A few thoughts on the concept of talent

In 1869 Sir Francis Galton introduced the term ‘nature versus nurture’ in his book ‘Hereditary Genius’. He suggested that the boundaries of human achievement were determined by nature, essentially implying that how good people can be at anything depends on their inborn abilities. In other words, on how lucky they were with their genetic code. He wrote that man should find true moral repose in an honest conviction that he is engaged in as much good work as his nature rendered him capable of performing. Beyond the fact that the word ‘nature’ makes the whole argument of talent more attractive, the bottom line in his book is clear: Some people have it, some people don’t. But what are the implications of this approach on our relationship with music?

In the corner of the earth I live in, and probably elsewhere, most people would think that music is a no-go area for the majority of the population. How else could it be when we are convinced that in order to play and enjoy music we need to start early, have long fingers, a music family, and above all ‘talent’? It’s interesting to note that there are very often more prerequisites than reasons for playing music. And prerequisites find their way more naturally of course in the world of competition, qualification and career. This is a world based on a selection mechanism whose values govern our music lives from the bottom levels of music education up to global reputation. I suggest that the notion of talent is part and  parcel of this competitive world, represents the essence of its selection mechanism and serves its values by turning the spotlight on those worth investing into. In that sense the notion of talent certainly does not historically symbolize the appropriation of music by society as a whole.

This selection mechanism operates on questionable criteria and the subjective aspirations of ‘experts’.  In the book ‘Conceptions of giftedness’ (Feldhusen, J., F (1986) ‘A conception of giftedness’ in Strenberg, R., J. and J., E. Davidson (Eds.) Conceptions of giftedness, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 101) Feldhusen says that all such definitions leave someone else to decide on some operational level how the terms remarkable, superior, unusual and the like get translated into some specific quantitative statement, a process that must take place if a student is to be determined eligible for some school program for gifted children. So in order to come up with a ‘specific quantitative statement’ no wonder that this mechanism has created exams, musical ability tests and competitions.

It is worth commenting on the origin of the word talent and its quantitative connotations. The word talent comes from the ancient Greek word ‘talanton’. The talanton (talentum in Latin) was a unit of  measuring weight and money used in ancient Greece. (something like the English pound). The shift in the meaning of the word can probably be spotted in the parable of talents in the book of Matthew 25:14-30. In this parable a master entrusts his talents to his 3 servants before he goes away for some time. The first two servants receive 5 and 2 talents respectively, and the third one talent. When the master comes back he asks the servants what they did with their talents. While the first two servants doubled their talents to the satisfaction of their master, the third one buried his talent under the ground and did nothing with it. Then his Lord tells him: You ought therefore to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received back my own with interest. Then he orders the other two servants to…throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth… The obvious moral is that failure to capitalize on our God-given gift results in Judgment.

So gift given from God turned into talent given from nature. We can also see that the concept of talent has a bearing on notions of measurement. From this point of view, the fact that the advocate of inborn abilities Sir Francis Galton also developed psychometrics(!) comes as no surprise. It further establishes a historical and philosophical connection between talent, measurement and selection mechanisms. Talent, money, quantitative statements, psychometrics, exams and the outer darkness, they all pop up during the discussion. Today, it is very interesting watching a world supposingly obsessed with quality negotiating in numbers and units.

Let’s take this idea one step further. A good friend of mine pointed out that the ancient ‘talanton’ measured units in much the same way today talent is usually attributed only to individuals. This is quite true. We rarely refer to talent as a collective quality. But if there is a social mission in music making (as we all hopefully agree) then talent loses its significance. The importance of talent is questioned by the nature of music itself. So if we are dealing with music as a collective process with a social mission, using talent in any way to succeed in our mission is a contradiction in terms.

Untitled, 1990, pencil on paper, 30x20cmThe notion of gift or talent implies that something which is ‘already there’ exists only in a few individuals. Therefore, the identification of talent can only stand against someone else, that is, against the untalented people. Talent, gift, nature, genius, musical intelligence, unusual potential, innate ability. A stream of positive connotations strong enough to wipe out things like devotion, influences, choices, luck, spirit, inspiration, even our queries about the unknown. Although we are not usually aware of this, the moment we resort to one of these concepts, we are not only expressing our admiration and gratification, but we are also providing an indirect explanation of what we are experiencing. I believe that when we declare someone ‘talented’ we say more about ourselves than about the ‘talented’.

In order to justify this, I would like to quote a few words from Janet Mills’ article titled ‘Gifted instrumentalists: How can we recognize them?’ (published in 1985 in British journal of Music Education, 2:1, p. 45). She is fairly outright when she says that the selection of those with greater potential may well produce pupils who are relatively easy to teach. So if spotting talents makes life easier for the teachers and we are thanking biology for doing the hard work, then we gradually become more irresponsible both as individuals and as a society.  I wouldn’t go too far if I said that talent is definitely more useful to a world concerned with saving time and money.

So talent gets over fast and easy with matters that are slow and complex. It is a fast-track system of  evaluation which we have inherited from the world of competition, qualification and career and in turn naively use in our own music affairs blocking our way to understanding and progress. As a fast-track system used for selection purposes it represents a low level of critical analysis. It fails to take into consideration basic analysis tools like time and context. Vincent van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime, while in 1895 Albert Einstein’s teacher told his father that It doesn’t matter what he does, he will never amount to anything. Similarly, the vocal mannerisms of a ‘talented’ reggae singer are completely inappropriate for a soprano in the opera, and any young student with ‘unusual potential’ is likely to perform very differently in exams than with his friends. So, talented towards what? And says who?

