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The Talent Myth
Is there such a thing as Talent?
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The Talent Myth
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User image The Talent Myth
Posted by Dylan Christopher, 10 months ago
Tags: talent, effort, time

The Talent Myth

When I was younger, I would look at some of my peers and elders in awe, particularly my secondary school music teacher Ian Claydon, or Mr Claydon as I would respectfully refer to him.  It was as though he could do anything and was highly regarded by all who knew him.  I can remember sitting, listening, in first-year music lessons at secondary-school, watching in awe, at his skill.

From one moment to the next he would seamlessly jump from improvising piano accompaniments to, sight-reading a piano part for a student, then suddenly, “Mr Claydon! Could I borrow you for a moment?”, another teacher would ask from around a half-closed door, at which point he would jump up and leave the room, only to do it all again in the class next door.  I had never experienced anything like it, such, raw … talent, or was it?

When I met Mr Claydon for the first time, he was in his twilight years, already greying and complaining of arthritis and achy joints.  During my time at the secondary school, I would proceed to watch him age, retire and later, pass away.  He was most definitely a veteran to the craft, and despite the common misconception -- “those who can’t, teach” -- he was most definitely worth his salt as a pianist, composer and musician.

From my perspective as a twelve-year-old boy, I was seeing a ‘complete’ human being at the end of a process all manifesting as what we perceive as ‘talent’.  What I did not see was, as he would sometimes say, “sixty-years, of music”; and he was right, I did not.

From my perspective, he was talented, but from his, he had just worked hard and smart, over a large period of time.  He later admitted the reason why he was able to adapt was having spent time in a large variety of disciplines.  In some respects, he was forced to; dealing with such a diverse student body in a Greater London comprehensive school, catering to everyone he would encounter, it is no surprise.

As people, we are often lazy with our speech; I am saying this after recently being corrected for saying “puzzle”, rather than “jigsaw-puzzle” -- whoops.  To say a person is ‘Talented’ is lazy language, and does not acknowledge all the hard work and effort they have put in to achieve whatever feat they have presented.  ‘Talent’ suggests that some people are just born that way, which for the majority of cases, is not at all true, and limiting.

There are some instances where a person is born with physical abnormalities which allow them to surpass what is considered normal operating parameters.  For one example, there is Derek, a musician with severe autism who was born without sight.  His brain rewired itself to recognise sound with detail and clarity; the result is that he can identify each and every sound he hears as a unique pitch.  A truly remarkable human being; nonetheless, even this is still not talent.  This is a physical deformity with positive effects; he is considered a ‘Savant’.

Talent, in its most fundamental definition, is: “a person with natural aptitude or skill”.  Applying this to music, and music lessons, before ever formally taking a lesson, the person taking them might attend the first lesson and suitably wow their teacher because they pick up the basics fairly quickly.  After one year, they might take, and comfortably pass a Grade 1 exam.  To everyone witnessing it, they would exclaim that this person is talented.

From my experiences, even in this situation, the person is still not talented. Generally speaking, in any circumstance, before a single action is completed, the outcome is already predetermined by what came before that moment. For example:

The distance a car can travel is determined by the amount of fuel put into the tank. The amount of fuel is determined by how much money was spent.  The amount of money spent was determined by how much the person worked that week; and so on.

In music lessons, before I can teach a person, I must consider all events in their life up to that moment, which has a profound effect on them, and their learning.  A person perceived as ‘talented’, might have naturally procured the skills needed for success in music in other ways before actually starting lessons.

They might have listened to music while travelling on car journeys while young, with a parent encouraging them to clap (counting).  They might have been encouraged to sing along to songs on the radio (listening and pitch). They might have gone to parties which featured music and told to ‘dance’ (rhythm).  All of these innocuous tasks will build up over time, creating a person with a natural affinity to music.  In comparison, a child who was not told to do these things, would not obtain these skills or ‘talent’.

By calling someone ‘talented’, we create a comparison, usually with negative, self-deprecating connotations to oneself.  In not so many words we are saying, “You are just better than I am because you were born that way”, and if they were born that way, we can never achieve their level of playing.  A highly-skilled individual will not often refer to talent in such terms because they understand, to reach any level of ability, is little more than effort over time; them together being work-ethic.

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Dylan completed his music training with honours at Colchester Institute, where he studied piano with Australian pianist Lesley Young, and composition with British composer Dr Mark Bellis. While studying, in 2009, Dylan won Colchester Institute’s Canon Jack Award for Solo Piano adjudicated by Andrew Ball.  A composer, promoter, and advocate of contemporary classical music, Dylan joined the membership of Colchester New Music in 2014.

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