Nature, Nurture or just plain hard graft…

Mary with John O'Conor

At the American Irish Foundation gala dinner in Washington DC last Wednesday night I was lucky enough to be seated next to one of Ireland’s cherished treasures – classical pianist, eternal optimist & the greatest living interpreter of Beethoven’s piano music, John O’Conor.  Sitting on my other side was John Nolan from Dublin’s National Concert Hall.  When he found out that I wasn’t aware of John’s fame (I know – I was excruciatingly embarrassed by my ignorance of classical music and its main players) he described John O’Conor as “being like a god that had stepped down from Olympus to grace us with his presence” – quite a big sell then – no pressure John!

I’d attended an “Unlocking Creativity” event in Derry earlier in March hosted by the magical Sir Ken Robinson and I’d been fascinated by the story that Ken had told us about Bart Conner, the American gymnast, and his journey to becoming a world class athlete and multi Olympic medal winner.  In a nutshell, Bart’s mother had noticed he had a talent for gymnastics when he was a very young boy & had enrolled him in a gym early doors rather than force him to continue with school and academic studies to the exclusion of all else.  That led to Bart being “spotted” by a coach when he was 10 and the rest is history.  This caused me to ask John about his own career journey as to be honest, becoming a world famous concert pianist is pretty unusual.  He told me that he was fortunate enough to have a mother that encouraged John & his sisters to try out many non academic things when they were children – so as a result John had learned tin whistle, elocution, singing, Irish dancing and the viola as well as the piano; his sisters learned the violin, cello and ballet.  Indeed, John O’Conor is quoted as saying the hardest part of achieving his music degree was the academic side – as all he really wanted to do was play his instrument.

This reminded me of another of Sir Ken’s stories when as a student in the 1970s he approached a guy playing keyboards in a pub band in Liverpool one night.  He said to the chap “I’d love to be able to do what you do” and the keyboard player said to him that if he’d love to do it that much, he’d be doing it too.  He went on to explain that he’d started playing when he was 5 years old, practiced 5 hours a day come hell or high water & gigged 6 nights a week.  Sir Ken’s point is that when you’re engaged in something that you love, it isn’t in fact work at all.

All this does of course link back to Malcolm Gladwell’s idea in his book Outliers of the 10,000 hours a person needs to put in before they will be good at something – so when you’re choosing a career, you’d better be careful and pick something that you love or you’ll never be good enough at it.  Harsh but true.  I asked John O’Conor about the difference between good and great pianists and he said it’s practice – not magic or anything secret – it’s simply constant daily practice that makes you truly good at the thing you already love – and if you don’t love it enough, you won’t practice enough – and that’s the bottom line.  John says that the great pianists have never had to be told to practice – they just want to do it – all day every day.

I appreciate that the photo of us is a bit strange.  It’s because I wanted to photograph the great man’s hands…Thanks for your company in Washington John and John!

I confessed to John as the evening went on that my own piano teacher had taken my mother to one side after I’d been attending lessons for about 3 years and said “Mrs McKenna, you’re wasting your money here.  Don’t bring her back any more.”  He was right and it was lovely of him to be that honest with my poor mum who really couldn’t spare the money for the lessons, but wanted her daughters to learn more than academic stuff.

I know this is a topic that generates a lot of discussion so I can’t wait to read your comments.  Keep your stories coming – I love to read them.



  1. My mum also invested in guitar and piano lessons and it’s only now that I wish I had practised. But it wasn’t a natural fit and I was always too busy doing other things. I just didn’t take to it. She also indulged my swimming (which I did love, but wasn’t quite good enough to be professional) and other watersports (I dallied with canoeing).Finding your Element isn’t always easy. I’ve been looking.


  2. For me it was always plain hard graft with the added bonus of having people around me saying that “it couldn’t be done”. The lessons I had with folk teaching me how to play bass guitar were futile, the catalyst ended up being on the tele with a Princes Trust Concert in 1986, after seeing Mark King playing the bass I just looked up at my dad and said, “That’s for me!”… It then took three years locked away in my bedroom copying from records….I only took theory lessons seven years later as I was getting booked for studio sessions and I couldn’t read a note I was doing everything by ear. And 25 years later I wouldn’t have changed how I did it. I still love playing.


  3. Having been at Sir Ken’s seminar and read his book, I found myself reflecting on what my Element is. Sorry to be repetitive Matt but I think mine was swimming also. I swam for 10 years competitively at Irish level doing the 6.00 am training sessions etc although never making the dizzying heights of Olympics I did ok nationally. A few weeks ago I took my daughter to the pool to watch Derry’s elite swimmers train, when we got to the pool it was empty, we were the only people there, no lifeguards, no swimmers, no one except my daughter and I. We stood on the pool bank for a few minutes and I got such an overwhelming sense of wellbeing, I felt at ‘home’.I currently teach swimming at a voluntary level and swim in Masters Competitions occasionally. So I can’t say I profit financially from my element, but I do get a little ‘Element’ boost twice a week!!


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