Success: Talent or hard work?

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    I just read an article by Geoffrey Colvin of in which he supports the research which concludes “that the lack of natural talent is irrelevant to great success.


    Very well said. Ten years is only enough for a first stage of confidence, in my experience, and it takes about thirty years to really blossom. I disagree, in that I don’t want to listen to someone who has only worked hard, there must be special talent there, too, but if it isn’t nurtured through time and application, it will never grow. “Success” has a lot to do with skill, luck, placement, connection, politics. But how many successful people are truly successes? How many orchestral harpists continue to give solo recitals? How many soloists continue to deepen? When I studied with Miss Lawrence, she wasn’t necessarily considered the “success” teacher, like Miss Chalifoux and Miss Allen, to name but two, however, I think what she gave us were life-long tools that have enabled me, certainly, to grow and develop all this time, and to feel like I have truly (hopefully) begun to master the instrument and its literature. Not that some of her students weren’t immediately successful, like Carolyn Mills, Ellen Ritscher, Elizabeth Richter and Susan Robinson.

    “Learn how to work, and how to listen, how to hear the difference between what you are doing and what is possible-the potential in the harp” Miss Lawrence often said, and it is ever true.

    There is an interesting book by Neil Steinberg, a Chicago Writer “Complete and Utter Failure”, on failure/success


    I agree that the most important component to success is steady, well-executed practice and lots of it. However, those lucky people with abundant talent progress at a much faster rate and end up with a vastly superior result, given equal amounts of hard work. There are many facets of talent, too, and some people have some, but not all! There are very few folks who have all the prerequisites to arrive at the pinnacle of artistic achievement. Not only do they need enormous self-discipline and creativity, but they must have taste, knowledge of style, an inner sense of rhythm, strong and nimble hands, a quick mind, calmness under pressure, etc., etc., etc. But no matter how many of these attributes musicians may have, they still must do the hours of practice, just not as many as those not similarly endowed. My conclusion: lack of natural talent is relevant, because a career in music is just too much work for a non-gifted person, and they are competing with those who can play the same or better with much less effort.


    Personally I think hard work is the most important.

    Certainly there are those who have some natural talent that makes progress quicker, but I believe that


    I should clarify my thoughts on this: I totally agree with Tony that one should never discourage anyone who may not hit the ground running, but who is willing to work hard. I certainly was a late bloomer. It was just an observation that when you combine lucky genes and an ability to work like a demon, you get an amazing result.


    Elizabeth- I agree totally with both your posts. Talent won’t go any where without hard work, but with hard work, talent will go much farther than less talent making the same effort. We all know people who can learn music faster than you can put it on the stand. We all know people with a finger agility and speed that no amount of practicing by a lesser talent can match. We all know people who can memorize a page of music in 10 minutes, or who can relearn a piece learned years ago in a few hours. Even a person with all of these extroadinary skills will not become a great musician without hard work, and if that person does not have musical understanding, then all those extroadinary skills don’t mean very much. But if you are talking about the most extroadinary musicians on any instrument, they definitely have natural abilities that a lesser musician, no matter how hard he works, will never have. Robert Schuman said,”Talent makes slow and steady progress up the mountain, while genius stands at the summit and looks arrogantly around.”

    I’ve read or heard about several studies over the years in which the researcher concludes that there is no such thing as talent. That anyone can achieve the same results. The studies are ALWAYS done by non-musicians, and I usually find that they are collecting the wrong data!


    What is so interesting about the very highest degree of giftedness is
    that it often is accompanied by a great passion to strive to achieve.
    This is because the gifted individual can always see just beyond what
    they can produce. It is very likely that Beethoven, Mozart, etc. each
    conceptualized musical form more perfectly, and with greater meaning than
    they were ever able to realize. I strongly suspect that every great
    artist dies interrupted.

    I saw a program about child prodigies and one, Guyland Leday, stood out
    to me. He is seven years old and plays the Zydeco accordian like a pro.
    He uses complex syncopations, nuance, and has an amazing stage presence. He is
    fun and free-spirited like any child, but when he holds the accordian,
    his face becomes very serious and concentrated.

    Hard work is important and necessary for achievement, but giftedness
    goes to the question of motivation.


