centre of Excellence.

The professional musicians - chosen partly on the basis of high record and ticket sales - never believed "giftedness" was the sole reason for superior musical ability. Some were uncomfortable using the term, particularly those in pop, jazz and traditional music; classical musicians were more likely to describe themselves as gifted.

Responses also suggested that any innate attribute was not music-specific, but a more general aptitude for self-motivation.

One traditional musician said: "(I am) a bit talented, but mostly hard- working. Discipline and application have been more significant than any great talent in my development."

A classical musician said it was "curious" when people assumed they did not have to work at their talent: "Talent will not survive on its own. It takes careful preening and preparation. You should consider this as a gift to be polished in order to truly shine."

Pupils, similarly, thought they were different from their peers in that they had the right attitude for, and interest in, musical learning. They believed musical ability could be created.

One said: "I think some people are genuinely gifted (classical composers like Bach) . but myself and most people I know are just ordinary people who love something, so have chosen to work hard at it."

Previous research has suggested that, while skills such as pitch retention and singing can be spotted at an early age, a pupil who enjoys experimenting with music can go unnoticed.

"I think it's harder to recognise the sort of talent that I seem to have," said one classical musician, who felt that schools should be searching for a "particular keenness, application or obsessiveness about music", rather than merely picking out the brightest pupils.

Ms Jaap, a PhD student who trained as a secondary school music teacher, believes identifying musical ability demands "more sensitivity than a paper and pencil examination".

Teachers should broaden their own musical knowledge and "learn to expect the prospect of high ability in uncharted waters".

Ms Jaap's paper was nominated for the 2009 Estelle Brisard Memorial Prize, run by the Scottish Educational Research Association to recognise outstanding work by researchers early in their careers.

Judging committee chair Ian Menter said she had articulated "very important messages for the wider professional community", in an accessible way that showed "even relatively small-scale doctoral research can effectively challenge stereotypes and assumptions that we may hold".

The winning research paper, on research training in collaborations between universities and the life-science industry, was by Edinburgh University's Kuang-Hsu Chiang.

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