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Does Talent Matter?

Does Talent Matter?
Peter Rubie By

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My friend’s view of talent as some magic gift assumes that being the best singer, or the best piano player is synonymous in some ways with destiny. . . What is true, I think, is that every artist or performer has a responsibility to develop and refine a uniqueness of vision that makes them special, regardless of whether or not others appreciate that vision. But saying it is one thing, and living it another.
A good friend of mine, who is a recognized great guitarist, once said to me as we were standing at the bar of the old Birdland, "Charlie Christian really wasn't that good a player, you know." I looked at him for a moment, then said with a smile, "Are you trying to pick a fight with me?" He laughed. Busted!

Not so long ago, another friend who wanted to be a novelist and had worked hard at it for several years without much success, asked me: "What's more important to artistic success? Talent, judgment, or perseverance?"

This felt like one of those argumentative things Jack might say to me sometimes when we were younger and out listening to music and ran out of anything more interesting to say to each other. But it's a kind of "brain worm" (cousin of an "earworm") too. Once spoken it lingers, like an unwelcome party guest who won't go home.

Although my friend's nonfiction has been published, he had decided to quit writing because he just couldn't find a publisher. His fiction would never get published, he said, because he just wasn't talented enough, regardless of how hard he worked at it.

I disagreed with him. At one point in our discussion he said that if a less talented person could catch up with someone who had a genuine gift for their art form through hard work alone, it would mean anybody could sing like Frank Sinatra or play the saxophone like Michael Brecker if they practiced hard enough. "Some people can just do things that others simply can't," my friend announced. (Ironically, Brecker, widely held to be the most influential tenor saxophonist of his generation, was asked in an interview not long before he died, "What does it feel like to be the king of the tenor saxophone?" To which Brecker reportedly replied, "I don't know, you'd better ask Jerry Bergonzi.")

There's an appealing superficial obviousness to my friend's observation, but I don't buy it. I work with writers and musicians every day; I see the "talent" in my teenage son and I know, for that talent to mean something, the hard work he must choose to put in daily into mastering not just the violin but jazz itself. And I see the fulfillment and pride of achievement he feels when he performs well and is recognized for it.

The observation that some people can do some things better than others is why I quit playing music for a while 30 years ago. I did it for a number of reasons, but the truth was I was in awe and also despondent of things friends did musically, many of them great players, that I could not. My friend told me he decided to quit writing because of that story, which I had told him casually over lunch some years before. But he wasn't paying attention to the fact that when my son started playing the violin, I started practicing once more and found I enjoyed it so much I eventually started playing in public again.

My friend's view of talent as some magic gift assumes that being the best singer, or the best pianist is synonymous in some ways with destiny. But it's truer to say that some people have, for example, innately better hand-eye coordination than others. But so what? It's why we can get into (somewhat pointless) beer soaked arguments about who's the better jazz guitarist—George Benson or Pat Martino. It's all just so subjective. What is true, I think, is that every artist or performer has a responsibility to develop and refine a uniqueness of vision that makes them special, regardless of whether or not others appreciate that vision. But saying it is one thing, and living it another.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites a study done in the 1990s by K. Anders Ericsson (Dept. of Psychology, Florida State Univ.) on music students. In true British tabloid-press fashion, Gladwell overbroadly concluded from the report that elite musicians averaged 10,000 hours of practice each, while the less able only practiced 4,000 hours. It was the hard work that did it, was the message.

But this conclusion was disputed as simplistic by Ericsson in a letter to the NY Times. Ericsson's letter made a better, subtler point:

Our paper found that the attained level of expert music performance of students at an international level music academy showed a positive correlation with the number of solitary practice hours accumulated in their careers and the gradual improvement due to goal-directed deliberate practice.

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