Talent’s Role In Artistry

It’s important to realize how critical of a role hard work plays in developing any skill, whether it be soccer, chess or music.  But it simply isn’t truthful to ignore the role of talent.  Many people don’t acknowledge this role nearly as much as it should be, even sometimes subscribing to the myth that there is no such thing as talent.  I have noticed that this talent myth is promoted more in the field of music than in other fields, and I believe this is because music is so highly personal – and valuable – to people.  For many, it’s easier to admit that they are no good at math (a nerdy discipline that some feel is of little use in their lives) than it is to admit that one probably won’t ever play music at a highly proficient level (a coveted discipline that almost everyone would love to do well in).

Recent trends have told us that anyone can do anything if they work hard enough.  Perhaps the most famous recent example would be Gladwell’s Outliers, with an explosion of similar books and articles that followed.  Authors and publishing companies realize that telling people they are limited by their genes doesn’t make them much profit.  Telling people they can each become Superman if they simply put in the hours, on the other hand, sells lots of books.

The latest research emphasizes the role of nurture in the classic nature vs. nurture argument. What the latest research fails to emphasize is that those who spend this many hours doing what they’re doing are motivated by positive reinforcement that others don’t experience:  these people were gifted with an obsessive interest in their field which makes the 10,000 hours of study more fun for them than it is for other people.  They were gifted with the drive to put in that many hours.  They were gifted with the ability to quickly comprehend various concepts in their field that others had to work much harder to understand.  They were born predispositioned to work themselves to death in that field.  This would certainly be supported by a 2008 Time Magazine article and a 2011 study.

By no means have I been the only one bothered by this trendy distortion of the power of talent.  A study published in Psychological Science by Elizabeth J. Meinz and David Z. Hambrick (June 9, 2010) confirms that this is true for sight-reading. The abstract reads:

Deliberate practice—that is, engagement in activities specifically designed to improve performance in a domain—is strongly predictive of performance in domains such as music and sports. It has even been suggested that deliberate practice is sufficient to account for expert performance. Less clear is whether basic abilities, such as working memory capacity (WMC), add to the prediction of expert performance, above and beyond deliberate practice. In evaluating participants having a wide range of pianoplaying skill (novice to expert), we found that deliberate practice accounted for nearly half of the total variance in piano sightreading performance. However, there was an incremental positive effect of WMC, and there was no evidence that deliberate practice reduced this effect. Evidence indicates that WMC is highly general, stable, and heritable, and thus our results call into question the view that expert performance is solely a reflection of deliberate practice.

There is no reason to believe that the skill of sight-reading would be so susceptible to natural factors while all other musical skills (or non-musical skills, for that matter) are somehow immune to the effects of nature.  There are plenty of other studies done that have shown similar conclusions about nature vs. nurture:

Updates since original printing of this article:

  1. 10/22/11: a new paper published in Current Directions in Psychological Science reinforces the points I’m making here: that Gladwell made his money by omitting contradictory research, and that working memory capacity (WMC) does indeed affect more than just sight-reading ability.  See Limits on the Predictive Power of Domain-Specific Experience and Knowledge in Skilled Performance (2011), or see the Science Daily article written on this.
  2. 11/21/11: Malcom Gladwell suffers yet another blow in a New York Times article titled Sorry, Strivers, Talent Matters.  Take special note of the Vanderbilt University study referenced as “Exhibit A”.
  3. 4/21/14: see Are Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours of Practice Really All You Need? (National Geographic Daily News)
  4. 7/24/14: a comprehensive review of all literature on nature vs. nurture suggests that deliberate practice accounts for only 21% of the variance in performance for music. Be sure to read the New York Times article that discusses this.

Proclaiming the uniqueness and individuality of humans is the thing to do as long as it’s on a motivational poster with a picture of a snowflake.  It is politically incorrect to point out the same thing in the context of human potential.  Click here for further reading on the genetic basis of talent.

