by Michael Grey.
Piping Today #84, 2017.
Anyone who uses Facebook will know that from time to time there are interesting bits of information that break through the often unfiltered cringe-making that is the backbone of social media. And so it was last week, smashing through a sea of humblebragging, narcissism, neediness and sanctimony (and pictures of food) – some likely of my own making – came Helen Keller. Her name is one from days gone by but like most great examples of humanity, Keller’s, I think, is one still generally known.
Helen Keller (1880-1968) was an exceptional person in almost every way. She lost her sight and hearing before the age of two. But with the help of family, good people and skilled clinicians, she would live a long life as not just an educator but one of the last century’s leading humanitarians. In fact, she was co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union.
It was on Facebook where I happened on a short (and rare) video film clip from the 1930s of Keller with her famous teacher Anne Sullivan, demonstrating how Keller learned to understand words, and how she came to find a way to express herself. I was fascinated. The footage got me to thinking of ability, talent and that near age-old argument: nurture versus nature; that is, are our individual behavioural qualities driven by our genes alone or do our personal experiences dictate who and what we are?
Science has studied the idea for almost forever; and by that, I mean an awfully long time. The pendulum of thought seems to swing from a place where it’s thought we’re all set for nurturing, born as “blank slates” (see: philosopher John Locke) – where we are all equally ready to be influenced by experience – to the notion of “nature”. The controversial scientist, Francis Galton (1822-1911), conducted research that led him to conclude that heredity or nature made more of a difference than environment – or nurture. Galton believed you were born with intelligence, outside influence made no difference. Intelligence could just not be trained. It was Galton who is credited with coining the phrase “nurture versus nature”.
So are our greatest born that way? Aristotle, da Vinci, Einstein? Three examples of those who realised a vast genetic destiny – were they pre-wired for greatness? A phenomenal gift of nature, if so. Consider leading musicians and artists. There don’t appear to be many – if any – among the pantheon of greats who achieved much without intense education, coaching and practice. Yes, there are rare examples of mentally-challenged savants, who can create remarkable displays of untrained musical or other mental ability. But surely the nurturing element is needed to fully form almost any human quality – notwithstanding, especially, the physical and gender-related. The late great pianist Van Cliburn said he practised (a hard to imagine) 11 hours a day leading up to his victorious performances in Moscow’s famous 1958 edition of the International Tchaikovsky Competition.
Without the dedicated assistance of her teacher Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s “voice”, spirit and impact on the world would have been stifled. In the extraordinary nurturing of Helen’s nature, she thrived and made a difference in the world.
Helen Keller – who, by the way – visited Scotland no less than three times and at one time stayed for as long as 14 months – is a stark example of the idea of the importance of nurturing for the achievement of just about anything.
Malcolm Gladwell is one of today’s most successful pop psychologists. In his 2008 book Outliers, he now famously wrote that: “Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness”. Using examples that included the Beatles and their marathon Hamburg, Germany gig-playing and Bill Gates’ plentiful youthful coding opportunities, Gladwell’s book is an ode to the power of nurture over nature: 10,000 hours of attention to an intention will lead to something very good, if not great.
As a big voice in the nurture versus nature debate Gladwell encountered many detractors, often suggesting in his “10,000-hour rule”, he had over-simplified the idea of what makes people great. The hoi polloi liked the idea that geniuses weren’t born. Academics thought he went a little too far in removing nature from the equation that leads to personal excellence.
A couple of years ago, Gladwell responded with greater detail on Ask Me Anything on Reddit. He said, “… practice isn’t a SUFFICIENT condition for success. I could play chess for 100 years and I’ll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest…”. And for what it’s worth, I agree. That way of looking at nurture and nature and making good and great things happen rings true to me.
Making great pipe music takes a lot of effort. Sound instruction, dedicated and sustained practice and continuous study being the kit of parts for any aspiring maestro. And, yet, it clearly helps if as a child of six or seven, your father or mother happens to be a seriously proficient player and, so, regularly lets loose the ways and mystical secrets of the bagpipe. And, who knows, occasionally the piping parent of an aspiring player might pass on the specific genes tied to the physical ability, mental fortitude or indescribable drive that led to their own development of great musicianship.
How we come to be who we are – when it comes to piping, at least – is no simple easy to follow linear path. It’s a complicated business. A little nature, maybe, a lot of nurture, absolutely. Long before Gladwell’s 10,000 hours statements the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz said: “The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is practice.” The music and arts worlds are full of examples of leading lights, past and present, who say much the same.
And, as my friend and long-time teacher Bill Livingstone is wont to say from time to time, invoking one of his own teachers, John MacFadyen, “the secret to great piping is there is no secret. It’s just &%#@ hard work!”
You can be good no matter where you come from. You can be great. Listen to your teacher and practise what you can’t do. And as the prizes and accolades fall your way, and you find yourself taking a moment to glance down, your phone in one hand and trophy in the other, be sure and apply your cringe filter: do not post said news on Facebook [Editor: send your photo and result to email@example.com and we will share on social media for you 🙂 ]. Thank you.
Mike Grey is the pipe major of 78th Fraser Highlanders since September 2023, and he teaches, judges, writes and publishes bagpipe music. His Grey’s Notes series ran in Piping Today magazine for ten years. His book is available in the UK from thebagpipeshop.co.uk.