What is Talent?
If you are skilled in one area or another you’ve probably had people tell you you’re so talented! This idea certainly gets thrown about in the world of music frequently, but I believe it is often given more credit than it is due.
By definition, talent is the natural aptitude or skill someone has in a certain area. It is not the end result of what we see when we go to hear a performer or watch a sports star. Talent is not an all or nothing thing. What talent we have is on a sliding scale; some have more and some have less and very few people have zero talent in an area.
What We Mean
To say “you’re so talented” is generally meant to portray the idea that someone admires or appreciates what we do. It can also carry with it the idea that the person saying it wishes they could do it too, and/or that they think we are above average at something “. It’s meant as a compliment. However, saying “your so talented” really isn’t complimenting us at all. If talent is just our natural ability at something then we haven’t done anything to “get it”. So, what is actually being said is that all our ability can be attributed to the natural talent we were given at birth.
More Than Talent
I think we do a disservice to performers who have reached a high level of expertise by boiling a compliment down to “their talent”. As a performer I know that I have worked very hard to hone and build on my natural abilities. It’s as if the hours upon hours of work over years of playing doesn’t count, or that it’s less important than “our talent”.
I think it’s important that talent not be given credit for the totality of a person’s ability in a certain area. Yes, it’s a factor, but it’s only the starting point. What an audience member is hearing and seeing is a mixture of that person’s natural talent PLUS the work they have put in to achieve the current result.
Usually reaching an extremely high level of expertise means someone has much natural talent and has also put in a lot of time and effort. However, it can also be true that someone can reach a high level of performance with average talent or even below average talent simply because they have put in a lot of effort and a lot of time in order to master a skill. We can also see extremely naturally gifted individuals who do not have to work very hard to achieve a high level of performance. Conversely, there are “talented” people who have never realized their skills in an area because they haven’t worked to hone their abilities.
Let’s consider what message are we sending to people (especially children) when we compliment talent. We’re saying that if you can do something well it’s purely a gift, which means that if you can’t do something well there’s not much point in working hard at it because you just “aren’t talented” in that area. If we were to also verbalized the element of hard work over time I think we would be giving more accurate compliments and sending a better message; a message that says “if you work hard you too can achieve great things!, and “I recognize all the time and effort you have put in to hone your craft!”
Application – Don’t Let Talent Define the End Result
As a teacher I can tell when a student has average, above average or below average ability learning the violin or viola. It’s OK to notice this, and it’s OK to let a parent or student know this (when the appropriate context arises). What I’m careful not to do though is suggest that a student’s success will be defined by their level of talent. I have seen so many students struggle to learn an instrument, but stick with it and achieve a higher level of skill than those with much more natural talent than them. These students often have a greater enjoyment and sense of pride in their achievements because they have had to work so hard to get where they are
At the same time, when a student is having an extremely difficult time and doesn’t seem to have a natural aptitude for the violin or viola I do not fault them for deciding to quit and try a different instrument. I believe music is for everyone and I believe everyone can enjoy and be successful at it. Because of this, I think one of our jobs as professionals is to help students fine the instrument that is best for them. If that’s violin or viola, great! I don’t care how talented you are I just ask that you give me 100% of what you’ve got. If violin or viola is not for you, that’s fine too. I just hope that you find the instrument that you are willing to give that 100% to so that you can find success and enjoyment in music too!