Monday, August 22, 2011

Golden Oldies: Is Talent Overrated?

A strange irony became apparent after I posted this on Facebook last summer. My friend Joel commented: "You also write well, Robin," to which I responded: "Thank you, Joel. Strangely, that's something I have always recognized that I have a talent for."

It's true. Music, which is the great love of my life, is also something I have struggled to master; that struggle is described below. Writing, on the other hand, is something that has always come naturally. Of course I practice my writing too - why else would I spend so much time blogging? I've written two books, edited two others, and produced many articles and reviews and innumerable ephemera. I never had to struggle with my writing, though, as I always did with music.

I do run into people who are convinced that "anybody can write." I've never heard someone say that "anybody can play a Beethoven sonata." Music is more abstract, and the cultivation of musical talent is thus, perhaps, more deliberate and more challenging than verbal expression. Most musicians I've spoken to since posting this seem to agree that they weren't born with special gifts, and have had to work harder than most people realize.

So I continue to be puzzled by this subject. If you're curious, read on.

My title question is inspired by a best-selling book by Geoff Colvin, which I will begin by confessing that I have not read. I have heard a lot, however, about Colvin’s basic idea, which has been promoted by enthusiastic followers, that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become really good at anything. There are no child prodigies – there are just people, like Mozart, who got started on their hours at an alarmingly early age, and kept up under the demanding supervision of a stern parental taskmaster.

Colvin’s argument is directed primarily at businesspeople, but it obviously has great significance for the arts as well, so for me it has been the occasion for some autobiographical reflection. If that doesn’t scare you off, read on.

Like most musicians, and probably many others, I was regaled from an early age with two different kinds of stories, each of which had a point to make about talent. The first concerned the divinely gifted prodigies, like the aforementioned Mozart, who seemed to have been born with their mission in life already present, simply waiting to be worked up through growing maturity. The second concerned people who thought they were more gifted than they were, and either remained under that delusion or were at some point definitively disabused of it.

I always knew I was not in the former category, and really hoped I wouldn’t end up in the latter. While I was told as a young child that I had a gift for music, I really didn’t feel like it. OK, I was composing short piano pieces at age 7, and at 16 produced a setting of a Walt Whitman poem of which I am still proud. Nevertheless, I would go to music camp and hear other people play circles around me, and I just didn’t believe I was that good. I never, ever entertained the fantasy of majoring in music performance in college, in part because I realized that those who did had an unshakeable faith in their abilities that I couldn’t imagine ever possessing. And besides, I wanted to teach in the classroom, not hang out in a private studio all day. That was something I knew I was good at.

When I entered Oberlin, I aced the Basic Music Skills Exam, which exempted me from having to take any kind of ear training or musicianship courses. This meant, I realized intellectually, that I had a better ear (or at least a better trained one) than the vast majority of entering students at one of the nation’s leading conservatories. Nevertheless, I remained convinced that many of those people were much more talented than I was, and the evidence was what happened when they got on the stage in Warner Concert Hall.

However, I did have one thing going for me. Throughout high school, and for several years thereafter, I suffered from a strange affliction that made me invisible to girls – although not, unfortunately, them to me. This means that I was deprived of one of the main time-consuming preoccupations of the typical teenage male, while by no means spared the emotional needs that are hidden beneath the bravado of adolescent sexuality. And so I responded to both challenges by spending an enormous amount of time at the piano, gradually working up toward my 10,000 hours. Think of it as four hours a day, 6 days a week, for 10 years. I rarely actually practiced that much, so it took me a lot longer than 10 years to get there. In fact, if I had to guess, I would say I probably crossed the threshold in my early 30s. By then I had a PhD in musicology and was embarked on another 10-year effort: the search for a suitable job at which the skills about which I did feel confident could be put to good use.

