Thursday, June 5, 2008

What role does "talent" play?

Sorry if this gets a little preachy. But, as you know, I just last week drove from Chicago to Atlanta and back. I'm often surprised where the mind can wander when given hours of nothing to do. Why aren't truck drivers the deepest people out there?

Jillian's teacher always seemed surprised, even entertained by how quickly she (Jillian, that is, not the teacher) picked up new pieces. Sue and I were talking about that one day, which was fun. It became less fun, though, when she turned on me. "How about you? Can you just jump into a new song, or does it take some work?"

I am sure my answer was much longer than necessary. I bet I went into mind-numbing detail about the process of first getting a new piece together hands-separate, then starting all over again hands-together, then trying to make the resulting cacophony sound musical. She very patiently allowed me to wander down this path to its completion, as she often does. Then, as she often does, she cut to the heart of the question: "So you're not a natural, then?"


"No, I don't think I am."

I shared the mindset, and it stung to admit to it. That is, I have always held the belief that there was something called "musical talent", and those who played an instrument well had it, and the rest of us didn't. That it took me three weeks to learn Little Brown Jug clearly demonstrates that whatever that talent was, I lacked it. The conclusion of this line of thinking: I still had the potential to be a reasonable piano player, but there was a ceiling that was going to keep me from becoming as good as those folks who had real talent.

But I've been giving this a lot of thought. After hearing the various submissions from the most recent recital (next time! I'm in next time, I promise!), after thinking about musicians I've known over the years, my thinking on this question has actually flip-flopped. I still believe there is such thing as "musical talent", but I now think that it is much, MUCH rarer than I previously supposed. The geniuses have it... Mozart, Paganini, Liszt, Chopin, Horowitz, Van Cliburn, Phil Keaggy, Neil Peart (wow, could his website be more pretentious?)... but, in my new line of thinking, the vast majority of accomplished musicians I have known, or known of, lack this level of genius. So how did they become accomplished musicians?

I have never run a marathon. I despise running long distances. And yet, from what runners tell me, there is no athletic talent required to finish a marathon. If anything, some athletic ability could be a hindrance, because it could cause the runner to rely on this talent, rather than nurture the real factor required to finish a marathon. That factor is discipline. In order to finish a marathon, you need to begin months in advance, and train in a disciplined, purposeful manner. Talent is the difference between simply finishing a marathon, and finishing a marathon in 2 hours 20 minutes. Intelligent and disciplined training and preparation are necessary either way.

I am not, nor will ever be, Vladimir Horowitz. But I believe I can be every bit as good as the lady who plays so beautifully for my church's services, or the guy who played in Sue's friend's wedding six months ago (wow, six months already?). These are people whose ability I very much admire. At one point, I thought I could never be like them. But the more I think about it, the more I have convinced myself that the difference between them and me isn't an inherent one, but simply a matter of training and experience. It does them a disservice to simply say "Oh, you are such a good piano player because you have talent." They worked hard to earn what they have.

I can too.


discopalace said...

I think talent is significant in many ways. First of all, music is not like a marathon. The results of a marathon are simple: how long did it take you to run. For music, results are all subjective. Secondly, talent is more significant when you think about your preparation time, not during a contest or "final" event. So yes, you can work to be as good as many people. But I would argue that having talent allows you to get to a certain quality level faster than not having talent.

For music, talent isn't overall skill. I think of it as a natural ability in certain component areas. Some of these talents are:
- Someone who is talented in hand/eye coordination will be able to learn or play complex stuff more easily.
- Someone who is naturally talented in musical theory can learn stuff faster and harmonize with others more easily. This is probably my strong suit.
- Someone who naturally feels the music can express it very well, without much work or coaching. I know many a player in school who could play all the notes right but were not good at putting strong feeling into the music.

Yes you can theoretically overcome any of these, given enough time and effort. The question is, how much time and effort do you really have to spend? If it takes you 1 year to learn a new piece, how many years would it take you to get good? So, I think talent is a key advantage as you progress.

Anonymous said...

Talent is an ambiguous word, at best. I mean, ask 5 people to define the word and you'll get 5 different answers. I can only give you my take on the idea.

A true "talent" (or genius, if you will) in any area is a rare thing. I'm talking about the person who can pick up virtually any instrument or piece of athletic equipment and be instantly not just "good" but very good, with little instruction. That is a rare gift. Very few, even on your list of musical greats had that kind of talent. The others (and most of us) have to develop what talent we have.

And we all have some amount of talent. But in order to be good, or very good, at anything you have to add in your marathon runner's part of the equation: discipline. Because, for those of us in the majority, it takes time and patience and the right kind of practice to develop the talent. Ask a lot of truly gifted (now) musicians how they got to the point they are, and most (if not all) will tell you: practice! When the other kids were out playing baseball or shooting hoops, I was in my room, practicing. 6, 7, 8, 10 hours a day. That's the discipline side of it. That part can be tough for a lot of people, myself included.

Now, there are levels of talent. Some have more, some have less. Those with more may get over some of the hurdles faster or easier than others, but no one, save those rare true genius talents, does it without work. Work is hard. It's painstaking. And it't not always fun. But it can pay off big time in the end.