Taking the Myth To Its Inevitable Conclusion

For those who are not convinced by unbiased studies and who still prefer to read books that are not peer-reviewed, let’s look at some extreme examples of talent.  (This section is probably too obvious for most people to be interested in reading, so I won’t feel offended if you want to skip to the next section of this article.)  Even talent deniers shouldn’t have any trouble acknowledging the fact that a person afflicted with Down Syndrome will not compose like Mozart “if only given proper nurturing and if they work hard enough.”  I could easily end my argument here since we’ve already shown a contradiction for talent deniers who say “everyone has equal potential”.  But let’s suppose talent deniers are folding their arms here, saying, “Well, those people don’t count.  Those are the outliers.”  Fine.  I’ll humor you.

You and I are not as musically brilliant as Mozart and are probably not affected by Down Syndrome.  We are not the outliers at the extreme ends of the “talent spectrum”.  So, where exactly does that place us? In order to believe that “the rest of us” have equal potential to develop some particular ability with an equal amount of focused effort (remember, those with Down Syndrome and who are geniuses like Mozart “don’t count” because they’re too inconvenient for talent deniers to think about), one must believe that we are all in the exact middle of the talent spectrum, like so:

Talent Diagram

In other words, talent-denying people don’t believe in a spectrum.  They must believe in three discrete talent points as shown above:  outliers to the right, outliers to the left, and the rest of us.  Everyone would have to be born with one of three identical, pre-defined talent templates.  Of course, this is completely absurd.  There is a spectrum.  In fact, there is most certainly a bell curve, where the area underneath the curve represents the number of people who have a certain amount of talent in any given area.

Talent Spectrum

Each individual is going to lie somewhere between Mozart and the person with Down Syndrome, who would respectively lie in the leftmost and rightmost two percent areas on the curve (probably off of the diagram since they are both such extreme statistical outliers).  There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that we each have some kind of potential in music that is as unique to us as our fingerprints are.  This is not, I repeat, NOT, equivalent to saying that someone with Down Syndrome cannot learn to play piano.  Anyone can.  It is simply to say that this person has a lot more to overcome than the other 99.99% of people who are taking piano lessons in order to reach the same target goal (and depending on the person and the goal, there could be so much to overcome that it might as well be considered impossible).  Likewise, all the little Mozarts out there have very little to overcome in music, and young/idealistic/”positive thinking” teachers who witness the progress of such students become instantaneous believers in the principle of talent.

The Role of Talent

Talent isn’t everything.  I’ve had a number of promising students in my lifetime – that is, students who always promise to do well but never actually do.  Too often, a student’s talent will make learning things effortless (school), and they don’t realize how much harder they must work when physical coordination and synchronization with time are involved (playing music).  Unfortunately, talented students are sometimes the least willing to engage in the systematic “drilling” of small sections of music that is necessary to truly master every detail in the music.  This task often feels too “dumb” or “beneath them”.  It is a rare student who has excessive amounts of talent while simultaneously having the humility to see the need for hard work wherever it exists.

For those who might be a bit disappointed to realize that we all have a unique ceiling, we can take refuge in knowing the fact that no one person can possibly predict where exactly one’s ceiling will be.  Not even you can predict your own.  We do not know where our ceiling is until we get there.  That means we’re in for an exciting journey in discovering where our potential takes us in any given discipline, and that’s why we should be in the game to enjoy the journey, not the destination.

Of course, certain extremes are guarantees.  For example, referencing my previous example, I’m willing to state with absolute certainty that no winner of the Van Cliburn Piano Competition will ever be afflicted with Down Syndrome.  I’m also willing to state with certainty that nobody born potential equal to Mozart will struggle to understand how to count rhythms of 8th notes and 16th notes (or quavers/semiquavers).  But as for the other 99% of us, there is simply too much we don’t know for us to be certain about anything.  This is all the more true with music, which is a discipline we can improve upon even when we are 90 years old, as evidenced by Vladimir Horowitz.  It isn’t like tennis or baseball, in which a 30-year-old player can stubbornly mount a five or ten year battle with destiny, only to realize at the end of the battle that they indeed reached their peak (ceiling) at the age of 30.

