Gifted and Talented are Dangerous Words

Recently, I decided to learn the guitar. You would think that given my musical knowledge and background, my good ear and great fine motor skills from playing piano for over 40 years (oh boy that was a scary thing to write!), that guitar would be easy for me.

Well I have had 5 lessons so far, and… I cannot play guitar. I am hopeless. My fingers won’t do what I want them to do, I find it difficult to find the chords, my strumming is awful and the guitar buzzes all the time when I play it (but my guitar teacher somehow manages to extract a beautiful sound from the same instrument).

So, one could most definitely say that I am not a talented guitarist. Of course I’m not! But I am pretty sure that if I practiced for 3 hours every day for the next 10 years (thus completing the 10,000 hours required to supposedly become expert at something) that I would have a shot at sounding like a ‘talented’ guitarist. But would that be talent? No, it would be pure hard work.

The thing is, ALL talent manifests itself through hard work. When we hear a small child play an incredibly difficult piece on the piano, everyone says how ‘gifted’ or ‘talented’ he or she is. But that child wasn’t born being able to suddenly play piano. That child would have practised many, many hours in order to play such a piece.

It is true that some children are born with more of a head start than others. If the parents also play an instrument, if there is a lot of exposure to music from a young age, if they happen to have well-proportioned fingers and good physical coordination, if they have access to an instrument, if they have a good ear, if the parents can afford lessons and if they find a good teacher… all of these things combine to create the best possible launching pad into the world of music. But nothing will come of it unless there is practice. If you line up 20 children, each of whom have every single one of the above circumstances going for them, the child who plays the most impressively will be the child that spends the most hours practising.

But what if every one of those children did the same amount of practice? If they were all equally dedicated, there would still be differences. Some would have higher concentration levels than others. Some would have better physical endurance. The small differences in hand shape and coordination would show themselves, at an elite level.

And then, as they got older, if you lined up all those who are truly elite, would they all become successful musicians? Not necessarily. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in his excellent book ‘Outliers’, success depends on even more than ability and hard work. It depends on support from family and friends, the capacity to continue to work hard despite irregular employment, the resilience required to bounce back after failure, the luck of when you were born, who you know, where you live and even the instrument you chose to play… there are just so many factors that conspire to paint the final picture of a ‘gifted’ or ‘talented’ musician.

It is the same with sport. A friend of mine runs marathons, and she told me that people tell her how ‘lucky’ she is that she can run a marathon and how they would love to run a marathon. She said that most people don’t realise what incredibly hard work it is to train to run a marathon. You aren’t just born with a natural ability to endure such a long distance, it takes an immense amount of training. So when people say ‘oh, you’re so talented’, the implication is that your ability is more to do with luck than with dedication.

I have another friend whose son is an incredible ballet dancer. The G & T words have been used many times over, when people see him dance. But in the ballet industry, the term they tend to use is ‘genetically blessed’. Now THIS is a brilliant way of looking at things. This boy happens to have been born with:

· Long limbs and excellent muscle tone

· Amazing upper body strength

· Stamina and a high pain threshold

· The mental capacity to focus intensely on any chosen task

Now, if you take those traits and combine them with a desire to pursue ballet, a family who supports his passion and can afford for him to participate, and the luck of finding a great teacher and a fantastic tuition path… do you get a talented ballet dancer? The answer is yes, but only if he works incredibly hard. The ‘gifts’ listed above would mean nothing if he didn’t dance 8-10 hours a day, concentrate and push himself to the limit in class, stretch for 30 minutes every night even when he didn’t feel like it, and put up with all the aches and pains associated with elite physical activity. He does all of this, and he is indeed an amazingly talented ballet dancer.

Last week I received an email from the parent of a student who had not long ago commenced piano lessons with me. It was a very lovely email, requesting feedback on her progress so far and what support could be best given at home.

The parent finished off with ‘Clearly she’s not gifted, but other than that it’s difficult for us to appreciate how she’s doing.’

