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Does Talent Matter?

Peter Rubie By

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In other words, the most accomplished students didn't just practice for hours on end in order to get better, they used that time to focus on mastering technical skills designed to improve performance and express their creativity; they developed their skills using external rewards as motivation, such as pay, or concert performances; and they participated in any kind of practice that explored their various skills and was inherently enjoyable, like jamming/playing with other people. So, according to Ericsson, it's not talent, nor even endurance of long hours put into mastering your craft that counts, but what you practice that is so important. It's also true that at some point fairly early on, true craftsmen and women usually fall in love with practicing to the point where it becomes a kind of daily meditation.

If my friend was right, then in Ericsson's study the "super talented" should have risen to the elite level with less effort than their peers. No one did. In fact, the data showed a direct correlation between hours of correct practice, and achievement. Wise journeyman study wins out, it seems.

An example of all this can be glimpsed in the sad story of the (fairly unknown) brilliant jazz guitarist Billy Bean, who in the 1950s could play the guitar pretty much the way Charlie Parker played the alto sax. Bean was consumed by the demon of alcoholism to the point that he gave up early on a career in music that would have likely matched Wes Montgomery's or Joe Pass's, if you follow these things. For the non-musical it's a bit like Picasso deciding he'd rather drink than paint. So what good does talent do for you under those circumstances? That said, I know Billy Bean must have worked hard at mastering his instrument when he was young, and studied with Dennis Sandole, the teacher who also taught John Coltrane. But Billy famously told a friend in retrospect of his early recordings, none of which he liked, "Oh, I was just goofing off." But that is belied by one interesting kitchen recording he made of a rehearsal for an upcoming record date, when halfway through improvising on a tune he makes a mistake for four bars. What we hear, preserved for all time, is the genuine belly laughter of a likely sober young man delightedly doing the thing he loved to do most and best in the world, even when it doesn't work out quite how he wanted it to.

I may have mentioned this before, but for me the best definition of talent is by the iconic jazz drummer Art Blakey, an equally great spotter and incubator of talented young jazz musicians. He said talent is the speed with which someone learns something. This instantly resonated with me. It's the least elitist approach to talent, and the one that most emphasizes the need to do the work, rather than just rely on a "magical" ability that one is born with. Because the truth is, we are all born with skill sets buried in our DNA. Just as "Boo" said, some people pick up on that a lot faster than others, and some find it easier than others and progress faster as a result. But it's all about a willingness to do the work.

Implied in my friend's question is another that sets my teeth on edge—what do we mean by "success"? Financial success and fame require of the artist an overtly commercial sensibility that may appeal to the masses e.g., Justin Bieber, or Lady Gaga, but artistically in terms of talent are they really comparable to, say, Frank Sinatra or Rene Fleming or Aretha Franklin in their prime? Does it matter? And is that commercial sensibility i.e., a talent to sometimes cynically read what others want in entertainment and give it to them, sometimes pandering to the bottom line at the expense of real creativity? Don't get me wrong, God knows there's nothing wrong with making lots of money as a performing artist if you can. I would if I could as long as I could live with the music I had to play.

But I believe, even now, art should not be just about money, because inevitably then it becomes shaped by a fear of offending people. It makes sense to me that art has to be intellectually and emotionally challenging, because it attempts to ask interesting questions and make us think differently about the world we live in. So it's likely to have a small audience at first, which will hopefully grow over time. We hope, further, that audiences will enjoy our work enough to look to see if there is more by us. Once in a while something may catch unexpectedly, and a new phenom is born from base clay, but you can't really plan for that.



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