Thursday, April 22, 2010

Talent? Skill? What's the difference?

In my previous blog entry, I posed the question:

What about talent? Where does that fit in the makeup of a good composer?

Here is a definition for "talent," from the online Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary:

A natural ability to be good at something, especially without being taught.

Other definitions often use the word "innate," meaning "something you are born with," which means the same thing in this context as "natural."  Some of the many areas in which people are sometimes said to have talent include:
  • public speaking
  • dance
  • mathematics
  • writing
  • sports
  • being funny
  • chairing meetings
  • music
But how could anyone possibly be born with a talent for chairing meetings? you might ask, indignantly. After all, babies seemingly never actually chair meetings, at least when grownups are around (when grownups aren't around, who knows what they are up to?).

Since we tend not to see babies chairing meetings, writing fiction or non-fiction, composing concertos, etc., how do we know if they are born with these talents?

It would seem very difficult to establish proof of talent in many of these areas in an infant; I would suggest that they generally become evident at later stages of development (e.g., Erickson's stages of psychosocial development), after an individual has had the opportunity to develop skills relating to these areas (talent in composition generally follows the development of skills as a musician, for example).

This leads me to propose the following:

Talent must be developed in order to be manifested.

However, something that has to be developed in order to be manifested sounds very much like a skill; how is talent different from skill?



Here is a definition of Skill in The American Heritage Dictionary:

Proficiency, facility, or dexterity that is acquired or developed through training or experience.

The essential difference, it would seem, is that talent is something we are are born with, while skill may in fact be related to an innate talent, but it must be developed.

But even this does not fully clarify the difference between talent and skill, because if talent is only manifested after at least some development, then how is it any different from skill, which is also manifested after development?

Some might argue that the difference is that a person with a particular talent would require less training to develop proficiency in that area than someone without that talent.

Perhaps this is true, but the speed with which one develops proficiency in an area is also highly dependent on other factors as well, such as motivation, environment, opportunity, and instruction. Someone of average talent might develop skill more quickly than an individual with greater talent, if the first person were more motivated, and/or had better teaching.

All of this leads me to wonder if it is possible to measure innate ability, and, if it cannot be measured, is it possible to prove that it even exists?

Let's explore that.



When we describe an individual as "talented," we often mean that they learn or develop particular skills very quickly, or do them very well, with seemingly less effort than someone else with seemingly less talent.

However, these things do not necessarily mean that an individual is talented; perhaps the so-called "talented" person learns particular things quickly or does them well because they have had more practice doing so.

Or perhaps some of the skills a person has developed in one area (e.g., bicycle racing) can be transferred to another (e.g., speed skating), and it is this that allows them to develop so quickly in the second area.

(Canadian Clara Hughes, who has won multiple medals in both the summer and winter Olympic games, is a great example of this kind of skill transference. Another example is Pierre Boulez, who quickly (while still in his twenties) established an international reputation as one of the leading composers of the Modernist era, but he has subsequently also become known as one of the leading conductors in the world.  Most of the "great" composers of classical music were also regarded as among the great performers of their time.)

As a teacher, it can be tempting to conclude that one student is more talented than another because of a difference in their rates of progress. However, because teachers have limited knowledge of their students prior to meeting them in the classroom or private studio, we do not actually know how much time students have spent developing skills in the areas in which we teach, or in cognate areas. Not only that, but we don't really know how hard students work outside of the classroom on the skills we teach, or how efficiently they are working.

While teachers often get a sense that some students seems to learn more easily or develop skills more quickly than others, the lack of information we have about their background, practice habits, and other impediments to learning (there are many circumstances in a student's personal life than can inhibit learning) gives us no basis on which to conclude that one student is any more talented than another.

A potential danger in drawing conclusions on the relative talent levels of our students when we don't really have a basis for doing so is that we might give in to the temptation of tailoring our teaching in some way to the "talented" students, perhaps because they respond better to our teaching, thereby ensuring that those who struggle continue to do so. Or, more generally, we might encourage the "talented" more than the "untalented."



