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Thomas J. West Music

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Talent is a Four-Letter Word: What You and Michael Jackson Have In Common

Posted on July 17, 2009 at 10:19 AM
There are many things in our society that are commonly accepted beliefs. Many of those beliefs discourage people from taking risks because of a false sense of personal vulnerability. The very way we think of certain words can limit our beliefs. One of those words is the word "talent".

When most people think of talent, they think of a person they know, whether personally or famously, who possesses a skill uncommon to the majority of society. Usually the word "talent" is used to refer to an exceptional athlete, artist, dancer, or painter. All of these areas of endeavor share a few common attributes - they are all demonstratable, they require a high degree of sensory and kinesthetic ability, and they all can be technically very complex.

Meriam-Webster Dictionary gives the following modern definitions of the word "talent":

  1. The natural endowments of a person
  2. A special often athletic, creative, or artistic aptitude, or general intelligence or mental power. See "ability"
  3. A person of talent or a group of persons of talent in a field or activity

The portion of this definition that causes the distortions in society's perception is the parallel drawn to the word "ability". The common assumption is that someone who exhibits fantastic ability in a sport or artform is automatically "talented" - endowed by their creator with abilities mere mortal men do not have.

A Case Study in Talent: The Late Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson
No one can deny that Michael Jackson displayed an ability to do miraculous things from an early age. As a singer, his rendition at age 10 of the Smokey Robinson song "Who's Loving You" was a clear indicator of not only his vocal skill but his ability to emotionally connect to the meaning of a song even if he hadn't experienced the contents of the lyrics himself. As a dancer and songwriter, he channeled inspiration directly from the same source that geniuses like Mozart and Beethoven did. I remember vividly watching Michael describe and demonstrate in improvisation the process he went through to write music and choreography, and it was stunning.

With all of that dazzling ability, many people don't realize the countless hours of work and rehearsal Michael and his brothers spent perfecting and polishing their performances. If you've ever been to a live concert and seen a famous performer have an "off night" you know what a disappointment it is and how it can affect their popularity. Performers of all kinds - musical, athletic, and otherwise - always have to be at the top of their game, and that requires consistent practice to eliminate as many variables as possible.

What do you and I have in common with MJ? He loved music and performing. Our society has scared us away from our birthright to enjoy music firsthand. We have accepted a life where we experience music second-hand, performed by "talented people" in a music consumership. Why did we ever stop making music and start buying it from a supplier?

The Misconception of Professional Music

Once upon a time, people of all walks of life actually performed music themselves for entertainment purposes. There was no radio, no TV, no ipods, and formal music concerts were for the wealthy elite. People entertained themselves by singing folk songs, playing instruments, gathering around the piano, and so on. Music was enjoyed by many as an enriching hobby, and your ability wasn't nearly as important as your joyful participation.

As with most things in our culture, competition has led to a change in the landscape. While it is true that competition has pushed musicians to perfect their craft to the edges of the human being's sensory and physical capacities, it has also placed being a musician in the rarified air of the elite. Our culture, which respects and demands competition, has shaped music into a "you either have it or you don't" attitude. For a career in music, professional performers have to have a high level of natural aptitude and/or work ceaselessly on keeping their performance quality sharpened to a consistent, keen edge. If you don't have the "talent" to hang with the big boys, the best you can hope for as a professional music performer is a meager existence as a freelance performer or a studio musician.

Even organizations that once were for hobbyists have become increasingly competitive and eliteist. The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America was founded at the turn of the century as a club for men who love to sing barbershop quartet music - one of two totally American musical artforms (jazz being the other). Now called the Barbershop Harmony Society, the focus is on ever increasing standards of competitive vocal wizardry. The "common man's" ability to participate in the society has waned.

The entire drum and bugle corps and high school marching band art forms have taken a similar path. I have experienced the marching band artform from every possible viewpoint and style, and the gap between the "have's" and the "have not's" continues to widen. I have experienced and know what it takes to operate at that elite level as a member of The Cadets drum and bugle corps. There needs to be a place where musicians can strive for the outer egdes of what's possible, but it is being done at the expense of the masses. Back in the early 20th century, there used to be a drum and bugle corps organization in small towns across the country. They were founded by VFW posts, church groups, and even Boy Scout troops. They provided boys, and later girls, with positive character-building experiences and aesthetic appreciation of music.

Drum corps still does that, but alas only for a couple of thousand kids a year.

The drum corps phenomenon has inevitably influenced American high school band programs in both positive and negative ways. Never has the performance quality and ability level of our children been higher, and some very special musical moments result from that attention to detail. However, to compete with the elite, marching band programs have to perform music and drill at ever increasing levels of technical difficulty, which, along with other factors, has shrunk the size of the average high school band considerably. It is common for bands in my part of the U.S. to field a band with 25-30 of their most elite musicians in order to remain competitive with bands of a similar size. The large bands in my area who are involved in competition are predominantly from large school districts that insist on a mentality of "being the best." Meanwhile, the rest of the student body is left out - left out of music, left out of sports, and looking for a place where they can "be good enough" at something.

A Return to Balance

There are high school band programs out there who still service 9-10% of their student population rather than the elite 1%, and they continue to find ways to give their bands events to play for that inspire them to greatness without leaving out the "average" student. They are in the minority, and in many areas of the country, you either play the competitive game or there is nothing else for the band to do.

In this age of economic meltdown and budget cuts, many school music programs find themselves in a self-created predicament: the only way to justify continuation of the music program is by how they fare in the field of competition. This holds true for orchestra and choral organizations as well, but mostly for band programs, which are inevitably tied to football. Football is America's version of the Roman Coliseum, where comptetitive barbarism shines in all its glory. Band programs in America's schools tend to be the flagship program of the music department because of its visibility in the community at the high school football games.

How do we bring balance back to arts education? When do we study art for art's sake? When do we stop teaching our children that you either "have it or you don't"? When does it become culturally acceptable to dance, sing, and make art without being judged? When can music become a birthright again instead of a commercial commodity for music consumers?

Why do we accept that some people are just "talented" and "special" and the rest of us are "nothing special"?

"Talent" is a four-letter-word, in my perspective. It is a word that is a barrier for most, an ego trip for some, and a signpost that points to a false reality for nearly everyone.

This article (c) 2009 Thomas J. West. If you wish to reprint this article on another website or offline, please contact the copyright holder before using.

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