When kids are young their parents often want them to “get into things”, you know - try piano, ballet, take art classes or read novels with spines exceeding 5cm. There’s a hope that it might induce the development of a “talent” that will somehow, mysteriously, become useful in the future. I had the 5cm thing pretty down pat early on, but my parents decided that it would be good, amongst other things, for me to also try the violin.
Violins are very beautiful things. Even if you put the music they make out of consideration, the shape of a violin is quite charming. For me, a five year-old with almost no experience in music aside from the constant background noise of my mum’s records/CDs/iPods/ (and more recently) Spotify, the violin was an intimidating but intriguing object of whose function I had not yet figured out. My skinny little fingers could trace the delicate spirals of the F-holes and feel the smooth varnish of the deep red-brown wood, pluck the textured strings and twist the tuners of the pegbox at the end of the sturdy neck. It was breathtaking.
I imagined that somehow, in the future, I would be able to make this object produce those beautiful sounds akin to what my elderly Russian violin teacher did, and somehow would become passionate enough in the process to learn to wield that captivating expression of pain and sadness as she did when playing. She was a role-model, a violin goddess: what wisdom she seemed to have, what peacefulness and contentment with the world around her! She had learnt this instrument so well that it became like an old friend; it had magically transformed from an inanimate object into part of her. The gentle movements of her arm and the bow seemed as natural as walking, and to my young self this was awe-inspiring. There I stood, awkwardly watching her play, right hand holding the black leather case containing my violin and teeth compulsively biting the nails of the left: an impressionable child with a mind open to all possibilities.
I progressed with the violin - ascending the ranks from the tiny 1/16 to the full-sized 4/4 over the seven years during which I played. It was difficult at first, like anything, but I did enjoy it for the most part. However, like the rosin I used to rub down my bow every day, the repetitive practising grated on me over the years and so at the age of twelve I quit and took up the guitar instead. After all those years I never learnt to read music but instead have since learnt subsequent instruments “by ear” — meaning by simply judging whether the note being played is in tune by listening to it. People say this is quite a talent — the sensitivity of the ears in picking up subtle differences in pitch is unusual in people. ‘Talent?’ I thought, ‘No, it’s just seven years of monotonous practicing and blank refusal to learn those boring symbols and lines on music scripts!’
Was my parents’ decision to get me to play the violin at a young age fundamental for me to develop this “talent” for music that I now possess? Was my choice to, instead of “seeing” music to only hear it, inherent in me developing these skills? Did growing up in a musical environment induce me to love music - was I (in the nicest way possible) indoctrinated into loving music? Or, would I have naturally gravitated towards music in my life regardless of my upbringing? It’s the nature vs. nurture debate again — in a corner of my mind this makes me wonder about what exactly the word “talent” means to us.
We are expected, from the moment we arrive at school and until we specialise into a job, to like certain subject areas more than others. We are expected to be fond of things for which we have an aptitude for — and this is certainly almost always the case. Some appear talented at writing and spelling early on, but if you look behind the scenes you will find they are voracious readers. Others appear more inclined towards art — you’ll find that they have been encouraged to draw in their spare time, instead of watching TV. These people are talented at what they do, it’s true. And because they are talented,they naturally enjoy what they do and find themselves spurred onwards to do better, to learn more, to become more skilled at the things they love. But isn’t it true somehow that whenever someone compliments us on our talents,they are actually only appreciating a skill that we’ve just really worked at for a long time?
It is true that some things can’t be helped. The nature of some sports and activities do favour those genetically inclined to be taller, shorter, or with disproportionally large feet. But in terms of most skills, I think it is most definitely possible to reach a point where one can be considered an expert. I am a deep believer in the idea that each person has a huge capacity for learning. We are so inclined to think that what has happened in the past shapes us entirely; like we are made of clay that hardens once it is moulded. But doesn’t the very knowledge that we once learnt these things give us hope that anything can be learnt if we really want it? We are not so different from our impressionable child selves; all that’s really changed is we’ve forgotten that trying new things is good — it’s most certainly not a waste of time to get out those tubes of oil paints gathering dust on your shelf, or to work through some calculus problems online as you used to love doing years ago at school. All it takes is an open mind and a willingness to shrug off the idea of “talent”. The word talent should mean a skill gained through dedication and productive use of time, rather than something we’re “born to do” or that “fate has set out before us”. These are only mental blocks put in place to stop us from trying.
Maybe we should all shrug off the notion of predetermined talent and focus our minds more on the concept of potential talent. If there’s something out there you’d love to try, but find yourself intimidated my all those with talent who are so much more *sophisticated* than you, ignore them! They’re just lucky they got into it earlier than you.
And maybe I should start up on that violin again.