Are you suggesting that there is no such thing as talent?

I am suggesting that we need to reexamine our assumptions of what talent is, whether there is any way of measuring it, and yes, even of whether there really is such a thing as talent (as opposed to skill, which is something that very clearly exists and that can be both developed and measured).

One way to prove the existence of talent would be to establish a control group of kids who all received identical upbringing, including parenting style and values, education, and training in the arts and sports, and then measure their achievement in the various areas in which they had been trained at regular intervals to see if some were to demonstrate a significant and lasting superiority to their peers in particular areas.

I'm not actually sure this would prove anything (other than being an impossible study to conduct from a practical standpoint, not to mention the ethical/legal impediments to establishing such a control group!), because you would have to factor motivation in there as well; people learn more easily when they are motivated to do so, and there it would seem unlikely that everyone from this hypothetical control group would have a similar level of motivation in all areas.

Another way — and this has the advantages of being both feasible and legal(!) — would be to study identical twins adopted into different families to see if one twin's significant strength in a particular area is matched by the other twin. I would guess studies like this have been done, and if I find any, I will report back on a later blog.

But what about Mozart? He must have been HUGELY talented to compose symphonies when he was only four years old!

Indeed, he would have been, but he wrote no symphonies (or any other type of music) when he was four. After Mozart's death, his sister, Nannerl, wrote: At the age of five he was already composing little pieces, which he played to his father who wrote them down. (Deutsch 1965, p. 455)

There are several points to note from this statement:
  1. Nannerl was writing years after the fact, at a point when her late brother was widely acknowledged as a great composer — according to Wikipedia, Mozart's sparse funeral did not reflect his standing with the public as a composer: memorial services and concerts in Vienna and Prague were well attended. Indeed, in the period immediately after his death Mozart's reputation rose substantially: Solomon describes an "unprecedented wave of enthusiasm" (Solomon 1995, p. 499) for his work; biographies were written (first by Schlichtegroll, Niemetschek, and Nissen); and publishers vied to produce complete editions of his works.

    Nannerl also wrote that, upon meeting her brother and becoming familiar with his music in 1781, Joseph Haydn said to Mozart's father: I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me by person and repute; he has taste, and what is more, the greatest skill in composition (Deutsch 1965, pp. 461–462). It seems likely that Nannerl's goal in writing these statements was to document (and perhaps even add to) her brother's greatness, and, as such, it is difficult to know how historically accurate they are.

    In any event, that Mozart became a great composer as an adult after having been a precociously-skilled child is not in question (at least by most people familiar with his music; Glenn Gould famously felt otherwise, arguing that Mozart died too late rather than too early (Ostwald 1997, p. 249)). What is less certain is the degree to which his youthful compositional efforts were aided by his father.

  2. Nannerl mentions her brother composing "little pieces." Not symphonies. Now, admittedly, composing little minuets at the age of five (or six, some historians maintain) is pretty darn special, but did these little pieces contain the seeds of greatness he would later achieve as a composer? Or, put another way, there have been (and continue to be) many highly-precocious young kids in the world whose impressive early achievements might have been comparable in some way to Mozart's, but very few of them have come anywhere close to achieving what Mozart did as an adult. Mozart's place in music history was achieved on the basis of his compositional work as an adult, not as a child.

  3. "... which he played to his father, who wrote them down." His father, Leopold (1719–1787), was a highly-accomplished musician himself — he was deputy Kapellmeister to the court orchestra of the Archbishop of Salzburg, as well as a composer and an experienced teacher. If young Wolfgang played mistakes (parallel fifths, doubled leading tones, etc.) in his childhood compositions, might Leopold have corrected them in the process of transcribing them to music manuscript? Given that he was an experienced teacher (and his son's greatest advocate, AKA a "stage parent"), it seems likely that Leopold would have pointed out mistakes and ways of improving these little pieces.