Usefulness and Balance in Teaching

I said in the beginning of this article that it’s more truthful to acknowledge the role of talent in developing skill.  I did not say it is always useful.  Conveying to a student the importance of hard work in becoming a great musician is likely to result in harder work.  Conveying to a student the importance of talent in becoming a great musician is not going to make the student more talented.  It could possibly make the student work harder, or it could make them give up, depending on how they perceive their own talent.

In fact, I saw an interesting poster presentation at the 2009 MTNA National Convention on this very subject, titled “Tell The Truth Or Not” (presented by Yuking Mühlböck-Chou). Yuking details four typical talent scenarios that educators encounter and shows the possible outcomes for each choice. In correspondence with Yuking, she also noted that the U.S. and east Asia seem to be polar opposites of each other: in the U.S., untalented kids are often told they’re talented (emphasis on self-esteem), while in east Asia, talented kids are often told they’re untalented (emphasis on pushing to work harder). Europe would be more of a middle ground, with educators always delivering the truth no matter how flattering or devastating it may be (emphasis on professional duty to the student).

Any good teacher must continually strive to find the equilibrium point that balances students’ need for encouragement with the intrinsic good of truth and realism.  Confidence is a good thing (see this study, which concludes that “higher self-efficacy enhances the processes used in learning and allows for a more successful outcome for a particular task”), but overconfidence is a bad thing.  This equilibrium point is completely different for each student, depending on their level of talent, their personality, ego, etc.  Everyone knows it would be absolutely terrible for me to tell a student, “You could never become a great pianist.”  But it would be equally terrible for me to take a student who is clearly not in the top 20% of the talent bell curve and lead them to believe, year after year, that they have an excellent shot at winning three or four international piano competitions.  There is a certain point at which helping a student think positive crosses a line into the realm of irresponsibly creating false hope.  Leading someone down a path of spending time in an area that is not going to reap fantastic life results is one of the most negative things a mentor can do.  Even those who are in the top 1% must still work extremely hard and encounter some luck to land a successful career as a concert artist.

Acknowledging Credit Where Due

As I mentioned earlier, some people are destined to never be concert-level musicians even though they might wish to be.  This is a nasty truth.  An even nastier truth that results is that nobody can take 100% responsibility for the success they enjoy in life.

Success doesn’t come from hard work and hard work alone:  it also comes from nurturing/environment as well as from talent.  We do not have control over the amount of talent we were born with, and we have only limited amounts of control over the environment we grow up in.  Call your success a blessing if you’re Christian.  Call it karma if you’re Hindu.  Or if you’re atheist, call it good fortune.  In any case, it is never “all me”.

As a performer, I’ve always strived to give credit where it was due.  When people compliment me on how hard I’ve had to work to perform the way I do, I accept their compliment. But I must also accept comments from people such as, “You are so blessed that you can play that way.” It would be downright arrogant for me to claim that the strong musical potential I was born with had absolutely nothing to do with my musical success in life. It would also be arrogant for me to claim that the environment my parents provided for me (persistence in making me practice and not letting me quit, on top of the willingness to shell out thousands of dollars per year for private piano lessons during my K-12 years) had nothing to do with my success.

Some Quotes On Talent

Quotes about the unimportance of talent are a dime a dozen, and they’re all very heart-warming.  Here’s a good one:

“Press on: Nothing in the world can take the place of perseverance.  Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.  Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.  Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.  Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”     – Calvin Coolidge

As heart-warming as this is, I’d be more impressed with quotes like these if they were spoken by fools who somehow managed to beat the odds.  It doesn’t surprise me if a well-educated, intelligent boy from Massachusetts works his way up the ladder to eventually become President of the United States. Yes, Coolidge had to work exceptionally hard and indeed had to “press on” to get where he was, but he certainly couldn’t have done it without talent (non-idiocy) and nurturing (good education and good upbringing).

