The X Factor in Talent
On my path as a musician, I’ve long struggled with the dichotomy between the actuality of my playing and the aesthetic that I envision— how do these not line up? If I know what I like to hear, why don’t I hear that when I listen back to myself playing? Ira Glass touched on this once in a way that really resonated with me. I’m paraphrasing but Ira said that ultimately, it just takes a lot of repetition, hard work, and willingness to fail until your aesthetic matches your output. This helped, but something was still perplexing to me. Why do some people seem to get there so much easier/quicker than others. Is it that seemingly undefined word, talent? If so, I certainly don’t feel I have much of that. What is that X factor that actually defines the concept of talent?
Starting to teach full-time about a year and a half ago illuminated some of this for me. Once I got over my imposter syndrome in this realm (the worry of sending students in the wrong direction, something I’m not entirely over), and felt I truly had something valuable to contribute to my students, I realized that on some level most of them are dealing with the same mental challenges I’m still dealing with, just with less experience. The funny thing is, my students can’t exactly see that this is a challenge for me. To them, I seem great at my craft. To myself, my playing feels inadequate at best! That got me wondering if my heroes see themselves in the same way, just at this higher level that I can’t perceive. As I’ve heard on multiple occasions from great musicians: “there are levels to this thing.”
I’ve read a bunch of books over the years on how to get past artistic mental roadblocks,* and there’s one common theme that seems to run throughout. Just PLAY. So, what if the main X factor in talent is actually just an individuals ability to cultivate a sense of play when they make art? If so, might a“talented” student just be one who has an easier time getting out of their own way? Possibly a result of their upbringing, or maybe some inherent ability of theirs to avoid getting caught up in there ego or what others think of them— another X factor! For those who don’t have that— who are less “talented”— it’s a vicious cycle. The face a windier road from the start, dealing with more mental hurdles throughout the practice of their craft. These less talented students come into a lesson and mention they could do something at home, but are struggling in front of their teacher. Maybe they are lazy and stretching the truth on their level of practice, but it’s also truly possible their nerves are preventing them from accessing their playful side. I am speaking from experience when I say that the system of music education in Western civilization (I can’t speak for other cultures) by and large does a terrible job of making students feel free to PLAY. The movie Whiplash, while greatly exaggerated, is at least somewhat on theme in terms of music students constantly dealing with superiors who expect more of them and rarely make them feel adequate or loved. For those that do have more mental freedom from these performance traps, the cycle is virtuous. These people are praised for their ability to quickly learn concepts and are boosted in their confidence and energy as result from an early stage.*
The current state of networking across many fields, and the importance of social media magnifies all of this. I’ve noticed a significant change in my own headspace when recording myself playing something with the knowledge that others might hear it on the internet, versus truly just PLAYING. I have previously thought this served me, creating a fabricated performance situation in which to practice playing under pressure, but now I am beginning to think it might be getting in my way, much the same way that nerves can hinder musicians in live performance situations.
I don’t mean to diminish the importance of hard work here— art is clearly a discipline, and a very difficult one at that. But I wonder if the importance of cultivating a sense of play is greatly undervalued in our educational systems. Getting back to what made you engage with your art to begin with being the main X factor separating great artists from good. I
In terms of drums, I’ve heard many examples of this from drummers I admire. This is a clip of me practicing a song called “California” by Childish Japes, and their drummer JP Bouvet definitely has a great sense of play. On the Drummer’s Resource podcast (shoutout to Nick, check it out if you haven’t) JP talked about how he doesn’t even really consider himself a drummer, just someone who loves to play the drums. Imagine how much pressure this must take off! He’s truly engaging with the art as a verb, someone who plays the drums, rather than a noun— being worried about being labeled a drummer.
One of my favorite drummers Mark Guiliana talked recently (also on the Drummer’s Resource podcast!), about how much he cherishes his relationship with his instrument. Again paraphrasing, but Mark said he is careful to not put himself in musical situations where he might not feel 100% committed to serving the music— it would take him out of that PLAY space!
Would love to hear your thoughts on any of this in the comments below!
*Some of my favorite books on the subject include:
Free Play by Steven Nachmanovitch
Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.
*Malcolm Gladwell details this in Outliers, wherein “older” hockey players in their year had small advantages from the start that snowballed into more and more successes throughout their careers.