Samskar, Chicken Embryos, and Places of Practice

Here’s part of the first chapter of
The Practice of Practice

Zing-Yang Kuo
Zing-Yang Kuo

Zing-Yang Kuo was a physiological psychologist who was interested in investigating behaviors that were thought to be instinctual, or innate  (his early research on this topic was in the 1920s). He studied chicken embryos, because it was believed the distinctive pecking behavior chicks show immediately upon hatching was an instinctual, innate behavior.

Zing-Yang Kuo believed that labeling a behavior as “innate” or “natural” or “instinctual” didn’t help anyone understand the behavior. He watched chicken embryos develop by coating eggs with warm vaseline, rendering the shells translucent. And here’s the thing: He discovered that as the chicks develop inside the tightly packed egg, their head rests directly over their heart, and as soon as the heart begins to beat, the thumping heart causes the chick’s head to move in exactly the same pecking motion. The chicks are practicing this pecking behavior many hundreds, probably thousands of times, before they hatch. The finding blurs the line between natural talent and practice in a very interesting way.

Zing-Yang Kuo’s research highlights the fact that context matters. Where you practice is important, and early on, you have no control over that whatsoever. Some are lucky to be born into a rich musical environment.

Indian vocalist Prasad Upasani is the creator of the fantastic iTabla Pro app (video demo), one of my essential practice technologies. When Prasad spoke with me about his own music practice, he introduced me to a term: samskar. Prasad said this word translated means “unconscious influence.” One of Prasad’s earliest memories is waking to hear his father’s early-morning singing practice. He would wander in, sit on his dad’s lap, and they would sing some of his favorite songs. This early exposure to music and music practice certainly had an impact on his developing sensibilities. Rex Martin, a tuba virtuoso who I mention frequently because his knowledge of music and practice are incredibly deep, had two older brothers who played the tuba, so he was exposed to those vibrations from conception onward. Did this have an impact on his neural wiring? I don’t know, but I suspect it might have.

I don’t much believe in “natural” talent. To me, labeling a skill as a “talent”–in the sense that it’s a natural ability–blinds us to the reality behind that skill, much like the idea of “instinctual behavior” blinds us to the developmental realities that support any ability. Something to think about.

Electron microscopy of a chicken embryo, taken at Lisbon University, Portugal

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Gwen Gere says:

    Do you think little human hatchlings are influenced by the music they hear before they’re born? Drummer babies, jazz babies, classical babies or just a predisposition to hanging out and listening to music? That’s really still an external factor in development. But is there a similar activity that is influenced by a fetal heartbeat? They can’t be in an isolated environment–no eggshell– but is there an after birth activity that occurs that has been related? Other than a musician being able to identify a beat?

    1. I wish I knew, Gwen! It’s a great question, but there aren’t any studies I’m aware of that look at pre- and early post-natal influences. My hunch is that there is some influence, but it would be cool to find out if that’s true, and if so, to what extent such exposure is influential. Might have to get Skinnerian on my own kids…. 🙂

      1. Clyde says:

        Go Adlerian or Rogerian, tough to quantify results, but honors the kid’s humanity!

  2. Clyde says:

    Hi Jon,
    Have you checked out “The Perfect Wrong Note”? (William Westney $10 Kindle) He starts out with the general idea of preserving the natural response to music in early childhood, and the dangers of traditional music instruction for children.

    BTW would you please send a copy of your response to me re music for “the rest of us”, non-Pros, post High School, etc. The issue continues to lurk in the back of my mind & I wonder if I ought to work up some courage and go do sumpthin’ ’bout it. Have some vague idea about community outreach, parental participation, and cheap instruments (Gah! Blasphemy!) Maybe some sort of Dave Eggers approach?

    1. Yes, I like Westney’s book quite a bit. I’ve got a hard copy. One of my favorite quotes from it is:

      “The reason so many of us lose our bearings about practising early in life is that we practice in living rooms with other family members in earshot—and healthy practice would simply sound too obnoxious, intrusive, repetitious and unmusical for others to hear without annoyance.” William Westney, “The Perfect Wrong Note.”

      Not sure what you’re requesting, Clyde. Can you refresh my memory? And as to the Eggers approach, do you mean his literacy schools (behind pirate shops, etc.)? Those are awesome! Something I’ve considered myself. Would be fun.

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