    It is presumably for these reasons that the symphonies listed as #2 and #3 by Mozart are now listed as "spurious," with #2 thought to have been composed by Leopold.

    In any event, the point here is that it is hard to know the degree to which Mozart's early compositional efforts were aided by his father, and it is therefore at least possible that some of what we attribute to "pure genius" or "natural talent" on the part of Mozart can be attributed to the help received from his father.

  4. And finally, although you and I were probably not composing little pieces for the piano at the age of five, we also did not have Leopold Mozart as our dad. Leopold published a treatise on violin playing the year that Wolfgang was born, and taught both of his children how to play violin and piano at remarkably early ages. He also assembled books of compositions from which to learn piano (and perhaps composition as well) for both of his children (Blom, p.11). Mozart was home-schooled by his father, and this home-schooling included much musical training. Leopold's desire to show off the skills of his children (did I mention he was a stage-dad?) is obvious from the frequent tours to perform for European royalty that began when Wolfgang was six. Given his skills as both a musician and teacher of music, and his evident desire for his children to excel at music and be recognized for it, it seems at least possible that other children growing up in that environment might also have been "composing little pieces" at remarkably early ages.

    To what degree were Wolfgang Mozart's childhood accomplishments the result of the intensive musical training he received, and to what degree were they a product of his musical gift or innate talent?



Postscript: After writing the above, I was reading Outliers — The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell (mainly because I wanted to find out about the so-called "10,000 hour rule" discussed in my Inspiration, Perspiration, and Perspicacity blog of about a month ago), and found this quote from Genius Explained, by the late British cognitive psychologist Michael Howe:
... by the standards of mature composers, Mozart's early works are not outstanding. The earliest pieces were all probably written down by his father, and perhaps improved in the process. Many of Wolfgang's childhood compositions, such as the first seven of his concertos piano and orchestra, are largely arrangements of works by other composers. Of those concertos that only contain music original to Mozart, the earliest that is now regarded as a masterwork (No. 9, K. 271) was not composed until he was twenty-one: by that time Mozart had already been composing concertos for ten years (Howe, p. 3).
The music critic Harold Schonberg goes even further:
It is strange to say of a composer who started writing at six, and lived only thirty-six years, that he developed late, but that is the truth. Few of Mozart's early works, elegant as they are, have the personality , concentration, and richness that entered his music after 1781" [the year he turned 25]. (Lives of the Great Composers, Part 2, p. 103)
We can become so caught up in the mystification of genius that we overlook the fact that any person of significant accomplishment, even those we call geniuses, achieved what they did through protracted hard work.

To conclude by answering the question posed at the outset: Where does talent fit in the makeup of a good composer?

It's hard to say. I'm not sure I'm prepared to say there is no such thing as talent, but what is clear is:
  • If there is such a thing as talent, it needs to be developed in order to be manifested;

  • Skill clearly exists, and is developed through training;

  • Skill is measurable, but if someone has come up with a way of measuring talent as an independent quality from skill, I don't know of it;

  • I see no benefit in concerning yourself with the issue of how talented you are, or whether you possess enough "raw" talent to achieve greatness. If you focus on developing your skills, and, if you work hard enough over a sufficiently long period, you will become highly skilled. And, if you become highly skilled, AND continue to work hard it seems likely to me that you will distinguish yourself in some way in your field.

  • I would guess that the main reason everyone who sets out to become highly skilled does not succeed in doing so is that many loose their motivation somewhere along the way.

18 comments:

David said...

This is a very interesting blog. The question of whether or not talent actually exists is something that I think of from time to time.

I don't think that there is any such thing as "raw talent". This idea that someone can be just naturally good at something without having to work as hard as anyone else is, in my mind, not true. That said, you may say that it is clear that some people tend to pick up on things faster than others. I think that this is just circumstance. I think that this "talent" that people speak of is dependent on many different things.

