The Ebb and Flow of Talent

Posted: January 22, 2014 in Piano


I am listening to Robert Culbertson playing the Chapman Stick.

He is talented. No question about that. I play guitar. I have played for as many years as I have played piano. The problem is, I am not a talented guitar player. When I play the piano, I do not think about which notes to play – I just think of an idea, and my fingers seem to know which notes to play. That is not the case when I play guitar. The fretboard makes no sense to me. It never has. Anything above the fifth fret is like a perilous journey into a dark forest. For the few things I can play in 5th, 7th and 9th position, it takes all my concentration to think about where to place my fingers.

As I listened to Robert play the Chapman Stick, it occurred to me that talent is not something that applies to all instruments. You can be a talented pianist, or a talented guitarist, but being a pianist does not necessarily qualify you to become a talented anything!  Talent is specific.

That is an interesting insight I think. You have to match your talent to the right instrument. Conversely, you might find out that there is another instrument out there that you can play better than the instrument you play now. There’s a thought! In fact, (and this is where my thinking led me), you might have talent for an instrument that has not yet been invented. Thousands of people may be leading unsatisfied lives simply because the next-greatest-instrument has not yet been invented. Oh sure, they have the natural talent to play it – it just doesn’t exist…yet.

Talent is not a guarantee. There is an ebb and flow to talent.  Sometimes you have it. Sometimes you don’t. This suggests to me that talent, the seemingly natural ability to perform a task well, is not an exclusive ability. It relies upon, and is dependent upon, the instrument — be that a paint brush, a pen, or a baton. I am not talking about the ability gained from practice. I am talking about a comparison between two artists who have never touched a particular instrument. The first picks it up and makes it sing. The other picks it up and stands dumbfounded. Talent – it doesn’t exist the same way for any two people, and it doesn’t exist the same way for any two instruments. Talent is instrument specific.

The number of known instruments is finite. The expanse of our talents is infinite. There are things some of us might do, for which there is no available instrument. Our talent is untapped, unrealized, because its complement does not yet exist.

People who are very talented are also very humble. They know what they can do well, but they also know they can’t do anything else as well. People sometimes are intimidated by talented players. They say, “I could never play as good as you.” When I hear that, I agree with them. “You’re right!” I say. But I quickly add, “And I will never be as good as Beethoven.”

“If I can’t play as good as Beethoven, should I stop playing entirely?” I ask.

“And if I should keep playing, even though I will never be as good as Beethoven, shouldn’t you keep playing even though you will never be as good as me?”

And as it applies to talent, if you can’t play the guitar, try something else.

I can’t do what others do. I can’t do what a beginner does. This is the humbling part of talent – the ebb. I can do what I do, but I cannot do what you can do. In fact, if not for my preferred instrument, it might be very hard to convince anyone that I had any talent at all. Given a flute, violin or clarinet, (instruments I own and cannot play) I would be hard-pressed to convince anyone that I had any talent whatsoever.

That is humbling.

I can only do what I can do. I cannot do what you can do, no matter who you are or what you play. Your talent is yours alone, just as mine is mine. But our talents are not similar. They are unique brands – ones that are loyal to their complementary instrument.  If not for the instrument, you might never know you had the talent.

It might be tomorrow, or next week, or next year — someone will invent a new instrument.  Hundreds will try to play it, but eventually, one person, maybe two or three, will make that instrument sing.

Everyone has talent. You just have to find your instrument.

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