Are You an Amateur or a Pro?

The other day I read an article called, Pushing Past the O.K. Plateau, and was especially struck by this quote from Joshua Foer: “Amateur musicians, for example, tend to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros tend to work through tedious exercises or focus on difficult parts of pieces.”

Here’s a fascinating paragraph that directly precedes the above quote:

“Psychologists used to think that O.K. plateaus marked the upper bounds of innate ability. In his 1869 book “Hereditary Genius,” Sir Francis Galton argued that a person could improve at mental and physical activities until he hit a wall, which “he cannot by any education or exertion overpass.” In other words, the best we can do is simply the best we can do. But Ericsson and his colleagues have found over and over again that with the right kind of effort, that’s rarely the case. They believe that Galton’s wall often has much less to do with our innate limits than with what we consider an acceptable level of performance. They’ve found that top achievers typically follow the same general pattern. They develop strategies for keeping out of the autonomous stage by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented and getting immediate feedback on their performance.”

I love the conclusion that author of the post, Sarah Harris, draws: “With the correct approach, with feedback, and diligence in repeatedly practicing the hard parts and the areas in which we are the most likely to fail, we can go far beyond what initially appears the limits of our potential.”

This whole topic is incredibly interesting and thought-provoking, both on a personal level as a pianist and on a professional level as a music teacher. The main thrust of the article is obviously in reference to memorization, but I’m interested in its application to acquiring skills in general. If you read the article, I would love to know your thoughts on this. Have you experienced yourself pushing past the O.K. plateau? What did you do to reach a higher level? How have you helped students move past an “acceptable level of performance” to greater achievement? Do you think all students should be encouraged to strive toward this higher level?

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