All in the Family

I come from a musical family.  My maternal grandmother loved the piano and played with great concert pianist skill.  My mother remembers listening to her mother play Chopin Waltzes and virtuosic compositions of Listz on their Steinway piano as she lay in bed as a child waiting to fall asleep.  I remember playing with toys underneath this grand piano as my grandmother would practice.  I loved watching the quick pedal action imagined the pinching pain I might experience if I slipped my small finger underneath the lever for just a moment.  The sound was grand and full under there.

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Me and mine at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, waiting to see the Stradivarius Violin Collection

My mother also learned piano and felt the duty to see that each of her seven children had exposure to the best music, the best teachers, and the best instruments available.  It was under that sense of duty that I formally began to learn the piano at age eight.  My two older brothers and I were enrolled at a local youth conservatory where competitions, recitals and theory classes became a regular part of life.  And lots of practicing.  Lots of practicing.  There were auditions for concerts and pressure to perfect and memorize.  I excelled, although I think my brother just two years older than me had a more natural talent than I did.  I was always trying to keep up with what came so easily to him.

Still keeping up with my older brothers, I began the violin at age nine through the elementary school music program which was excellent where I lived.  My brothers played the cello and viola, so as my turn came the violin was the natural choice.  My piano background propelled me quickly in understanding and ability with the violin.  I had a loving private teacher who nurtured my efforts as I speedily progressed.

As I entered my teenage years, it became apparent that my violin ability was a real thing.  My piano teacher at the conservatory could sense my division of purpose and practicing and gave me an ultimatum.  Either I continue with piano, competitions, and practicing five hours each day or quit.  My heart wasn’t in piano.  I loved being able to play well, but my heart was with my violin.  It wasn’t a difficult choice.  (I do wish that we knew I could continue to take lessons from another teacher without the pressure of competitions, but it was all we knew at the time.)

I chose to continue with violin and really pursue the possibilities of that new focus.  It has proved to be a good choice.

As for my musical family, my eldest brother did quite well with cello and continued to play regularly with community groups until a few years ago.  He is a computer engineer and does very well with his career.  Cello was a love of his.  My next older brother–the violist–played viola very well through high school and then pursued other musical interests.  He plays the bass guitar, acoustic guitar, and jazz piano and organ professionally now.   Oh, how he can play jazz!  He is remarkable in his ability to improvise and feel music in such a way to excite and move people.  He plays with several groups in Utah, including the legendary Joe McQueen.

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My brother, Ryan Conger

My younger siblings all learned piano for a time.  A younger brother and sister learned the cello and my youngest brother (eighteen years younger) learned the violin, but is incredible on the piano.  Amazing!  He recently performed a Ravel piano concerto with a local orchestra.  I love watching his fingers fly.

As I have met musicians throughout my travels I have noticed the trend of having other musically inclined siblings and/or parents.  I have wondered if this is due to parenting priorities, the way we nurture our children, or if there is some genetic predisposition to talent or musical interest and ability.  I am equally fascinated by those who have a deep love and interest in classical music.  Those who appreciate and understand it often times beyond what the musicians themselves understand.  Is this a talent as well?

An article in Science Focus answered the question, “Are talents genetic or learnt?”  The answer is what I have noticed from my own experience and observations: “Both.  Some people are born with greater potential, but without hard work and practicing their talent will come to nothing.  Music is a good example, with some evidence of genetic differences. For example, a study of 500 twins found that 80 percent of tone deafness is inherited.  Another found genes associated with serotonin release, which were related to music creativity.”

This is pretty cool!  I notice my brother has unique capacities in his musicianship that I just do not have.  He has honed those gifts in a way that they have become expert and powerful.  My efforts and time practicing has been on classical music which I can read and understand much better than he can, however, I do not know if this is a unique affinity and ability I have, or if it just due to all those hours learning and practicing.

Famous violinist Eddy Brown was asked about talent and he appropriately stated that is boils down to 90% toil and 10% talent.  I love this because the “toil” part is entirely within my control, and if it is in my control then I have great odds at succeeding in the mastery of my instrument.

From Science Focus, “A Popular theory is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something, and there is probably a degree of truth in this.  But if your genes give you an aptitude for and enjoyment of…music…you are surely more likely to put in those long hours.”  Amen to that.  Because I am so in love with the violin I want to practice each day; I want to read and learn as much as I can about its mastery and the incredible violinists and composers before me.

There is still that 10% part of the equation that is needed for exceptional levels of performance.  All that toil and practicing can make just about anybody good at anything.  It’s the talent that makes a pointed difference.  Is this crucial 10% carried in our genetic makeup?  Are there things that we are predisposed to being exceptional at that maybe we missed being exposed to?  Is this talent lying in wait still powerful if we are exposed to something later in life that we find purpose in?  Dr. Michael Joyner writes at length about how genes determine characteristic and how that may play into talent and ability.  Speaking about exposing our children to the right things he also asks “will they be willing to practice both intelligently and relentlessly?  The author Aldous Huzley who comes from a long multi-generational family line of exceptional achievers said: ‘There is no substitute for talent.  Industry and all its virtues are of no avail.’  On the other hand a standard concept form the sporting world is that you ‘can’t coach desire.’  Perhaps the truly elite performer in any endeavor needs to have it both ways.”

Looking back on my childhood and early performing days, I know there was a seedling of talent in the makeup of my soul.  It urged me on and took over when my best practicing efforts couldn’t make a difference.  Now as an adult, “toiling” over my skill and profession, I wonder where that talent is.  Have I taken it as far as it will carry me?  Is the work needed now a refinement of that talent?  All I know for sure is that I love the process.  I love the refining.  I love the expression.  I look to my own children and see their unique capacities and know that they see and appreciate music in a different way than I do.  It speaks to the eternal nature of our souls and who we are at our core.

I think my grandmother would be proud.

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