"There’s no such thing as talent."
Thus far I’ve started each post in this series with a quote from the book, a quote that captures the essence of the week’s subject.
The quote above is from me.
It’s a controversial statement for many people, not least of which, some of my favorite people in the world. But I believe in that quote because as I survey my pianistic life so far, I surmise that I am living proof that what we tend to call ‘talents’ are learned skills, not genetic predispositions.
I was not drawn to the piano when I was young. My parents started my brother, 2 years older than me, with lessons when he was 6. I suppose I was aware that I would follow soon enough, and was eager to begin copying him. But I wasn’t exceptional. In fact, despite those 2 years of priming, my brother always scored higher on his graded examinations than I did.
At some point I began to be interested in classical music at a higher level and I decided to pursue it in my post-secondary education. I’d had some success in local competitions, but despite my excellent teacher in high school, I had a long way to go to catch up to students who had serious teachers like her from their first lesson. At University I was a small fish in a small pond, and as I’ve discussed in other posts, while the pond grew bigger around me, I had a hard time keeping up.
Early in The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle relates a story of a British soccer coach studying soccer training grounds for young players. Rather than playing the normal game but with great passion and natural skill, Brazilians were obsessed with a version of soccer “played inside a phone booth and dosed with amphetamines.” (pg. 25). Congregating on a tiny field, with a heavy, dull ball, the pace was much faster than soccer. Player’s reactions were much quicker given these constrictions, and the ball moves around more often.
Transfer someone who has learned to manage in this game to the expanse of a soccer field and the ease of a soccer ball while keeping the quick decision making ability and you’ve got the makings of a great soccer player.
Coyle focuses much of his book studying the phenomenon of deep practice. When you practice a skill just beyond what you’re presently capable of, you are more likely to succeed. The reward is in trying, failing, trying again until it’s easier. It’s how our neurological system is built, making connections in our brain between foreign ideas then reinforcing.
Even Mozart was likely exposed to enough music that he achieved deep practice from a very early age. Up to the time he was touted as a child prodigy, he still amassed an impressive amount of deep practice to build the illusion of natural talent. And make no mistake, as impressive as he was at a young age, the true genius of Mozart wouldn’t come for many more years.
“When you’re practicing deeply, the world’s usual rules are suspended. You use time more efficiently. Your small efforts produce big, lasting results. You have positioned yourself at a place of leverage where you can capture failure and turn it into skills. The trick is to choose a goal just beyond your present abilities; to target the struggle. Thrashing blindly doesn’t help. Reaching does.” (page 19)
I don’t think so. The longer I was with my high school teacher, the more of a classical nerd I became. I read message boards and though I had no claim to authority, entered vehement arguments about whether Beethoven was a classical or a romantic composer. I downloaded scores and recordings on my parent’s dial-up internet (I grew up on a farm). I bought scores if I won some extra money in the local music festival, or asked for scores as gifts. I could name opus numbers, and keys of all Beethoven piano sonatas before I’d heard more than a couple.
My point is that despite limited resources, I slowly fell into a greater study of classical music, consuming as much as I could. My musical voice was learned through a process, it happened to develop much before my technical abilities caught up.
I’m more encouraged in life by disparaging the word talent. I think of all the things I am not good at: cooking (other than a few ‘specialties’), hammering nails, auto mechanics. Sometimes these deficiencies are frustrating, but if push came to shove, I’d be able to pick up the skills necessary with lots of trial and error. Or I think about all the habits I’ve instilled over the years: Any of my success has been due to changing my lifestyle from what always felt natural. I used to think I was a night owl, practicing until 1 or 2 AM whenever I could. Then out of necessity to get access to a practice room, I switched to become an earlier and earlier riser, realizing that the morning hours were far more productive than endless nighttime ones. I even get up at least an hour earlier than I ever need to, because I enjoy sitting with my coffee before I have to do anything else.
Sure, we all have preferences, but those change and evolve despite how natural or assured our old preferences felt. I used to despise the same contemporary music I now love, and perform often. I learned to love it. While no one has time to learn everything, and sometimes new skills come with insurmountable odds, we are far more capable than we give ourselves credit for.
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