Thomas Edison said, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”  If we consider the statement in the context of inventing things – which is how it was intended to be taken – it is absolutely true.  Anyone can have an idea for a brilliant invention.  Such ideas can pop into our heads very quickly, sometimes several per day.  But what good are these “brilliant” inventions if they are never actually built?  Thus, an invention is truly defined by 99% hard work and 1% good idea.

While this quote really only applies narrowly to the process of inventing, it is widely and fallaciously applied to just about everything else, including the mastering of a musical instrument.  Those who only attribute their success to 1% genes they were born with and 99% hard work do so because of two possible reasons which are, ironically, total opposites of each other:

  1. Vanity – we want to glorify ourselves as much as possible, and there is nothing self-glorifying about admitting to certain traits we were born with.  We’d rather believe that we forged who we are from scratch.
  2. Humility – we want to encourage others to work harder by suggesting that anyone can be just as successful as we were with an equal amount of hard work – even if it gives people false hope.  Sometimes talented people project their own confidence onto others, genuinely believing that “if I can do it, so can you”, in which case they are ignorant of the significant role their own talent played in their lives.

Worse, nobody can prove us wrong when we say, “My success was [insert arbitrarily low number here] percent talent and [100 minus that] percent hard work.”  Putting actual numbers to the talent/work ratio is hard or impossible.  Maybe it’s 50/50, maybe it’s 25/75, maybe it’s 75/25.  In reality, it’s probably different for everyone.  But there’s no way on Earth it’s 1/99.

One of my eighth grader students could narrate all of the key modulations by ear as he listened to a Bach recording.  While I could do the same when I was a few years older than him, most graduate music students can’t do that after 20 years of musical training.  It is rare, even among professionals.  That same student won the Nevada state MATHCOUNTS competition, and he was taking differential equations at the college level. Did his eighth grade classmates believe that his mathematical talent is really just 99% hard work? No way. I don’t believe it, and not even he believed it.

Why do some students do no homework at all and get perfect scores on all the tests in some class, while other students work four times as hard just to get 80s and 90s on the same tests? Why are some kids naturally coordinated at everything they do, and other kids have very little coordination? Is that 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration? The best answer is often the simplest: talent plays a fairly strong role in determining who rises to the top in any field.

Allow me to finish with one last quote about talent that is both clever and wise, this time with a slightly different point.  Yoheved Kaplinsky (chair of the piano department at Julliard) said in the 2007 World Piano Pedagogy Conference, “Talent as a factor in musical success is like sex as a factor in marriage:  if it’s there, it’s 10%;  if it’s not, it’s 90%.”  There are a lot of “it” words in this quote – to avoid confusion, allow me to rephrase this without using the word “it”:

Talent as a factor in musical success is like sex as a factor in marriage: if the talent is there, then talent will only be 10% responsible for their possible future success; if the talent is not there, then the lack of talent will be 90% responsible for their likely future failure.”

Likewise, it reads:

“…if the sex is there, then sex will be 10% responsible for the couple’s possible future success in marriage; if the sex is not there, then the lack of sex will be 90% responsible for their likely future failure in marriage.”

Another important point of clarification:  Kaplinsky’s lecture was titled, “How to Advise High School Students about the Musical Career,” which means we’re talking about students who are obviously very serious about music.  Kaplinsky’s definition of “success” here is essentially to become a concert pianist (i.e. paid frequently and paid well to perform in concert halls), which is probably a definition commonly used in her studio since many of her students would probably say they want to be concert pianists.  Obviously, no teacher on Earth (not even Kaplinsky herself) would regard anyone universally a failure just because they don’t become a concert pianist.  It all depends on the wishes of the student.  If a student’s only goal is merely to have fun with music, to eventually play Indiana Jones sheet music, or if a parent only wishes for their child’s brain to develop better because of their involvement in music, then Kaplinsky herself would probably be the first to say that the quotation above, while still true, becomes irrelevant.  In other words, an extremely untalented student who wants to be a concert pianist should probably have their expectations adjusted (in a gentle, but still honest, way).  But an extremely untalented student who is only involved in music for pleasure or cognitive development does not need to know anything about talent and will surely experience discouragement if their lack of talent is explicitly pointed out.

