Sunday, May 3, 2009

Mozart, Genius, and Practice-Practice-Practice

Consider Mozart, who wrote his first symphony in utero and performed in his own rock opera at age five months, changing his own diapers (admittedly with mixed results) between acts. Clearly this is genius personified.

Not so fast, writes NY Times columnist David Brooks. Those early compositions of his were strictly kid stuff, and his performing skills as a child prodigy are highly over-rated. The Mozart you encounter in concert and opera halls is the product of an adult mind honed to a fine creative edge through years and years of unstinting effort.

Writes Brooks:

“What Mozart had, we now believe, was the same thing Tiger Woods had - the ability to focus for long periods of time and a father intent on improving his skills.”

Rather than some mystical divine spark or high IQ, genius may be as mundane as practice-practice-practice. Citing two new books - “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle and “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin - Brooks says it helps to have some kind of adult role model as a kid, say a novelist living in your town. Then you might dare imagine yourself writing your own masterwork. Armed with this ambition, you would start reading novels and literary biographies and thus attain a core knowledge of the field.

Mind you, it doesn't hurt if you have a bit more going for you than Lennie in "Of Mouse and Men."

Anyway, here you are - somewhere north of Lennie and south of Einstein - slowly building up your body of knowledge. Next thing, you're engaging in the intellectual equivalent of playing with your food, moving ideas around, divining patterns (excellent for the memory), and otherwise thinking like a novelist.

Then practice-practice-practice until your mind turns labored conscious skills into effortless unconscious ones. But the mind is sloppy, Brooks advises, and tends to settle for good enough. So, you practice your routines slowly. You break down your efforts into tiny parts and repeat-repeat-repeat until the brain internalizes a better pattern of performance.

At the right time, a mentor steps in who provides feedback, corrects your tiniest errors, and pushes you to tougher challenges. By now, your brain is programmed to understand and solve future problems.

According to Brooks, the primary trait is not genius. Rather, “it is the ability to develop a deliberate, strenuous and boring practice routine.” The hard wiring of our genes plays a part, but Brooks concludes, “the brain is also phenomenally plastic. We construct ourselves through behavior. As Coyle observes, it’s not who you are, it’s what you do.”

So back to Mozart. According to critics, as reported in Wikipedia, Mozart composed his "breakthrough work," his Ninth Piano Concerto, when he was 21. The concerto has been assigned a "Kochel listing" of 271, which implies a vast body of work that fell short before the composer hit his stride. Practice-practice-practice.

But for Mozart, good enough was not good enough. After forming a friendship with Franz Joseph Haydn and developing an appreciation for the Baroque masters, Mozart did the equivalent of changing his golf swing, which set the stage for the transcendent pieces by which we know him best.

"The Marriage of Figaro", "Jupiter Symphony", and his "Requiem" - among many others - are the work of a man in his thirties.

In short, geniuses are made, not born. Or are they? Certainly others have labored as long and hard as Mozart only to become industrious drudges lacking that - ahem - divine spark. Think Salieri.

So why don't we forget about outcome - we can't control whether we will end up geniuses or not. But we can control process - the art of constantly challenging and reinventing ourselves through practice-practice-practice. Do we have it in us to become Mozart? Who knows? Can we fashion our modest talents into something more formidable? Chances are you're doing it right now.

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