Whilst it was refreshing to come across a parent who is not constantly touting the talents of their offspring, I instantly felt a little defensive of this child, who had somehow been labelled ‘not gifted’, so early in her piano career. I called the mum immediately to give the feedback that her daughter has many ‘gifts’: a beautiful singing voice, a great ear, lovely hand shape and coordination… all she needed to do now was practice. We spoke at length about how to get in to a practice routine, and the mum had not realised that the other little pianists she compared her daughter to actually practiced a lot more. By the end of the conversation I think I had managed to change her perception of ‘giftedness’.

Hard work can trump ‘giftedness’ most of the time. For example, students can work hard to get into the G&T stream at school. If dedication and time spent working didn’t matter, the G&T stream would remain an unattainable opportunity for most children. My husband and I joke that these classes should be called ‘L & H’ instead: The ‘Lucky’ and ‘Hardworking’ stream. Lucky in that they are ‘genetically blessed’ with a quick brain, and ‘Hardworking’ because they are… hardworking.

I have never come across a student who did no work and who still managed to dux the school. I don’t know of an elite athlete who doesn’t train. I have never met a marvellous musician who didn’t practice very much. In fact, I don’t know of anyone, anywhere in the world, who is successful at what they do without working extremely hard at it.

‘Gifted’ and ‘Talented’ are words that in my opinion should be used sparingly. They carry with them a huge stigma; to be labelled ‘gifted’ can bring with it a perception that hard work can be bypassed, and to not be labelled ‘gifted’ can be demotivating. These words need to be redefined, to be understood as the gifts of circumstance in life and the opportunities we have to reach our potential. The rest is all down to effort.

Samantha Coates

Samantha Coates is a professional pianist and teacher with over 25 years experience in both private and group tuition. She is the author and publisher of BlitzBooks, the music education series that has captured the imagination of students across Australia and transformed the teaching of music theory, sight reading and general knowledge.

5 thoughts on “Gifted and Talented are Dangerous Words

  1. Anita says:

    Samantha, its refreshing and so encouraging to hear this. I really think that the concept of being gifted needs to be coupled with what one has to do to carry that capability to the next stage and to a final level of polished performance – and you have nailed it!!!! Thank you!

  2. gabriel says:

    I love reading things like this because it gives me hope, but I’m skeptical that working hard can truly equal talent. I have some talents, I started playing Chopin etudes on piano when I was 10, I never put the practise in to really understand music or sight read (which I sorely regret), but I could still learn an advanced piano piece extremely fast and without pushing myself much.

    I was also talented at school without doing much work, I could have done better but I didn’t work for my exams and still got top grades.

    I really want to learn to produce my own music, but this is something I am not talented at. I have worked hard on it for 5 years but I am still a beginner. I know how many factors go into what we call talent, but some people really are lucky because the hard work is effortless, they have no resistance, practising 8 hours a day doesn’t require an olympic will, it’s almost as effortless as playing a game. I want to improve at writing music so much, but I never do and I must just not be talented enough, or maybe I should have started younger. It’s like when I see young piano students who can’t play well, I don’t think they will ever be able to play like me, even though they work so much harder than me, because I’m just naturally dexterous enough to reach the notes and it would require decades of complete dedication to train your body to be more dexterous than it is.

    I’m a mountain away from getting good at music no matter how hard I work. My favourite producers learnt so quickly, some don’t even play instruments or know any theory, they were always good and sky rocketed to excellence through effortless dedication. I will never give up and I’m continuing to push myself to work harder and harder, but realistically I don’t see myself getting there, I don’t have the natural advantage of talent, and it’s really upsetting 🙁 I’ve been talented at things, which is why I do believe in talent, and the best talent is the ability to work hard without much effort or having to push yourself, and I don’t have that when it comes to music composition. I wish I could improve my attitude but I think talent is surely real, and it cannot be equalled by hard work.

  3. Larry says:

    I don’t know if you are absolutely correct. I have seen prodigies, savants, and people who really don’t put a lot of effort and able to accomplish more.

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