First of all, it depends on when a person is learning the skill in question, for our purposes let's say music. If someone is learning about music from a very early age then their brain is still being wired at this point and will become wired to understand and think naturally in musical terms. To this you might reply that there are people who begin to learn music later in life who become very good very quickly. This, I think, is because, like you say in the blog, that this person has developed skills in other areas that relate very closely to and thus facilitate the learning of music.

The degree of interest or motivation, like you said also plays a factor in how quickly one learns. This goes hand in hand with instruction. To look at the example of Mozart, his father was a musician who taught Mozart music from a very early age, this degree of immersion, in my mind, would make anyone into that degree of a "genius" in that amount of time. Children learn to speak and form sentences and tell stories at a very early age, music and other skills are no different. It just depends on the degree of immersion in the field in question.

I think that what we become as we grow up has nothing to do with our birth, I don't believe that anyone is born with this mysterious "talent". My belief is that everything that happens to us, no matter how minute, has a bearing on who we become and affects our motivation, interest, physical ability and everything else about us. So if little Mozart was composing little ditties for his dad at the age of five, it's not because he had any special innate talent, it's just because he had instruction, immersion, will, and because he started young.

Aiden Hartery said...

This is a very interesting subject. I agree that the term "talented" should be taken with a grain of salt. I also believe that no one is brought into this would with a pre-determined skill or heightened ability greater than someone else.

Both my brother and I had musical training while growing up. As a child, I was introduced into music at a very early age with piano lessons and therefore learned how to read, write and understand music around, or before, my ability to read, write and understand english. My brother, on the other hand, learned music much later in life, and on bass guitar. He became quite good at it, but his immersion into music was not at the same level as mine. I am not saying, by any means, that I was more talented than my brother, but that is where the stickyness of that term begins now isn't it? He became good at bass guitar, and I became good at piano.

In later life, I continued to expand my music avenues, and he chose to expand his interests in another direction outside of music. So over time, I became more fluent with music than he, and as you might say, more talented, I guess. Had I not been introduced to music, he would have been the musically talented one, but my potential would have been there, as it had been. Therefore, you can say that anybody can achieve a talent in something, all it takes in development within that field of study.

Continuing my studies in music into post-secondary education could be viewed as just improving my skill as a musician, and to others, some might say "talent".

Olivia Budd said...

It's possible to have a talent for being skillful, is it not? Maybe that's a bit of a roundabout way of saying that some people are good at getting good at things. Especially in the musical world, it's often easy to pick out the people who have an innate talent for something (performing, aural skills, writing, playing by ear etc.) and the people who are just good at imitating or studying or practicing for 17 hours a day. It's a bit of a chicken or egg situation, but I think that some people are born with a natural talent, and some people are just good at working really hard for something that comes less naturally to them, so much so that they can make it seem like it comes naturally (or maybe in the course of working hard it eventually does come naturally..... that could go on forever).

Jenny G said...

A very interesting post indeed.
I think we can get caught up in definitions, trying to find a clear line between talent and skill when really they are closely related - not so black and white. Maybe that sounds like taking the easy way out, but so be it.
I think that talents and skills both need to be developed, and that talents and skills tend to go together. It is clear that some people learn/develop certain skills more easily than others - perhaps it's related to talent, perhaps to background knowledge/experience, perhaps to hard work, perhaps to their level of interest/motivation... More than likely, it's a combination of all of the above. I don't know that it is possible to isolate these factors and test them out, and I don't know that it would be useful to do so. But I do think that different people are talented in different ways, and this affects how they learn and what skills they develop.
I agree that it's never helpful to label people as more or less talented, especially since we can't know all the other factors that play into their degree of success.

Vanessa Carroll said...

What an interesting read.

