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.

3 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!

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