In the meantime, though, something remarkable happened. At age 32, my first marriage (I’d apparently licked the invisibility problem several years earlier) collapsed, at exactly the same point that all possible job prospects vanished for the foreseeable future. For the first time in my life, I was nobody, had nobody and had nothing to look forward to. But boy, could I suddenly play the piano! I would sit down at the keyboard and rich, liquid notes would arise at the touch of my fingers. I would be seized by the spirit of a piece I was playing, and no conscious process seemed to intervene between the print on the page and what my fingers were doing on the keyboard. I would listen to myself in amazement, because I had never imagined I could play like that. It was an extraordinary charism: a pure gift of grace. Or it was my reward for putting in my 10,000 hours. Or – and here’s a truly strange idea – it was both.

No, I didn’t change careers. I rebuilt my life, remarried, and finally found a job teaching music history. The demands of work and family took center stage, and I rarely had time to practice much, since that wasn’t what I was being paid to do. I still played when I could, but my fingers grew weak and my piano playing became a convenience: something I used to demonstrate in class while having absolutely no desire to go on stage. Well, maybe that’s an overstatement. I did direct an Early Music Ensemble for seven years, in which I had the opportunity to play the role of the least self-assertive of musicians: the humble continuo player. I plunked away at the harpsichord while a succession of talented singers mastered 16th- and 17th-century vocal repertory under my experimental guidance. I learned to read off a continuo part, which is something that many very, very good pianists can’t do. I was pretty satisfied occupying a demanding role that didn’t call attention to itself.

I had always promised myself, though, that a time would come when I would try to take my piano playing seriously again. As I jokingly explained last February before giving my first solo piano recital in 25 years, I got a single genie-in-a-bottle wish on Valentine’s Day 2009, and it was for three extra hours a day over the next year to practice piano. When added to the hour or so a day I was already putting in, this gave me over 1200 hours that year. OK, maybe I’m stretching a bit, but I played that recital in February, by memory, and it was good. Not great, as I’m well aware, but good enough to cause an old friend who watched the videos I posted on Facebook to assure me that I have a real gift.

And that brings me back to my opening question. As most people know, a talent is a measure of coinage mentioned in the New Testament, in a parable that is often taken as an allegorical suggestion that God gifts different people in different degrees. But the story is actually about money and investment. Are we really born with talents of a more intangible kind, or does everything depend on sweat and hard work and proper motivation? I’m no closer to knowing the answer now than I ever was.


  1. I spent the last forty minutes writing a lengthy reply, before my computer crashed and said reply was unrecoverable.

    A very condensed version -

    In my own musical development I have no experience of talent. I am perfectly comfortable with the idea that even Mozart was not particularly talented, given his intensive studies, but began his hours earlier than most within a Chomskyan critical window.

    My only reservation is that occasionally I encounter in person or read anecdotally about a level of skill towards which their is no gradual approach through even the hardest work - I have in mind Rachmaninoff's feats of memory, or Wilhelm Kempff offering to transpose any of the 48 preludes and fugues to any key on command - at age 12. These and others like them sit atop a Parnassus to which their are no steps.

    A Chinese proverb tells of a young man who entered martial arts training in a monastery. He was given a calf to hold, and told to jump with it over a sapling every day. Years passed - visitors hoping to see feats of strength were astonished to witness the man leaping over a sizable young oak with a full-grown cow in his arms.

    As a way of reconciling my understanding of incremental progress with the occasional impossible length, I ascribe to Howard Gardner's multiple intelligence theory, which allows for prodigy while acknowledging that most successes are the product of intense work.

  2. *"length" should be "feat," not sure how that happened...

  3. I also suspect there's something internal that seeks to find expression through the greatest creative artists. I mean this almost literally. Those who work at this level can be the medium for a kind of collective expression that many others in the same culture can easily recognize, but that only a few have the background and insight to voice successfully. This used to be acknowledged through the myth of the "daimon:" a kind of personal thorn in the side that drives those it possesses to make the effort needed for high-level creativity. If you're interested, the legend is conveyed very convincingly in Robertson Davies's novel What's Bred in the Bone.

  4. Definitely interested - I will look up the novel. Mann's Dr. Faustus was an early inspiration for me...