Untitled, 2011, pencil on paper, 30x20cmOne of the most important implications of the invocation of talent is that we are quietly laying the ground for discrimination. Talent emphasizes product against process, discouragement against encouragement. Talent fails to draw and carry important process information because it is interwoven with the notion of product. This information is valuable for our understanding as listeners and our progress as musicians. It also fails to encourage because it forces so many people to question their abilities and eventually stop fiddling with music. And this is probably the most worrying implication of the talent mentality.

It admits of no doubt that it is sometimes difficult to understand how people can be so remarkably creative and intelligent. It is also true that people are so different in their modes of adaptation and uptake. However, by resorting to the invisible world of hidden talent and innate abilities, we depreciate the real world of human relationships and interaction. Music is actually a form of human interaction whose quality and importance depends on healthy human relationships. I suggest that the upgrading of talent creates unnecessary tension in our musical affairs.

People whom I respect as musicians and personalities would most likely deny the honor of being ‘talented’. I suppose that’s because they are aware of the complexities of the process that made them what they are, and because they can sense the unbearable implications of self-consciousness of talent and the authority to recognize it. Increasing our awareness of these complexities and implications will   encourage everyone to feel equally entitled to give it a go in music.

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We are our repertoire. The case for building a solid repertoire

Isn’t this what musicians are supposed to do? Well, yes. However, i remember myself in the past being asked to play something on the spot on numerous occasions and i must say i could not respond in an effortless and convincing way. I felt weird when everyone took it for granted that i was a fearless performer even though i didn’t really feel this way. There was an inconsistency between my musical efforts and my ability to satisfy the humble demands people have from me in the real world. Have you been there? I know i have.

The problem was that i had a vague idea of what i could and what i could not perform. My repertoire was poorly organised. Since then i have been trying to organize my music. I realized it is always better to have some pieces of music ready to perform instead of a lot more “not so sure” ones. I also noticed on the way that many skilled and devoted musicians are often very reluctant to take out their instruments and share a few notes within an informal context. They suffer from this same messy repertoire syndrome. I can think of a few reasons for this: 

  • It is common for musicians to be overwhelmed by the vast volume of great music, countless learning systems and endless resources. As a result, we lose focus and perspective by becoming superficially inolved in too many concepts and pieces of music.
  • Pieces of music often end up being steps on the academic ladder instead of a long term performance investment. When we treat any musical material as a measure of academic status we underestimate it and fail to embrace it creatively. Inevitably, once this music fulfills its purpose it is left alone to evaporate.
  • Musicians performing only at carefully planned and polished events develop a stiff performance mentality shaped and dictated by the very nature of this type of events. These formal rituals cannot address the complexity and randomness of all possible contexts for playing music. This is probably more evident among classical musicians where the notion of practising is glorified over spontaneous performance. 

Benefits of thinking repertoire

Building a solid repertoire is beneficial both musically and socially.

  • It cements our relationship with music. Being able to deliver a simple but coherent musical whole with a beginning and an end solidifies our identities as musicians. A comprehensively built repertoire takes better care of our music lives than years of studies, exercises and reputation. It creates a huge confidence boost and gets us straight to the point of sharing our best musical self with the world. It also encourages that valuable feedback and encouragement that keeps us going. I have seen many people giving up playing music after having difficulties creating that identity.
  • It encourages responsible practice. I have talked in an older post about the dissociation between practice and playing and how ‘practicing’ may prove meaningless or even counterproductive. You know when we are fooling around on our instruments irresponsibly thinking we are just having fun? Well we are, but at the same time we are also being trained to play irresponsibly. See the point? When we fool around we are getting better at fooling around. When we perform we are getting better at performing. Life records everything.
  • It enhances our ability to focus on a task and carry it to completion. Goal setting is inextricably linked to repertoire building. Focus is necessary if we want to avoid being overwhelmed by all this information and music readily available. When we work on our repertoire and have a clear idea of what we want to achieve we have a framework that keeps us on track.
  • It waters our taste and musicianship. When we start shaping the music we love according to certain criteria -like what we think people will enjoy- we naturally start looking for ways to make our music more interesting: we look for an engaging intro, to create a contrast somewhere in the middle or come up with a funny ending. This process immerses us into important musical elements like build up, structure and space. Elements that are actually absent during sterile practicing and present in good compositions and improvisations.
  • It lends a distinctive character to our playing. It is a great idea to have a few tunes we feel comfortable with and regularly perform. Many professional musicians have identified themselves with certain musical material and people love them for doing so. Music we regularly perform gets better and better while molding our overall music character.
  • It broadens and sharpens our criteria for musical value. I have many times been attracted to the naive and unpretentious playing of a beginner willing to share his latest musical achievements. On the other hand, i have been repeatedly repelled by the incoherent and tense playing of a “skilled” musician trying to convince me of how good he/she is. The simplest but honest and comprehensive performance deserves our respect.
  • It upgrades the quality of musical and social interaction. By definition, our readiness and willingness to perform creates more opportunities for playing and discourse. The more we can share the stronger our bonds with other musicians. At the same time the gesture of providing music has great social value. It strengthens social relationships, cohesion and trust. After all, music is a social affair and people tend to appreciate it more often under social terms although we have been largely conditioned to do the exact opposite. 

Start building your repertoire

I highly suggest creating a written list of “ready to perform music”. Once we put down our repertoire the need to expand it grows in us. Give it a go keeping in mind that the majority of our listeners don’t bother being judgemental. And they certainly don’t care so much about the technicalities of our interpretation. A well minded repertoire creates artistic weight and promises a healthier musical and social life. 

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