Dr. Dunsmore frequently says "singing is 90% brain and 10% talent". Let's temporarily ignore whether or not these numbers are realistic. I think the general principle of putting in time and effort to become more efficient at something certainly rings true. I read a book once about the "10,000 hour rule". They explored how, in order to become a master of something, one must put in 10,000 hours of work. They explored The Beatles and how this was true for them and the level of success they achieve and countless other examples where this 'rule' is applicable.

Back to Dr. Dunsmore's mantra... I believe that these numbers (90% and 10%) can be adjusted to an individual based on how natural a given task (he often says singing, but it can be applicable to anything) comes to them. To me, talent implies a natural ability where as skillfulness shows one's ability to work feverishly towards a goal. Could it be that "talent" becomes a label when on-lookers do not see the "skillful work" done behind the scenes? Or maybe "talent" is used to console yourself when others seem naturally better at something than you are?

This is definitely a topic of much debate and certainly goes beyond music!

Jennifer Hatcher said...

"Perhaps the so-called "talented" person learns particular things quickly or does them well because they have had more practice doing so."
I completely agree with that statement. Do I think a child is born with a "natural talent" for something? I'm not entirely sure. I think we are all wired in a way that makes us better at some things than at others, but would I go so far as to say that the things we are good at we have a talent for? Probably not.
I personally believe that if you like something, you will be good at it. It may take years to become "good", but ultimately if you spend enough time working at this "thing" that you are good at, you will succeed (in most cases). Take a look at things outside of the musical world. For instance, I was always naturally good at Math. Maybe I should back up; was I naturally good at it, or did I study it enough that I understood it, which then resulted in me being a bit better than others because I understood the general ideas and could form my own solutions based on these? I liked Math, I studied it, I became good at it. Physics? I hated it, therefore as a result I spent no time studying it or paying any attention to it; ultimately I was not a good Physics student. If I had put the hours into learning back when I was in high school, perhaps I would be saying something different right now.
I strongly believe you have to like what you are learning to want to learn more, and succeed in the area. In order to become "good" at doing anything, though, it is necessary to take the time to learn. I'm not sure "talent" is the proper word for somebody who excels in an area. Some people are much better runners than others. Is this considered a talent? Not in most people's eyes; it's something that the individual worked at, practiced, and trained endlessly to be able to do. So why is it that when a musician does exactly that, they are deemed talented, rather than looked at as somebody who has a lot of motivation? A lot of work is done behind that scenes that goes basically unnoticed when the word "talent" is thrown at a person. I don't think excelling in an area is a natural aspect of life, but something that requires a lot of time and effort.

Siobhan said...

Thanks for this blog post. This is a position I have held for a few years, and I appreciate the amount of research that went into this thoughtful argument. I think 'talent' is quite overused in today's society and is often amalgamated with concepts of determination and motivation.

I think that talent may exist, and it could be possible to isolate in a few instances. For example, despite many composers (or performers, for that matter) all devoting X amount of hours to perfecting their skill, there are undoubtedly a few select individuals who excel more than the others. While they all likely possess the determination to succeed and thereby improved their skill, I believe it is talent which separates the great from the good. However, if talent is not coupled with a good work ethic, as the old adage states, "Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work."

André McEvenue said...

This post has been an extremely stimulating read!

I feel that the word talent is often applied in place of the word skill. It seems to be a word that has too much ambiguity, and supports a lack of understanding. In some ways the term "talented" can be dismissive of the hard work and dedication an individual has committed.

As Dr. Ross commented, I also wonder if talent exists, or if it merely describes a culmination of factors that contribute to a persons quicker than average development.

Maybe if this word wasn't so widely used, it would inspire more motivation in youth. I don't doubt that many children watch the talent shows at their school thinking that juggling is an ability that someone can merely possess, or acquire easily if they are "gifted". Maybe we should call them "work sharing shows"? How about, "Time Investment Sharing"? Or better yet, "TimeShare"!

