Is Talent a Myth?

All you have to do is scan YouTube comments and you see the ubiquitous “Wow, that girl is so talented.”

What’s wrong with that comment? Talent is invisible. There’s no way to tell from a musical end product how much the performer’s natural talent has contributed to that product. What the commentator is really saying is “Wow, that girl is so skilled.” And in my opinion, as a three-decade music educator, talent is the least of all factors in developing impressive musical skill.

I guess it depends how you define talent. I would define it as:  innate genetic mental or emotional disposition toward learning music quickly. And in that sense, talent is not myth. There are individuals born with better pitch, better rhythmic sensibilities, more adept minds at mastering details. But no one is born playing a guitar. To be a masterful player is going to take hours and hours of focus and work. The myth is it *just* takes talent.

I think the knee jerk reaction of labeling a skillful performer “so talented” is really an affront to their dedication and sacrifice. A skilled performer has put in hundreds if not thousands of hours of practice time, they’ve faced down their own laziness and procrastination, their self-doubt and their fears, and they have invested in their instrument or their voice instead of giving up or flitting from activity to activity.

So why do we use the word?

Maybe it’s ignorance. Maybe non-artists who have never tried out an artistic endeavor really think it just takes disposition and interest rather than patience and craft.

Maybe it’s hero worship. We like to have idols and role models, and that’s great to a point.  But I’d argue the best reaction to a musical idol is to recognize the power of their music and to admire the path by which they came to channel such greatness — in other words, to be inspired to similarly work hard in our own art. Stressing their “talent” discourages us, and leads us to think we could never be like that.

Maybe it’s laziness. If talent is the key ingredient, and we perceive that only *other* people have it, then we’re off the hook.



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