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Motivation outstrips talent

Nicholas Pyke reports from the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science

Children who seem to have no particular musical bent should be given more of a chance. Hard work and a willingness to shrug off failure are much better indicators of accomplishment on the piano or violin than musical ability, according to researchers at Keele University.

It is not innate talent but practice and strong motivation which are the keys to later success, said Dr Susan O'Neill in a paper presented to this week's annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Birmingham University.

She asked parents and teachers to avoid early, stereotyped judgments about who deserves the school clarinet.

Dr O'Neill's conclusions were based on a year's study of 51 children aged between 6 and 10. None had previously received formal musical training.

They were assessed for ability in pitch and rhythm at the start of the year and after 12 months were tested on the violin or piano by examiners from the Associated Boards.

The children had also been given a problem-solving test involving cards at the start of the year. And it was this that proved decisive.

"The card game demonstrated their ability to persevere when things became difficult," said Dr O'Neill."There were some who continued to perform well after initial failures, and those whose performance dropped. The ones who persevered made more progress in learning an instrument.

"There was no relationship between the measures on the musical tasks and the skill on instruments. The progress we saw was not the result of some special musical talent or ability. It was more to do with the amount of time they spent practising and to do with a motivational style which allowed some children to adapt better.

"I think the finding is very important because a lot of young children can be labelled unmusical and therefore not suitable to learn an instrument when in fact they are likely to succeed."

Parental support and good liaison with the music teachers also emerged as important. "The children who made the most progress had parents who communicated with their music teacher and vice versa. Some of the lowest achievers, unfortunately, had teachers who had never made contact once with the home."

Earlier research by Professor John Sloboda, also at Keele University, had also suggested that it is practice and the support of parents which make the crucial difference among instrumentalists.

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