A beginner bassist's foray into the unknown

New Scientist – The Secrets of Success (1/2)

Small warning – this post is about both child-rearing and learning music. Readers might need to skip around if they’re less-interested in one than the other.

About 2 weeks ago, I chanced upon an article in a British magazine called New Scientist. The cover story was titled “The Secrets of Success”. The byline was “Why some people reach heights others can’t”. I was intrigued by the title – as a general curiosity and because our daughter is now 18 months old and I often think about what actions we’ll need to take as parents to give her the greatest chances of happiness and success in life.

Reading through the article though, I found that it also pertained very strongly to music, and to bass.

It opens with two different viewpoints on what it takes to achieve success. One is from President Obama, in which he acknowledges that “success in the US is now more dependent than ever on being born into wealth and privilege.” The other is from Boris Johnson, the mayor of London. He suggested that “Success is all about IQ,” and “all we can do is give the brightest kids the best chance to succeed.” So, essentially, this is the nature vs. nurture argument.


New Scientist contends that the ultimate formula for success is a blending of both – genes and environment. IQ, it claims, which measures innate intelligence, is malleable based on a person’s upbringing. They cite a study done by King’s College in London which basically concludes that in an equal environment, genes matter more. This is due to the elimination of parental wealth as a major variable.

The study finds that we should not necessarily allocate greater resources to a small elite. Children with the highest IQs aren’t necessarily the greatest achievers in later life. Studies are cited which tracked about 1500 children from the 1920s who had scored very highly on IQ tests. They had successful lives, publishing research papers, registering patents, writing novels, short stories and plays, and their median income was about 3X as high as the typical US salary. However, about 25% of them ended up in more mundane professions – as clerical workers, police officers, salesmen and craftsmen. They found that none of the group equaled the academics of Nobel laureates or the nation’s intellectual elite. Basically, IQ, when taken alone, was not a strong indicator of success. The study concluded that “intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated”.

I agree strongly with this conclusion, from personal experience. Several of the “smartest” or most-knowledgeable people that I know don’t do anything with their intelligence. They’re able to run circles around others in games of wit, and make for interesting conversationalists due to the breadth of their knowledge and ability to quickly bring interesting facts to bear and make surprising correlations between divergent topics, but they’re not doing anything special at work, are generally unhappy and aren’t all consistently-employed.

And, to bring this around to music a little, the majority of the musicians I’m acquainted with aren’t especially bright (that’s not a knock, its a general observation). I’d say most of them are of average intelligence, and some are of lower-than-average – unable to grasp certain concepts about time or space or mathematics. However, they all play their instruments better than I do – and most don’t know much about theory. Very few of them (maybe only one) read music.


Socio-economic status plays a strong role in achievement. The article says that poor children, with limited access to books and computers and who suffer from a lack of routine and parenteral attention had worse health and were more likely to perform poorly in school. This, of course, made adulthood harder. The article contrasts this with successful entrepreneurs, leaders and artists who grew up in more stimulating environments with a diversity of books and “inspiring meal-time conversations”. Children from emotionally unstable or broken homes were also found to start out disadvantaged, regardless of social background. They also exhibited behavioral issues and didn’t do well in school.

Edward Melhulsh, from University of London, studies child development. He warned that children under 5 who don’t receive “consistent affection and responsive communication from their parents or care-givers” suffer from impaired social and emotional development. A major casualty is their language skills, which he claims is a major reason why these children do poorly at school (and why I remember reading that pre-school was started in the US). He said that “Improved language development helps boost cognitive development, literacy and educational attainment as well as social skills”.

Ultimately, his study found that early education centers which combined parenting support, healthcare and learning, was beneficial to all children, and most significantly to disadvantaged children.

Practice (here’s where the music stuff really starts)

Now, with the above stated, and programs like Head Start available in the US, a psychologist from Florida State University named K. Anders Ericsson said “Cognitive ability and intelligence do not seem to predict individual differences in performance among skilled expert performers.” The article goes on to say that Ericsson and others contend that the accomplishments of master performers in many fields, including music (and also sports, chess and other disciplines that rely on memory) depend more on focused practice than innate talent.

I’ve read elsewhere, both online and in various bass books, that no matter how talented an individual is, with enough practice, more mundane players can reach the same levels as those who are born with ability. This is also where we cue the “10,000 hours” thing.


When we were first dating (today is our 14th anniversary of being a couple, BTW – 10 years of worrying about finances and stability and 4 years of tying the knot) wifey used to talk a lot about the virtues of “gutting it out” – especially when it came to school. I hated the idea of enduring classes that you have no interest in, when focusing on other tasks seemed more productive to me. The main topic we used to argue about was the approach of schooling in the US – in particular getting through general education classes in order to pursue what you’re really interested in learning, and about being a “well-rounded student” versus someone who’s interested in a field and zeroes-in on the skills and knowledge needed to get ahead in that particular field.

Our views haven’t changed – we now “talk” about this with regard to our daughter, who’s only now learning how to say things like “ball” and “Big Bird” and not concerned with what (if any) college program she should pursue to move into another phase of her life.

Anyway, according to the article, “certain factors appear essential for anyone plotting a path to the top, for instance you won’t get far without the ability to persevere and stay committed to far-off goals, or grit”. Angela Duckworth (that sounds like a name out of Ducktales!) from University of Pennsylvania, says, “Grittier individuals are more successful than others, particularly in very challenging situations.”

So what does that imply? The good old, “practice makes perfect,” of course. And then the extended “Perfect practice makes perfect,” which is the idea of practicing the correct things – correctly, otherwise bad habits are formed and/or time is wasted on non-essential or incorrect technique building.

This is something stressed everywhere when I read or watch bass materials. If you make a mistake, slow down and correct it, don’t reinforce improper technique or incorrect information or execution. But practicing alone isn’t everything – consistency and determination are equally important.



2 responses

  1. Pingback: New Scientist – The Secrets of Success (2/2) | Ugly Bass Face

  2. Pingback: The Amazing Human Musical Mind, Part 7 | Ugly Bass Face

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s