    Julienne- You really expressed the intangible that seperates the great artist from everybody else. Good job.

    Several years ago, at I think it was the Philadelphia Conference, Susan McDonald gave a lecture on teaching the gifted student. It was a wondereful talk. She seemed to be reading from a prepared text the whole time, and I really felt that that text should be published as an article in one of the harp magazines. One of the main points she made was that the gifted student imposes higher expectations on him/herself. She told about teaching a gifted 12 year old who played each lesson like a finished recital, with absolutely no pedal noise, no buzzing, etc. She told about gifted students who, the night before one stage or another in an important competition, stayed up practicing literally the whole night to ‘get it perfect.’ She told about a gifted student of hers who had won an important competition, calling her the night before an opening recital for an AHS conference and telling her that she had just finished playing the whole recital in her head. The self-expectations of the gifted student are so much higher than they are for the average, even good student.


    I like Carl’s Schumann quote, but if a genius just stands on top of that mountain, laughing arrogantly rather than continuing to challenge himself, the world will tire of his gifts.

    I have had a friend since college who is a certifiable genius, and has focused his gifts on composition.


    Diane Michaels wrote: “I like Carl’s Schumann quote, but if a genius just stands on top of
    that mountain, laughing arrogantly rather than continuing to challenge
    himself, the world will tire of his gifts.”

    I agree 100% with you, Diane. Being on top of the mountain would allow
    one to see so much further, resulting in a passionate drive to
    explore that vast landscape more intimately. To continue with that
    metaphor: when I am on top of a mountain and take in the vastness I
    become gratefully small. My own insignificance, and my small part in
    something so much more grand fills me with reassurance. Those moments
    that I cannot see past the boundaries of myself are the same moments I
    feel imprisoned. I would
    hope with all my heart that genius is about the grand perspective and
    not the small prison of self.

    But to explore this question from another angle, not possessing the
    highest giftedness does not diminish a person. We all have more locked
    up potential than we realize. Helping a student to catch a glimpse of
    what could be, can help lead them towards this potential. Every
    person’s experience and feelings are equally valid. The great artist
    possesses more skill in communicating this, and empathizing with their
    expression helps us to understand our own. Helping students to
    communicate more accurately their own expression is a venture always
    deserving the highest respect.


    I kept thinking about this thread while having my morning coffee by a
    lake. 🙂 The question that kept bothering me was: What could possibly motivate a
    sense of arrogance on a mountain top? This baffles me. Arrogance is a
    feeling of superiority. What is there to feel superior to on a
    mountaintop? Arrogance is how we situate ourselves socially – it is
    about feeling superior to other people. An artist who has an arrogant
    perspective is an artist who is quite focused on their social dominance
    over others. If too much focus is directed towards social prominence,
    then there will be less focus on the intrinsic meaning in the art.
    While there have been great artists who are arrogant, perhaps their
    greatness occurred inspite of the arrogance, and not because of it. I
    really believe that continual learning absolutely requires a love of
    the honest truth. The honest truth does not result in arrogance, but
    something much healthier and stronger. Arrogance is a fragile facade,
    it is about “needing” to be superior. If we have true respect for self
    and others, then we have peace about ourselves regardless of how this
    places us socially. If we can have the courage to face our true selves,
    and encourage this in our students, only then will we see how much we
    have to offer the world.


    Julienne- I just looked up the word arrogance, and it is defined as ‘unwarranted pride and self-importance.’ What hit me was the word unwarranted. Maybe Schumann picked the wrong word, or the translator mis-translated. But I think that many geniuses come across as arrogant because they have one clear vision of the world and that is their’s. Great composers were more often than not very intolerant of other great composers, not, I think because of jealousy, but because they felt that their way of composing was the only ‘right’ one. I would speculate that many high level performers are intolerant of other high level performers on their instrument because they have such a clear idea of how they feel that a piece should be played, and they don’t tolerate any deviation from that.