(c) 2009 Cerebroom

About Chad

Chad is a pianist, composer, piano teacher and blogger with a Masters Degree in Piano Performance. He received the 2005 Nevada Arts Council Fellowship Grant for the composing and performing on his Ostinato CD.
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13 responses to Talent’s Role In Artistry

  1. Wes

    I must disagree with you partly, and also agree with you partly. Talent in the traditional sense, such as innate skill, is nonexistent. It is much easier to say that you are bad at something because you weren’t “born with the knack” than to say that you just lack the motivation to perform. I would say that some people are better than others at things, but their drive to excel is not talent, it is motivation. Talent is only applied perseverance, and the ability to continue on when it seems hopeless.

    • Nina

      You misunderstand the science cited above if you still believe talent is “applied perseverance.” Talent is wasted without perseverance, but perseverance in the absence of talent is also waste — unless the student perseveres because the goal is to have fun.

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  3. Isn’t one aspect of talent an ability to grasp what skills are required and find ways to pound them in if any of them aren’t already there, or in other words, to find the differences between one’s current performance and the hypothetical person who already excels, and systematically remove them? For instance, it is indeed possible to pound in perfect pitch and perfect rhythm through systematic study.

    • Absolutely, I’d agree with that. Even though there are no studies that specifically show this to be true, this is one of those things that really doesn’t need a study. It would be silly to believe that everyone is born with equal ability to self-diagnose and develop smart practice strategies to address various weaknesses. Having an advantage in this area would make an enormous difference.

  4. That is why someone who happens to be mentally challenged is unlikely to get as far–partly due to lack of self-awareness, and partly due to lack of analytical abilities, and possibly some sensory disabilities, too. The self-awareness part is the good that can come from people who seem to be insulting–they sometimes have a point, and can notice things that one wouldn’t notice all alone.

    It is one thing simply not to have mastered the material yet, and another far worse thing not even to know what must be learned later–an entirely different level of being lost.

    • Reminds me of an ancient proverb that I couldn’t help memorizing a long time ago:
      He who knows not and knows not that he knows not is a fool. Shun him.
      He who knows not and knows that he knows not is a child. Teach him.
      He who knows and knows not that he knows is asleep. Wake him.
      He who knows and knows that he knows is wise. Follow him.

  5. In some cases, it might be more helpful to simply hang around with someone who already is what a person wishes to be and watch them go about their business, rather than to sit with a teacher and be taught directly.

    • Ah, I’m not sure I’d agree with that. I thought you were talking about self-awareness, as in detecting errors while practicing goals that a teacher gives you. Coming up with one’s own goals to teach themselves piano will ALWAYS be a much slower process than doing what a great teacher says, because none of those goals will be intuitive to any student. How does one self-determine the optimal training path in developing skills they don’t even have yet? It’s like plotting the best trail through 5,000 miles of mountainous forest that one has never been through before – there is just too much one can’t know and foresee, no matter how wise. One doesn’t know what some of those skills even are, let alone how useful they will be, let alone the quickest way to develop them. I have never met a single self-taught musician who didn’t have many serious holes in their playing.

      • Would the goals still have to be intuitive if one had a master to watch, rather than working entirely alone? I mean the process of watching the master himself learning, rather than being told what must be learned.

        • I think this would only work if you could read the master’s mind. There are so many things that can go wrong in musical study because it involves more than just cognition (like learning history, math or computer science) – it also involves timing and physical coordination. That makes it kind of like sports – no matter how good and talented you are, even the best tennis player on Earth must still have a tennis coach. But music is even worse than sports because of the cognitive learning curve – it takes probably 5-10 years depending on the student to become fully acquainted with vocabulary, notation, theory, etc. (while in sports it only takes a year or two of experience to become intimately familiar with rules and strategy).

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