Talent is a word that reinforces the idea that a person can just be born with a gift; that something can come come easily with less work. Naturally, everyone would want this, because it seems like an easier way to succeed than slaving away like a normal untalented person.



amy k said...

My brain is jelly after reading this post and trying to come up with an intelligent response. I can remember being called "talented" as a child, and I often describe certain students as being "talented" at certain things such as sight-reading, being expressive, etc. I have not thought of the definition, however... Bizarre.

I like Olivia's response above. I agree that perhaps some people possess an innate ability to be good at becoming good at things... Whether that ability is disguised as perseverance or tenacity rather than "talent" is a possibility.

"To what degree were Wolfgang Mozart's childhood accomplishments the result of the intensive musical training he received, and to what degree were they a product of his musical gift or innate talent?"

If Mozart was indeed passionate about writing and performing, then I believe that his accomplishments were half skill and half talent. If, however, his father was as much of a helicopter-parent as claimed, then maybe his accomplishments were more heavily due to his training/upbringing.

Perhaps a little off-topic, but... Ever see the show Toddlers in Tiaras? Those young women may have "talent" in the way of stage presence and poise, but it is really their parents (crazy stage-moms, mostly) who are encouraging them to compete and succeed. Was this the case for Mozart?

I agree that talent must be developed, which is why I encourage people who say, "I would never be able to dance/sing/perform/etc., I'm not talented" to try!!! Tap into your "talent"!

Kelly Perchard said...

A pretty big debate can be caused when asking if there is a difference between talent and skill. When I think about this, I think of a friend of mine who is a great singer, but has never had any actual training. The term "natural talent" has been used to describe her on many occasions. She does not know how to read music, but could sing anything a classically trained singer can sing just upon hearing it. In my opinion, she does have skill, but her skill is not her singing, per se, but in her ability to listen to something and recall it exactly as she has heard it. I think this is a good way to distinguish the two, because there are definitely differences between talent and skill, the similarity is that they both require some level of development.

Becca Spurrell said...

Here's the way I always thought of talent:

Say you have two children, both taking the same math course, for example: one child starts off confused about what is taught, but decides to go to the teacher for help. After which, they study every day, does practice tests, works on equations, etc. This child gets good grades, and maintains an 80 average in that course. The second child understands the new material when it's taught in the classroom, but doesn't study every day, never does practice tests or works on equations, and quickly does a bit or studying the day before the tests. This child also maintains an 80 average.

Based on the way I was raised to view the words "talent" and "skill", I would say the first child is skilled at math while the second child is talented at math. The first child gets good grades and knows a lot about the subject, but it came from hours of practice and studying. The second child finds that this subject comes natural to them and only needs to review before the test and they can write just as good a mark as the first child. I see that as the difference between talent and skill.

But as a said, this is based on how I was raised to view those particular terms, and if anyone has an argument or a counter statement, I would be more than willing to hear it!

Sarah Bartlett said...

After over a decade of playing piano, I've known a lot of other musicians, and developed my own 'talent' over the years. I personally know a lot of very 'talented' musicians - people who have worked hard to gain the skills they have. Whenever I hear the word 'talented' I can't help but cringe a little bit - it seems that non-musicians often like to use this word - but I think it's because they don't quite know what it means. For me, 'talented' seems like a bit of a write-off (though not intentional). To brush off all of the hours people put into into repertoire for months and call it 'talent' seems kind of impolite - do I not deserve acknowledgement for my hours of drudgery? If you've never played an instrument, though, you may not know what it takes to prepare a concert group for a recital, or accompany a singer at a public function. It not only takes a lot of time, but a lot of dedication, too. To call a group of musicians talented wouldn't be an unfair assessment, but talent can be interpreted several different ways. From a musician's point of view, when someone calls me talented, my first thought is appreciation - but also some hesitancy to accept such a comment; since it sounds like this person thinks that my ability to play this music is entirely natural. Learning to play a piece may take me months, and I personally don't like the idea that someone may assume I just have 'talent,' so I can play anything, no problem. But I digress.
I think talent is just a tag assigned to people who pick something up more quickly than someone else - you may be 'talented' at the oboe because you learned how to play your first scale more quickly/adeptly than your classmate. However, they may have more accurate fingerings and breath control, so are they not also talented? Talent is often associated with geniuses, the topic of another blog post, and so maybe the concept of talent is just associated with people who learn quickly. People are often obsessed with the idea of 'child geniuses,' but really, these are just young people who have an incredible capacity to learn. Maybe we're not judging based on ability to master something as we are to master it quickly.

