If the New York Times shuts down, at least I won’t have to respond to mind-numbing items like David Brooks’ April 30 peroration, “Genius: the modern view.” Aldous Huxley’s wife Laura infamously said that her husband looked like a stupid man’s idea of what a clever man must look like, and Brooks’ definition of genius is what a stupid man thinks a smart man must be like. Mozart was nothing special as a boy: he just practiced more than everyone else. Mediocrity looks up through the clouds and catches a glimpse of Mozart and says, “My kid could do that.” Not.
In the view that is now dominant, even Mozart’s early abilities were not the product of some innate spiritual gift. His early compositions were nothing special. They were pastiches of other people’s work. Mozart was a good musician at an early age, but he would not stand out among today’s top child-performers.
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. Mozart played a lot of piano at a very young age, so he got his 10,000 hours of practice in early and then he built from there.
So what? There have been hundreds, perhaps thousands of child prodigies who can reproduce the tricks that made Mozart famous as a child. But no musician besides Mozart has ever written an operatic ensemble in which each of several performers sings a contrasting, characteristic melody simultaneously, fitting together in perfect counterpoint, as in “Don Giovanni.” Verdi tried this in the Quartet from “Rigoletto,” without the same success.
People who know nothing about classical music, which takes some training to hear, assume falsely that tricks of technique and ear-training define genius. If that is so, Brooks insists, any child can do this. In fact, there are nearly forty million piano students in China and lots of them look like what David Brooks thinks is genius.
The latest research suggests a more prosaic, democratic, even puritanical view of the world [writes Brooks]. The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It’s not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.
It’s true that advanced musical skills can be taught to a large number of children, but talent is more important than this account suggests. Most children resist musical instruction at a young age, because it makes no sense to them. A small minority enjoy it sufficiently to work hard at it. Talent helps children to work.
That is secondary, though: no amount of practice will produce a great work of art. No one will care who Tiger Woods was a century from now. But they still will remember Mozart. Creative art, Nicolas of Cusa wrote in the 15th century, arises from “participation in the mind of God.” Brooks and the brain scientists will not come up with a better explanation.