Is musical talent something that we are born with? Or is musical talent based solely on environment and training?
It has been interesting to hear so many different perspectives on the same subject as I have begun teaching music, and in particular, vocal music. Parents of children who are taking music lessons or adult music students seem to be the most firmly set in their view of this topic. Can we find a balanced perspective?
To be utterly transparent, the idea for this blog post came from another online conversation I've been following. At the Music Educator's Group on LinkedIn all kinds of music education topics are discussed. One recent post is called The Talent Myth. Different music educators have weighed in with their comments about how "talent" is perceived by music students and others. I'd like to add to the conversation by sharing a few simple points that I have found to be true in my experience working with singers and other musicians.
Some people have more raw ability than others
It is true that there are many different levels of natural ability in children and adults who desire to play an instrument or sing. Some people lean too heavily on this truth however, and think that most of the individual's ability is based on this raw natural talent. This is not what I have found to be true.
As humans, we are not made out of a "cookie cutter" mold, where we are all the same. My wife and I have done a lot of reading and observation about various personality types and how they affect the way we interact. Our favorite book on this topic is Personality Plus, by Florence Littauer. Part of our personality is an intrinsic part of us, and I believe this holds true in our musical capacity as well. However...
Most music performance ability is the result of proper training and practice
Far more than the level of natural ability, the training and practice disciplines will determine what level of performance ability an individual exibits. More specifically, we each have a natural talent level; but what percentage of that capability we are actually using will be determined by our training and discipline.
For example, one of the most incredible displays of child "talent" that I've ever witnessed was while I was on a trip to North Korea this past spring. I traveled there with a men's choral group to perform in the 28th Spring Friendship Art Festival. We were shown many of the allowed sites by the government officials who accompanied us. One of these was the Schoolchildren's Palace in Pyongyang. The musical performance that we saw there was one of the most incredible sites that I have ever seen. The precision, accuracy, and poise with which the young children performed was nearly perfect. In fact, every music performance we saw in the DPRK was nearly perfect. I am sure that I will never witness such a performance by any group of children in the United States.
This incredible children's performance left me pondering several things. These children were almost at a robotic level of performance. They had obviously been worked extremely hard in their training, which is not surprising with the type of culture and government currently at work in the DPRK. This type of training for children is not what I would desire or condone. But on the other hand, it showed me what was possible, even by young people. It made the lack of discipline that I see so often in children here in the States look really pathetic. Many children today seem to want to be "rockstars," but won't put in the necessary effort to develop their abilities. And their parents often don't demand any discipline from them either.
Developing a balanced approach
After seeing these two extremes, I have a desire to find the right perspective. This must be somewhere in the middle. If an individual desires to fully develop musically, it will not happen apart from solid training and disciplined practice. There are some seeming overnight successes, but what is not seen is the hours, days, months, and years of preparation. Those who do get by on looks and charm without musical depth often have short-lived success.
As musicians, our task is to take God's creation of music and use this gift to its greatest benefit. We have the priviledge of utilizing a unique combination of creative inspiration and diligent effort. Let us not waste this gift.
What are your thoughts on musical "talent" and finding the balance between diligence and overworking?
Rick McDonnell is a vocalist, voice teacher, and the head blogger at Harmony Passion. Rick enjoys Mexican food, barbershop quartets, family time, singing at community events, personal finance, running, and studying the Bible. Rick and his wife Bethany teach music students in their home studio and in music studios in nearby Thomasville, GA.
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