Josh Penney said...

I find this blog particularly interesting as a low brass musician. Speaking of Mozart, having been taught as a musician from a very young age, it seems most musicians (singers, pianists, violinists, etc...) do start their musical training at a very young age. One of the exceptions is low brass musicians (or musicians who play large instruments). As a child under 5, I wouldn't have physically been able to play the trombone for example, let alone say a tuba. This idea of talent, and maybe it really just being something that starts at an early age is hard for me to grasp because it's just not an option for us. Although a lot of the great trombone players were originally cornet players, which can be played from an early age. Joe Alessi for example studied with his father (a professional cornetist) and then switch to trombone. Now he's the best in the world. I think it indeed safe to say that upbringing is very important in musical development.

As for how this relates to composition, it gets a bit tricky. I found I only started composing when I came to university. Does that mean I'm behind the game? And that I need to do some serious work to catch up? Perhaps, but I really think composing is a culmination of a musicians skills, and not just necessarily the skill of composing. I find when I write that I draw on a lot of the things that I have done as a musicians, all the music that I have played and analyzed, to get new ideas. I think talent can often be mistaken as skill that has been indirectly developed.

Jessica said...

This was a very enlightening post! I sometimes find myself intimidated when surrounded by a multitude of "talented" people (such as those one finds at music school). It can be discouraging if/when one compares themselves to all of the talented people out there. This can prevent someone from being motivated enough to put in the work necessary to developing a skill. More important than perhaps any talent or innate skill is motivation. It is easy to explain away someone's aptitude for something by saying they were born with that ability. However, more impressive to me are people who have no such innate ability but are so passionate about something that they devote their whole lives to bettering themselves in that field. Motivation is a rare commodity. Another interesting point is the ability to learn something quickly being indicative of innate talent. The ability to learn quickly is a skill unto itself (one that can be developed), and dependent on many factors. Arguably, in the appropriate circumstances, anyone has the capacity for eventually developing enough skill in an area for them to be considered "talented."

Robert Godin said...

Ugh... "A natural ability to be good at something, especially without being taught." This always bothered me when it came to music. If anyone has seen the movie August Rush, they've seen the scene where the boy was left alone in a room with a piano and some sheet music and writes hundreds of melodies on the sheets, without any prior knowledge of music. Part of me just screams: It doesn't work that way! You can't just know what middle C is on the piano and staff if you don't even know what C is! People who aren't musically savy must be like "he has the GIFT of talent". No! He has the gift of movie magic! lol

If we're to take that definition of talent, quite simply, it probably doesn't exist in music. If you give a guitar to someone who has never played an instrument they will do probably just as good as everyone else. The key issue is the "especially without training". It's similar to trying to read another language you've never seen before. Sure you might get a few vowels right, but you're basing it off your experience. It's the same with public speaking, people who are good at it are probably experienced at it, even if they may not know it (in their social circles when telling a story, as a kid, etc) A lot of this has to do with their training and experience.

In my opinion, when people refer to talent, they are actually referring o their ability to learn skills. I'm glad people are really trying to formulate their own ideas for this.

Flutiano said...

