About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Mozart vs. Korngold, or Why Mozart should not be the Poster Child for the 10,000 hours crowd

Mozart is frequently used as the example for how having three key elements - 10,000 hours of practice, an excellent teacher or coach, and focused practice - lead to extraordinary performance in any field. I have written before in blogpost and also in a comment  about this idea, which is the topic of several books, including The Talent Code. The basic idea is that talent is not inborn, it can be developed if you have those three elements. If you read The Talent Code it's clear that it's more complicated than just that, but many people reduce it to a sort of formula.

It has always bothered me that Mozart is so often the example of the success of this formula. I kept thinking about why I didn't believe that Mozart's opus and legacy was the product of just these three elements, which he clearly had as a youngster.

Mozart was both an extraordinary composer and a world-class concert pianist of his time. He also played violin and viola well enough to play in professional orchestras of the time. He is revered today as one of the greatest composers of all time and his music is frequently played. He had a profound effect on musical composition, innovating in opera, piano concerti, and symphonies, which changed those genres for all composers who came after him. His works are clearly his lasting legacy.

Erich Korngold was a child prodigy, too. Born in Moravia in 1897, he began playing piano as a small child and composed his first works at age 8. He was often compared to Mozart. He was encouraged and his early compositions were acclaimed by Mahler and Richard Strauss for their originality and bold harmonies. He was asked to come to Hollywood and compose for films, which he did while continuing to write "serious" music. His film scores, such as Robin Hood and Captain Blood, are exceptional. After World War II, however, musical tastes had changed in Austria, and Korngold's work received poor reviews and small audiences. Today his concert music is rarely played and he is remembered mostly for his film scores. [Much of the biographical information here comes from the Korngold Society webpage.]

I heard one of Korngold's concert pieces recently and thought it was a very pleasant piece. When I listen to Mozart, I am drawn into the music because it is so much more than a pretty piece or an interesting work.

Returning to the three elements for becoming an extraordinary performer in any field, I came to two conclusions. There is a difference between being an extraordinary performer and an outstanding composer/creator. The composers whom we consider great - Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, etc. - not only wrote outstanding music, they changed music for everyone who came after them. By changing forms, harmonies, and instrumentation, they pushed music to new places. No amount of coaching or focused practicing leads to this level of creativity.

Second, look at the difference in Mozart's legacy and achievements and Korngold's. Both were child prodigies, both must have put in the 10,000 hours and the focused practice. Mozart may have had a better coach in his father than Korngold had. Alexander von Zemlinsky was his teacher, though for a much shorter period of time than Leopold Mozart taught and mentored Wolfgang. Overall, very similar background and opportunities, but quite different results. It's more complicated than a formula.

I'm not saying that the formula of thousands of hours of focused practice and a great coach won't have results. I think that it will, along with a few other factors, like a strong desire and some helpful genetics. You are less likely to be an exceptional basketball player if you're short, or a top gymnast if you're tall. The same holds true for musical instruments, for example, I am a terrible woodwind player because I have double-jointed fingers. But I don't believe that you can create a creative genius on the level of Mozart with a formula.

Tempting as it is to use Mozart as the poster child for the efficacy of developing extraordinary performance, he doesn't work for this. He went so far beyond extraordinary performance that he is in a category by himself.

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