Talent as Interest
William, age seven, is sitting at the piano, trying to learn “On Top of Old Smoky” by ear. He’s been struggling with it for a couple of weeks and getting nowhere. He’s gone through this with several songs, and I always worry that he will get angry or upset or frustrated, but there’s never any sign of it. Probably out of my own discomfort, I’ve offered to just show him how to do it, but he shakes his head, clucks his tongue and pushes my hand away. No mistaking those signals; he wants to go it alone.
During the first year that I worked with William, he did not appear to have “A Good Ear," or what I would back then have called talent. Although he could tell whether the tune he was looking for sounded right after he groped around trying notes at random, he was not familiar enough with the tonal relationships to anticipate them beforehand. He would try a higher note when the tune went lower, skip over notes when the tune moved stepwise, change notes when the note needed to be repeated and stray far enough from the path to forget where he’d been trying to go in the first place. However, he remained remarkably undaunted, and though there was no apparent progress for several months, he kept trying.
One week, shortly before his eighth birthday, there was a change. William began to make fewer mistakes, correct them more quickly, and be able to retain the whole longer without needing my help to get back on track. Once he began to grasp the logic of the instrument, progress was very fast. Within a few weeks he was able to pick out virtually any tune by ear, more or less on the first try. Anyone stumbling upon William at this point would unquestionably have said, "What an incredible talent—this boy has an excellent ear!" The truth is that I knew him when this was not the case, and had the privilege of witnessing the spectacular transition. As I write these words I feel the same thrill of excitement that I felt at the time.
William has since gone on to do some really impressive things. He can play almost any song on a variety of instruments. He seems to be a natural, getting it right on the first try. People have trouble believing that there was ever a time when William couldn’t do these things. One day he greeted me at the door playing the “Queen of the Night” aria from “The Magic Flute” on— what else?—the harmonica!
When we think of talent, we usually think in terms of an innate capacity to achieve, but I think it has more to do with a capacity or inclination to stay interestedin a particular thing long enough to “get it.” William’s interest enabled him to keep trying for a very long time, till he finally understood what was what: which way was up, down, skipping, stepping, repeating. Conversely, I have some students who, having made successful preliminary efforts at playing by ear, show no interest in taking the skill further, despite my encouragement. They frequently turn out to be more interested in other forms of music making than playing by ear. This seems to support the theory that capacity for interestis a significant aspect of talent.
This “Talent as Interest” theory might also offer an explanation as to why some people decide, later in life, to take up a new hobby or career, or otherwise try something that they have never done before. It is hard to believe that they did not have the physical or mental hardwiring to accomplish the same thing earlier in life; it is more likely that they were not ready to be interested.
I have developed a great respect for interest as a determinant of what direction a child will go. I would take it a step further and suggest that in presenting anything new, we should try to use as a starting point something in which the student already has a powerful interest.