This is a loaded blog post! First of all, I will say that the word “Talent” can be used quite nicely as a shield, and often is used in a way that could be interpreted in that way. What I mean by that is it justifies not being as good at something as somebody else is. You can say that Mozart was talented, and that’s why he achieved what he did. On the other hand, I have no such talent, so that’s my excuse for not being successful. The endless commentary from non-musicians that they don’t have musical talent so they could never take lessons or learn how to play an instrument, or they’ve never tried composing because they don’t have the talent. Or maybe they’ve tried and their first composition was ‘so bad’ (in their mind) that they decided they didn’t have talent and never tried again.

Sure, some people are naturally better at some things than other things. I struggle with identifying intervals. Through the two year diploma I did before coming to MUN, I spent a fair bit of time trying different methods of ear training (at least, a bit of time most days; motivation went up and down with varying levels of despair and optimism). I went to every tutorial the instructor gave, got a couple of friends to help me, and still performed badly enough that the teacher asked if I wasn’t giving wrong answers on purpose. However, I had no trouble with academics. I barely studied, yet I got straight A’s.

I think an important aspect regarding the development of skill (which often looks like talent) is learning style. For example, it took me a long time to get started making progress on piano, and I think a major reason for that was that I did not how to learn from my teachers, and they didn’t know how to teach me. I had four different piano teachers before I managed my grade one RCM exam (three for only half a year each). I didn’t know how to practise, I didn’t understand what they wanted me to do, and despite really wanting to play the piano, I didn’t make progress (also, I found a lot of the low level piano music boring, which didn’t help motivation). Then, I ended up with a teacher who helped me learn how to practise, found me more interesting pieces, and helped me figure out what my previous teacher had been trying to teach me. Suddenly I was making progress, and one year after I had done my grade one exam, I did my grade five. The next year I did my RCM grade seven.

The moral of this story is that I am sure I did not appear very talented in the first half of the story. I didn’t learn very fast. Certainly not the story of a precocious child. However, once I started studying with teachers I could learn from, people started calling me talented, and progressing six RCM grade levels in two years (or four in one) impresses people and makes them think that you are talented.

So how important is talent? Maybe talent is in the ability to be motivated, or the ability to learn from teachers and life experiences. If talent is how fast you can learn something, maybe we’re talking about a form of intelligence. What is the difference between talent and intelligence, anyway? According to google, intelligence is “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.” But that’s getting into a whole new kettle of fish . . .

Erika Penney said...

What a great read!
As a student in a school full of "talented" people, it can sometimes be a very discouraging place, especially when you compare yourselves to everyone around you. I personally believe everyone has some kind of talent and skill that is somewhat different than everyone else. In saying this, i believe and agree that if you are not concerned on how talented you are and just continue to focus and work on improving that you are developing a stronger skill, which some people may call talent. We may be born with a bit of talent, but i think it is mostly based on how hard we work and how much we focus on developing our skills to greater our talent. I think it is important to receive input and criticism from others and not be self-centered in believing you have something so much greater than anyone else. For example, anyone can play an instrument, but how well, will depend on how much they want to put in to achieving a very high skill for it. It is all really just based on what you are willing to do and your capacity to learn.

Peter Cho said...

The idea of talent has always intrigued me. I have come to the conclusion, however, that thinking about talent too much is a dangerous thing. Here is what I think.
Broadly speaking, there are two possible scenarios: 1. talent exists, or 2. talent does not exist.
If (1) holds true, and you truly want to pursue music, then all you can do is work super hard and find any and every opportunity to improve. Just because talent exists doesn't mean you can't achieve the same level of mastery as someone who is more talented. All you have to do is put in more time and more effort and more love into what you do.
If (2) holds true, all you can do is work super hard and find any and every opportunity to improve.
My point is hopefully evident. Talent is an interesting thing to think about but in practice, who cares! At least in terms of what you can do for your own development you are who you are and determining how talented (or untalented) you are at something solves nothing. Especially in arts where I think the most important thing is passion, not talent or skill. If you match the love you have for music with effort, determination and pure hard work, you will be able to create beautiful music in a skillful way.