Nature or Nurture: What Makes a Great Piper?

Nature or nurture? Do the top pipers in the world possess some sort of genetic predisposition that allows them to play with speed, grace, and expression?

In sports, one can certainly make a case for athletes being predisposed for success. The average NBA player, for example, is 6’ 7” tall. Moreover, the average shuttle run time at the Draft Combine is extremely low, usually around 3–3.1 seconds. You can’t teach height and you can’t teach speed. If you are tall and quick, attributes with which you are born, your odds of succeeding in basketball increase. There are exceptions, of course, Spud Webb played larger than his 5’ 7” frame and won the NBA Slam Dunk contest in 1986.

Height and the ability to power through a shuttle run are not attributes, typically, that are required for piping. However, the ability to direct dexterous fingers into a fine musical performance is. One could certainly make the argument that certain individuals are born with the, for want of a better term, “bagpipe gene.”

There are several things that we do know, though, when we consider nature versus nurture. Firstly, if one is tall and quick, it doesn’t guarantee that one will succeed as a basketball player. Similarly, if one has extremely agile fingers with a good musical sense, it doesn’t guarantee that one will succeed as a piper. Secondly, we certainly can’t answer the questions with regard to nature versus nurture, at least, not in this post. But there is one thing that world-class pipers and NBA basketball players have in common. Each has dedicated a tremendous amount of time to mastering their craft.

So, what is the threshold? How much time is required to become world-class? Daniel Levitin notes that research seems to indicate, “ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert— in anything.”(1) Levitin adds that the ten thousand hour theory is consistent with what we know about how the brain learns. “Learning requires the assimilation and consolidation of information in neural tissue. The more experiences we have with something, the stronger the memory/ learning trace for that experience becomes.”(2)

Levitan states, and we all know examples of this, that, “I don’t know any successful musicians who haven’t worked hard to get where they are.”(3) Despite whatever gifts with which we may be endowed, it still takes effort.

And that is something that we can do. We can extend the effort. We can dedicate time to improving.

The effort that we put into our craft will reap rewards regardless of our physical gifts. Most of us will not reach the level of "world-class." We may never cross the ten thousand-hour threshold. But that does not mean that we cannot improve as musicians. And, just as the world-class pipers have dedicated time to honing their craft, so can we. Take some time, practice your craft, and dedicate yourself to improving. As the coaches used to say, “it does not take talent to hustle.”

You may not have the “bagpipe gene.” Your fingers may not be as lithe as your peers. Your musical sense may need refinement. But, you can still become a fine musician. You can dedicate time to practicing your pipes. You can refine your send of rhythm. Yeah, it might take a while, but anything worth doing is worth the patience. An extra hour here and there will help you along your path. Spend some time in the practice room and remember “hustle beats talent when talent doesn’t hustle.”

(1) Levitin, Daniel J. (2006-08-03). This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (p. 197). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
(2) Levitin, Daniel J. (2006-08-03). This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (p. 197). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
(3) Levitin, Daniel J. (2006-08-03). This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (p. 204). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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