Talent is Overrated; Practising is Underrated
Just a few weeks ago at a student’s graduation recital, while talking with some guests of the student’s family, I was surprised to hear that yet again, the child’s high performance level was being attributed to her ‘talent.’ This always presents a dilemma for me as the teacher. Although the idea of being “talented” is appealing because it makes the recipient of the label feel somehow innately special - imbued with unique capabilities - it also belittles the amount of effort it takes to reach any level of mastery.
In this case, while the student is indeed intellectually quick (which is one possible evidence-based way to define ‘talent’ since it means she may learn things faster than average), I also know how much time her family has put into ensuring that:
Given the rich musical and learning environment she has at home, it’s pretty hard to chalk it up to ‘talent’ when she loves her flute, works hard and plays it well!
In the recent book “Why Talent is Overrated,” author Geoff Colvin presents an engaging set of evidence describing what it takes to succeed at anything. At the core is focused, deliberate practice. For Suzuki teachers, it’s exciting to see that this idea is becoming mainstream, given that Dr. Suzuki built his teaching method on the foundation that all children can develop ability - that talent can be educated. What’s more, the Suzuki community has been working for generations to develop tools and techniques for doing this effectively in ways that are matched to every child individually.
When Does Talent Reveal Itself?
No matter how ‘talented’ you are, it still takes effort to reach mastery levels. Parents are inclined to ask: “Does my child have talent?” As teachers, we might be inclined to interpret this as “Can my child be the next YoYo Ma?” but it likely means something more like “Is the money and effort really worth it?” The challenge with this question is that it can’t be answered solely on the basis of the student’s apparent ‘talent.’ Some parents expect even the youngest students to be self-motivated - to be able to sit alone in a room doing repetitious practice without anyone coaching. (“Go and do your practice, dear.”) The ability to engage in disciplined solitary practice has little to do with talent and probably rather a lot to do with personality traits such as introversion. This is why in Suzuki Method we have a parent practise with the child, and we provide an array of social musical experiences such as group lessons, recitals, workshops, chamber ensembles and mass concerts.
When I’m asked the 'talent' question, my response comes from many years of involvement with Suzuki Method. It also comes from a deep belief that it can take time for any of us to find our path and commit to mastering something. So, my answer to the question sounds something like “I’m not comfortable making a judgement about whether your child has the potential to be a professional, because even the most ‘gifted’ musicians need a lot of training in order to reveal their true potential.” And then I tell this story:
I taught a young girl at a Suzuki institute who at age 7 or so was a typical little flute player, working slowly through Book 1. The next year, she still had a lot of gaps in her playing: tone development, rhythmic accuracy, the usual things. She attended the program every summer, and progressed very slowly. She seemed to like playing the flute, but was very quiet and didn’t have much of a tone. By age eleven or so she didn’t seem very motivated and she definitely wasn’t advanced for her age.
Then one summer she arrived at the institute having been accepted as a participant in the by-audition-only Student Honour Recital. So help me, it was like lightning had struck. Her tone was luminous! She was a fiery, confident presence on stage. Her playing was bristling with conviction and expressiveness. I remember being completely astonished that this was the same student I’d taught over the years. Her playing was utterly extraordinary! Moreover, her whole presence was transformed. By the time she was a young teenager, she was invited to perform at a number of prestigious masterclasses, had won concerto contests and performed with musicians far older and more experienced than she was. She had found her ‘voice’ as a musician.
Now, if this young flutist had been studying with a teacher who believed that talent can always be assessed early on, she might have been stopped in her tracks when she was a shy little girl with a tiny tone and not a lot of persistence. But she was nurtured and helped along bit by bit, doing the work that every learner needs to do. For whatever reason, when the time was right, she revealed herself to be an exceptionally 'talented' person. Dr. Suzuki would say that her talent had been developed.
Every child can gain many valuable things from playing music: from actual differences in brain development, to how to be artistically expressive, to how to work very hard on repetitive tasks and how to work with other musicians. So, what is the message for parents who ask the talent question, and for the occasional student who brings you this question? At some point, the results from hard work and discipline start to look an awful lot like talent. You can tell your students: “Start putting in the 10,000 hours it takes to achieve mastery, and see when you get identified as having ‘talent.’”