How nice it would be if we could automatically be good musicians, with little or no effort involved; just sit down and play brilliantly! Many people assume that’s what musicians do! I think what is largely responsible for that assumption is our culture’s misuse of the word talent.

When someone picks up a new instrument, or sings for the first time, if they find they don’t sound like a professional, they sometimes decide it must be because they don’t have the talent for it. After all, we’ve heard all our lives that talent is what (or maybe all) it takes. But that would be like expecting yourself to design a skyscraper without studying architecture.

Ability doesn’t just happen. Yes, there are the Mozarts and the Jackie Evanchos of the world, but Mozart had encouragement from knowledgeable mentors right from infancy, and Jackie has had extensive coaching to polish her lovely voice.

Because of the way we use the word, the myth of talent as “automatically fully developed skill” is perpetuated to a degree every time someone says, “You’re so talented!” Actually, the Webster’s Dictionary definition of talent is: a characteristic feature, aptitude, or disposition of a person or animal, the natural endowments of a person, a special athletic, creative, or artistic aptitude, general intelligence or mental power, ability. This could be mis-read as meaning what we expect it to mean. But if you read carefully, you see that a talent is whatever ability or disposition someone has. The definition certainly does not say that no coaching or education has to take place in order for an aptitude or inclination to become a skill.

Of course there are certain authority figures in our lives who declare what we “can” and “can’t” do. I find it shameful that anyone  –  parent, teacher or other  –  gives any person an idea that they can’t learn something, or oppositely, an idea that they have such natural talent that no skill development is needed. Making music well requires much patience and practice whether you have talent or not. When those with talent don’t bother to work at development, they can be left in the dust by those with less apparent talent but a lot of ambition. And anyone who has worked hard to develop a skill should get credit for the work they’ve done, instead of just being told “You’re so talented!”, which ignores the effort involved.

I once met someone who said I should never be paid for playing music, because it was a natural talent that should be freely shared! She had no idea of the depth of that insult. (Strangely, this lady was a psychic who charged $60 per hour for a reading. The irony of it was amusing.)

One may be “talented” if consistently exposed to music and encouraged to participate in it on a daily basis at an early age. I guarantee that someone who did not have such exposure and opportunity will appear to have less talent, because the neural pathways that process music-learning are less developed. But that usually doesn’t mean they can’t catch up, given the right circumstances or the will to do so. Integrating music (playing the notes reasonably accurately, producing good tone, playing smoothly and with good rhythm and understanding of appropriate tempos, dynamics and expression, and appropriate use of stylistic nuances) is something that comes with time, practice, and lots of exposure.

Another concept that begs to be questioned is that talent implies that someone is more special than someone else. Especially with children, this is damaging, IMHO. It inflates egos or deflates delicate self-esteem. Willingness to work toward musical goals trumps any concept of individual specialness. In the end, the one who plays best (if comparisons must be made) is the one who worked hardest.

It’s easy to use “talent” and “lack of talent” as excuses for what we will and won’t do. But excuses aren’t necessary. If you’ve not worked as hard as someone else, instead of saying “I don’t have the talent”, you can in good conscience say, “I have no desire to work that hard.” Here’s the important thing: music is supposed to be fun. You’re entitled to work as hard as you wish, and to not work harder you wish (unless your parents are paying for your music education!). Do as much as you enjoy and your music will always be pleasing to you.