Why Passion and Aptitude Are Poor Metrics

When it comes to music, I am utterly tone deaf. At least, that’s the story I have been telling myself since middle school.

It started in fifth-grade chorus. Although I never went out of my way to sing, when asked, I sang with gusto. But then I noticed that my voice stood out from the crowd — and not in a good way. It didn’t harmonize. No one ever said anything to me or shot me dirty looks, but I started lowering my volume, trying to hide my voice in the pack.

Any interest I had in music or singing died in the eighth-grade. Our class was putting on a production of H.M.S. Pinafore, a Gilbert and Sullivan musical, and I was playing a sailor. One day, the music teacher decided to assign me a brief solo. We met after school so he could teach me the song. He hit a key on his piano, and I sang, “Ahhhhhh!” He hit the key again, and I sang, “Ahhhhhh!” We did this a few more times, and each time, I tried to modulate my voice, hoping to find the correct key by random chance.

Finally, he had had enough. He looked at me and said, “If you aren’t going to take this seriously, I will find someone else for the solo.” That statement is still seared into my memory 33 years later.

Coping in a tone-deaf world

By normal standards, Mr. James was an excellent teacher and a good guy. He’d be mortified to learn he had crushed my self-esteem that day. He was simply scrambling to meet a tight deadline, and unequipped to deal with a student with my level of tone deafness. In fact, I was so tone deaf, he concluded I must have been singing off-key on purpose—and I concluded I had zero aptitude for singing or music.

Today, there is a concerted effort to change the conclusions we draw from those kinds of experiences. Instead of concluding that I can’t sing at all, I’m supposed to conclude that I can overcome my low aptitude for singing and still succeed through passion and effort. Honestly, I think both conclusions suck. We need a better narrative.

Nature versus nurture

Society focuses on passion because it’s the magic bullet that can overcome all obstacles. If we are passionate enough, then we will crawl through pits filled with shards of glass and beat down steel doors with our bare hands to reach our goals. But what happens to the people who would like to learn how to sing but aren’t that passionate about it? What happens to the people who hit those obstacles before they have a chance to turn their passion up to eleven? Are they out of luck?

There is a biological component to tone deafness. According to Wikipedia: “In nine of ten tone-deaf people, the superior arcuate fasciculus in the right hemisphere could not be detected, suggesting a disconnection between the posterior superior temporal gyrus and the posterior inferior frontal gyrus.”

However, tone deafness is also much rarer in societies with tonal languages. Are people born tone deaf, or do areas of their brain fail to develop because of environmental factors?

Watching television in college with friends

In college, I noticed something odd. When watching television, my friends regularly imitated sounds and voices. It was a natural part of their viewing habit, but it wasn’t part of mine.

Growing up, I had always watched television silently. It never occurred to me to imitate Homer Simpson or other characters. Raised in a fairly strict Chinese American household, I never went on play dates or sleepovers—so I never saw how other children watched television—and I don’t remember any bedtime stories with funny voices or sound effects either.

If I had gone over to a friend’s house at age ten and watched television together, there is a very good chance I would have started imitating voices. At a minimum, I would have tried. But at age eighteen, surrounded by peers with over 5000 hours of practice over me, I wasn’t passionate enough to risk my ego and try. Now at age 47, the number of hours I have spent listening to sounds and trying to replicate them with my voice is still close to zero.

Appreciating diversity and designing diverse learning materials

Do I have an aptitude for recognizing and reproducing musical notes? Do I have a passion for singing and music? I honestly don’t know the answer to those questions. I do know that I do not have the childhood experiences or thousands of hours of practice most of my peers have. And I also know that there are few opportunities out there for people like me to learn.

That’s why, as an educator, I dream of a world where we can take a class, and find a teacher who says, “Oh, I don’t think you have low aptitude; you’re just missing some key experiences. You should really check out these materials. These materials are designed precisely for someone with your needs.” I dream of a world where everyone can easily find the materials they need, even if those needs fall outside of the norm. And that’s why I’m passionate about curriculum development.