    Elizabeth- I’m reminded of a conversation I had last year with a harpist. She told me that when she was a child, she studied with a teacher who had a large number of children studying with her. There were student recitals from time to time, so all of the students and their parents were pretty aware of how each child played. There were two students at the time, ages 6 and 8, who were obviously quite talented. The 8 year old was extroadinary. Very musical, learned music very easily, etc. The 6 year old was also talented, but had to work harder. This harpist told me, “At one recital where these two girls played, my mother pointed to the 6 year old and said, ‘SHE’S the one who’s going to make it. She’s persistant.'” Both girls became professional harpists, but it was the 6 year old who grew up to win an international competition, got a major symphony job and a major teaching post. Persistence without talent will get you only so far. Talent without persistence will get you only so far. But talent and persistence together? Now that’s a winning combination!


    You bring up an interesting perspective, Carl, and there are two poles
    towards which education lies. Even though a great thinker can be
    convicted of only one “right” way of approaching something, couldn’t
    this potentially limit their growth and adaptability? If intolerance
    crosses the line into rigidity, then it is a potential handicap.

    I have observed two approaches to understanding, perception, and
    learning. The first is the
    pole of self. At this pole we control the boundaries of our
    have a sense of resolution and order. Knowledge is defined through a
    process of dismissal of everything that is not “right”. It is not
    unlike sculpting an image from stone, permanently chiseling away all
    unwanted portions. This individual driven to control and master the art
    of sound. What you describe as
    intolerance towards deviating from the “right” way would be an
    expression of this approach.

    At the other pole there is a focus on what lies beyond self. This
    awakens us to an absence of presumed boundaries, and leaves no
    resolution. Self is dissolved in a
    sense of
    grandeur, timelessness, and an awareness of our inability to fully
    It is a dependence on opening
    self to be transformed by that which is greater than self rather than
    on placing everything we encounter into submission to self through the
    assumption of complete comprehension. This individual will
    let go of self to comprehend music through a sense of empathy, and is
    driven to be transformed by the art of music. Knowledge is gained by
    embracing everything and observing relationships in a continually
    evolving sense of understanding. This is not unlike a river that is
    forever interacting and evolving.

    Einstein made many statements
    that suggest his thinking would fall towards this second pole such as:

    Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.”

    “A person starts to live when he can live outside himself.”

    The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own
    reason for existing.”

    “A human being is a part of a whole, called by us “universe”, a part
    limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and
    feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical
    delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for
    us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few
    persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this
    prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living
    creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

    Both poles of thought can produce focused
    motivation and hard work. The first pole approaches musical expertise
    as something to master, and the second pole sees it as something to by
    which to be transformed. There are geniuses whose thinking
    demonstrates both approaches. It does appear to me that the ability to
    extend beyond self allows for the greatest potential for growth and
    adaptability in the
    long term. It is the river that can erode the granite sculpture over
    time. The individual who focuses on self’s definition of the
    one “right” way runs the risk of not acknowledging where that line is
    properly drawn. It can evolve into the inability to admit
    limitations. How do you convince such an individual of
    anything? How could such an individual learn beyond their present
    accepted system of thought?


    Again, I think we come back to personality. The stages are full of people whose goal has been to succeed, and I think oftentimes, to make as much money as possible at it. Those people are, I think, of little interest to the audiences, because their experience of music is ultimately self-referential. Compare, for example, Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, two men of similar background, friends, same generation, same degree of success up to a point. Zukerman bores me to tears as do other egocentric performers. So many just try to do a good job with no errors noticable. That isn’t art. It struck me that McDonald chose to relate that the student’s playing so cleanly was what pleased her, unless you omitted something. I would much rather they were sloppy and showed me some new facet of the music I had never thought of before, or moved me with their expressiveness. Excellence of the actual act of performance is not the goal, to my thinking. You want it, yes, but the goal is to create a moving experience. That comes with gift, combined with talent and hard work, but also the personality to seek for such things. I knew a student who had “natural facility”, beautiful tone, charming and captivating beauty on stage, yet basically walked away from a classical career, not seeing the challenges in it. My teacher often said, if it comes to easy, it isn’t appreciated. I often think of my aunt who was a lawyer and had a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. She was not upset that she didn’t appear before the justices. She knew that required a specialist. The achievement to her was having climbed all that way up the mountain, over many years, and having prepared the case sufficiently for the court. And by the way, she won the case. So, I am content to be the mountain climber, like her, and have to relish the journey, rather than take an express ride to the top.

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