"Oh, you're so talented!"
"It must be such a great thing to be so talented!"
"I would've loved to have played the piano, but I didn't have the talent."
"Talent is overrated. It's all about hard work."
And there are endless others...
These sentiments about that immeasurable and ineffable thing called talent are easy to hear, hard to digest and often times difficult to understand.
What is talent? Why do some have talent? Why do others seem to lack a talent specifically in something that they either have a passion for, or pursue at great lengths to increase? How is talent identified? Where does it reside?
Ultimately, I'm not going to even try to answer those questions. I have another question:
Am I My Talent?
What I mean is whether or not my identity is tied up with, or connected to, my "talent". The old "you are what you do" discussion.
Not identifying your SELF with what you do is a very important step in self awareness. You are not just a dad, or a teacher, or a pianist, or a musician, or a director, or a writer, or a husband, or the dog-walker. You are many things, but you are not JUST something. When things go wrong (especially when things go wrong!) it is important not to confuse yourSELF with what you did wrong.
This is a pretty easy thing to understand -- although many do not truly realize it. When I miss a note - or more likely noteS - in some tricky passage by Sam Barber, I can feel bad, but I don't think I am actually a bad person. Confusing yourself with your thoughts or feelings is also something that one tends to give up along the path of life.
But as a musician, it's hard not to feel inadequate. "I should have practiced more." "If my technique were better, I wouldn't have missed those notes." "If my talent were less fixed on making music and more fixed on striking the right notes, that wouldn't happen." These thoughts are hard to contend with - but truly WE ARE NOT OUR MISSED NOTES.
So, flip that notion on its head and what do you get? What's the opposite of Missed Notes or Flat High C's or metallic timbres? Our Talent, perhaps. If one is to agree that Talent = the GOOD THINGS that make us Talented. So, flipping the notion that we are not our missed notes, you get: WE ARE NOT OUR TALENT.
Meaning, we are not just the good parts, just the parts that make people ooh and aah, or win competitions, or gain another gig, or make us the money, or enchant strangers at donor dinners, or any of those other great things we have abilities for that go unnoticed most of the time. Some of these abilities we take for granted: learning music quickly, having a curiosity for any and all genres of music, appreciating others' talents, memorizing scores accurately, making music naturally and with little thought, knowing lots of music, etc.
It's a startling thing to do, to release the hold we have on our self-worth to include not just the bad stuff, but the good stuff as well. It's all stuff, in the end. So letting go of it all, the good and the bad, has some interesting effects. At least, in my limited experience.
1) The inner voice dies down; sometimes it gets silenced even during performances or high stress times.
2) The present flow of the moment opens up, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes grandly, and the music making just seems to come more naturally.
3) The feeling that one has accomplished climbing a mountain for every challenging aspect of a score steadies and also dies down. Along the way, these accomplishments feel natural and inevitable.
4) Happiness returns, unlooked for, during rehearsals and performances. Happiness makes its self known to you in crazy ways - time flying by, smiles on yours and others faces, difficult passages passing by with almost childlike ease.
5) The missed opportunities to be perfect fly by unnoticed, as do many (not all) of the missed notes, or wrong words, or botched character choices, or whatever. These things seem much less important.
Fine. Release my hold on my talent you say. Now how do I go about doing that sort of mumbo-jumbo Buddhist zen shit without flying off to India to eat lots of pasta?
There are many ways. I might start with meditation (yes, I know -- SURPRISED?!), as it is a disciplined way into this sort of thinking. Musicians love discipline, at least we say we love it. Practicing, rehearsing, learning scores; all are disciplines that take our lifetimes to master. Sitting and breathing is rather helpful, particularly in the mindful way.
There are lots and lots of books to read. I'd recommend Dan Harris' "10% Happier". You know him from the TV news. He had an on-air panic attack about ten years ago brought on by casual cocaine usage and a history of mindlessness (sleepwalking through life while pursuing his stressful career). After many journeys, he found mindfulness and many "Jew-Bu" friends (as he calls them), some of whom are the leaders in their fields: Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein. They are two of the coolest writers he acknowledges, among many others. Sharon and Joseph also changed my life too, but in other ways and through other means. They've written lots of books. I'd recommend ANY OF THEM. Each one I've picked up has altered the path of my day.
Dan Harris TV link
Sharon Salzberg Site
Joseph Goldstein Info
Finally, I think this last bit of advice is crucial: Stop hanging with negative people in your field. You know them: the disgruntled, the complainers, the gossips, the worriers, the needy pianist, the boastful singer, the know-it-alls. Walk away from them now. A secret to success is to be just a wee bit aloof. My students who are the most successful are the ones who spend enough time away from other music students in order to create a life that does not ride on getting cast, or getting an audition, or hob-knobbing on FB with the semi-famous backstage. This really is crucial.
Instead, give yourself the present of the present moment. Then release all that shit you're holding onto about your last lesson, or rehearsal, or performance. "My scene really went super well." "I hope my scene goes as well as so-and-so's scene." "Why did my throat close down on that high E-flat?" "God, I am freaking awesome at Fiordiligi!" "Should I be pursuing this when I can't even get through one Donizetti aria?!"
I think Sondheim said it well in Into the Woods: "Best to take the moment present; As a present, for the moment."
Into The Woods video (just for fun!)