Today’s question comes from my piano students, and it’s something I’ve discussed with various students on multiple occasions. Do you need talent to be good at the piano? Is talent for some, and not for others? And what is talent, anyway?
These are all things we’ll discuss in today’s Q&A video. There are as many opinions on this as there are piano teachers, so please take my own opinion as just one of many – my thoughts are based on my own upbringing and personal experiences.
What is talent?
Webster dictionary defines talent as:
So the idea with talent is that it’s something you have naturally, implying that, to some extent, you’re born with it. But I’ll argue that for the most part, talent is created by environmental conditions.
Can talent be developed?
I truly believe that talent is something that is developed over time, usually unconsciously. Perhaps a child, let’s call her Sarah, starts music lessons at age 6. The teacher considers her talented because of a variety of reasons, including:
She picks up on musical concepts quickly
Her hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills are good
She understands rhythm intuitively
She has a sense of melody and tune
She enjoys practicing and learns pieces quickly
When I have students that meet all of these criteria, I generally tend to consider them talented. But are those abilities something that came out of thin air? Or were they skills that they developed in their first 6 years of life?
A child who can pick up on musical concepts quickly is usually a child who is adept at school and reading, and has engaged in plenty of educational activities at home. Hand-eye coordination is also developed through a variety of early activities, like simple sports, art, writing, and so on.
A child who does well with school will also generally enjoy practicing piano – they enjoy the fresh challenges and intrinsic benefits.
The child who “naturally” has a sense of rhythm and melody is usually exposed to plenty of music in early life, often through singing and dance (instead of just passive listening). Perhaps their parents play musical instruments, or their house is one filled with music.
In this way, I think that talent can be developed to some extent. Maybe Sarah never spent a moment at the piano bench before beginning lessons, but she’s had all of these early life experiences which prime her for having “talent”.
Working through poor physiology
There are some people who are very musically gifted, but have to struggle quite hard against their own physiology. I’ve met people who grasp musical concepts very well, who can sing like nobody’s business, but put them in front of a piano and it’s like their body works against them.
These are the people with very short fingers, very inflexible wrists, poor hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills, and so on. These people still have some natural talent, but usually need to work quite hard to overcome their own physiology.
It can be done – especially because these are the people who really tend to love music, and are therefore very driven to learn. However, I’ve never heard of someone with really poor physiology become, say, a concert pianist. Which is totally fine, as that’s not most people’s goal anyway.
Talent makes learning fun
We tend to enjoy doing the things we’re good at. I am absolutely terrible at basketball and soccer, so I’ve never enjoyed them. And since I’ve never enjoyed them and am terrible, I’ve never had any interest to become good at them.
Tennis and badminton, on the other hand, were sports I didn’t completely suck at from the start, so I enjoyed playing them more. I enjoyed them enough to take some tennis lessons, and to play badminton competitively in school. Being decent at these sports made them more fun for me at the start, which made me more interested in them.
So if you don’t have any musical aptitude whatsoever, you probably won’t be interested enough in music to begin developing those skills. But even if you have a spark of aptitude, you might pay attention to songs on the radio more. You might notice details in songs beyond the lyrics. You might be able to pluck out rhythms and individual instruments. You might open yourself up to having an emotional experience to the music.
To some extent, I think talent is interest. Interest means you’re paying attention. If you’re paying attention, you’ll absorb more. And then if you decide to pick up a musical instrument like the piano, you’ll be at a much stronger starting point than someone who never really had that interest in the first place.
Hard work vs. talent
I was raised in a family that had the mindset that hard work is one of the most valuable things you can do. My non-college educated Grandpa came from nothing and built a successful accounting business from scratch. My mother has also worked very hard to rise to the top of her career, and claims it’s hard work and not natural ability which got her where she is.
My mother and grandfather don’t consider their success to be the result of talent. They say it comes from diligent hard work. And I tend to be of the opinion that hard work is a much more important factor than talent will ever be.
Talent and interest go hand in hand, but interest can also be created by hard work. A good example is with my husband Michael. He claims to have had zero musical aptitude, and so when he had to join band in middle school, he chose percussion.
However, Michael was never someone to be content to suck at something. If he was going to play percussion, he was going to do it well, regardless of having zero talent. So he worked really hard to develop a sense of rhythm. Eventually his parents even got him a small drum kit to practice on. And practice he did, putting in the time, until eventually he didn’t suck anymore.
At this point in his life, many years later, most people would consider him musically talented. He’s a very good drummer, learns fast, can perform with minimal preparation, and truly enjoys listening to music. But most people don’t see all the hours of labor and work to get to that point.
Talent can create laziness
My story is somewhat opposite Michael’s. I was a child with so-called talent. At age 3 I apparently put on a living room concert where I sang all the music of Cinderella along to my cassette tape. I would constantly tinker at the piano until my parents decided to put me in piano lessons (so that the tinkering would actually sound like music). I would watch my mom play Classical music, and sing along when she played pop music.
My dad was good at plucking out harmonies in music, singing them on road trips. I listened and learned how to do the same.
So I basically had all the right environmental conditions to have “talent”. I grew up in a musical family, was exposed to many aspects of music from a young age, and had an interest in it. So when I started learning piano, I learned well and quickly. Sometimes I’d win music competitions and festivals.
My problem, then, wasn’t a lack of talent – it was laziness.
I’d come to the conclusion that I was good at music, and thus rested on my laurels. This led to bad habits (ie not practicing) which I had to correct as an adult.
So talent can be a double-edged sword – useful to have, but needs to be used in combination with hard work to truly excel.
So do you need talent to be good at piano? My opinion is that no, you don’t. Talent is a huge help, but if you’re interested in learning and work hard, the conditions of “talent” can be created.
Someone with natural aptitude at a young age, who also works very hard, will go further than someone who starts later with no natural abilities. But that doesn’t mean that a late beginner with no musical skill will flounder at the beginner phase forever. Such a person can still excel and get to a high level.