The person born with a talent they are meant to use will find their greatest happiness in using it.
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Annabel was the most talented pianist I’d ever taught. A complete beginner at seven, she had progressed within six weeks to being able to play fluently with both hands and, while I was away on tour for a few weeks, completed the first piano book on her own. Her hand position was naturally good and her aural skills were outstanding. She could also sight-read expertly. I was delighted with her progress on my return… and therefore somewhat disappointed when she announced halfway through Book 2 that she didn’t want to have lessons any more. She didn’t hate the piano- she just wasn’t particularly interested. She already played violin, was studying German and excelling at school, so reluctantly her parents and I agreed that she could discontinue her lessons.
But her decision intrigued me, and brought up a lot of questions.
Is there something each of us is born to do? Do we have a destiny? If we have a talent, is there a moral obligation to use it? Janet Baker, the international mezzo-soprano, when interviewed, spoke of her talent as an obligation, as something weighty. Looking back on her life, she once said, “I always thought of it as a gift implanted in me, from wherever you choose to believe. It sort of worked separately, almost outside of me, and guided my life like a lodestone or magnetic north. In that sense the relinquishing of my public life was a little easier because I didn’t want to let down the talent, this gift which had not only been such a joy, but had also been at times a quite heavy responsibility.”
Your talent is God’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to God.
Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of “Eat, Pray, Love” gave a recent TED talk on the concept of genius, where she mused on the ancient notion that rather than being a genius, we have a genius. According to dictionary.com, “In ancient Rome, the genius (plural in Latin genii) was the guiding spirit or tutelary deity of a person, family (gens), or place (genius loci).” The noun is related to the Latin verb gigno, genui, genitus, “to bring into being, create, produce.” Because the achievements of exceptional individuals seemed to indicate the presence of a particularly powerful genius, by the time of Augustus the word began to acquire its secondary meaning of “inspiration, talent.” (Oxford Latin Dictionary)
Is there such a thing as genius or talent? There is a popular theory at the moment that hypothesizes that there is no such thing– that all one needs is to spend 10,000 hours on a particular subject to master it. Yet any of us who have taught for a period of time will have seen that two students can study equally hard for an equal length of time, and the one who is more gifted will greatly outstrip the other’s progress.
How do you know what your talents are? What if you have a hidden talent and never discover it? A recent TV series in Britain called “Hidden Talent” took hundreds of volunteers through a battery of tests and discovered that some were amazingly gifted at languages, deep sea diving, rock climbing, or had an unerring sense of direction– talents they might easily have never discovered, but that could change their entire lives.
I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.
As a teacher, when you have a gifted student, are you more inclined to push them to practice? Are you more encouraging? If you have a student who shows little aptitude, do you advise them to continue, or to find something more suited to their abilities? If you advise them to discontinue, do you feel like you’ve “given up on them”?
As a child, I was a gifted pianist, and I believe that my parents saw that as something to encourage me to fulfill. Yet, I often experienced their dedication to my talent as a pressure. I am glad that I was able to reach a high level as a musician, yet I wish I had experienced more joy along the way.
As a musician, do you feel like your talent directs you? And if so, do you experience that as a responsibility or as a joy?