Talent vs. Hard Work
Q: I have a question on talent. Here is some background first: three years ago, I took up learning electric guitar (aged 45) without any prior learning of music, instruments, etc. – truly from scratch. I took classes in a music school and practiced daily a half and hour to 2 hours every day. I did as much in the “deliberate practice” spirit as I could. I also read everything in sight and tried all sorts of approaches I found on the net. And yet, even at the start I never felt like I was making good progress. I still feel like I don’t “get” it. I have developed little instinct for guitar, I have a hard time developing musical intuitions or simple improvising. I can at times play complex things but I feel like a trained monkey doing it. I had a few attempts at jamming, which didn’t go too well either, with people yelling at me over things I thought I had practiced well. Then by chance, on one occasion, I was asked to play bass because the bassist had quit. So I dutifully bought a bass and practiced for a week using Youtube resources as a crash course. The jam went well, and so did another one. People actually turned up my amp volume even though I really didn’t know what I was doing. So I started taking bass lessons too, and here suddenly I made good progress. I focused on the basics a lot. I seemed to understand what the bass is supposed to do much more than guitar. One time my bass teacher spurted out that I was much better than the others in my grade cohort. Meanwhile when I had asked my guitar teacher about my progress he had always blushed and mumbled. I passed one of the lower school exam grades on bass within a few months. Nothing too hard but I did pass with distinction.
So getting to my question… these days a lot of people think that deliberate practice trumps everything, and that talent is secondary to sustained effort. But here is my experience with two very similar instruments – guitar: years of long practice with slow progress, little feeling of understanding and questionable results. Bass: just a few months of much less practicing, faster apparent progress, a feeling of intuition, including spontaneous rhythmic improvisation. And more fun. It seems to me that I “get” bass in a way that I don’t “get” guitar. No matter how much I was motivated for guitar or practiced hard, no matter how casual I was about bass at first (I’m serious now). Is bass just so much easier at first than guitar? Or is it possible that one can have a talent for bass but not for guitar?
Also, what to do now? Keep trying on both? Or listen to the Universe and focus on bass?
A: You’d probably enjoy a book I remember reading a long time ago, Talent is Overrated. The gist is that the book is the idea that there is no such thing as talent, only hard and focused work.
I tend to agree, for the most part. In my experience I’ve found that those that work hard (and with intention and focus) tend to be the ones who develop faster and go further than their counterparts. This has also been true in my own life. I develop more when I work more.
But I think that there is definitely an “X” factor and I think that is likely the culmination of many different things (many of which, I’m likely not even aware of). Physiology plays a role too. I think certain body types might have an easier time with some instruments than others (even down to finger length, double-jointedness, flexibility, center of balance, and so on). Not to say that anybody couldn’t play any instrument, but I know drummers who take a real physical beating when they play because they have joint issues, for example. I also know bassists with arms and fingers that are so long that it’s hard for them to find a comfortable position to play in. None of these things will stop somebody from improving but they may make it harder to go beyond a certain place in their development.
Each of us also has different ways of perceiving, cataloging and internalizing things physically and emotionally. Certain instruments may be better suited for someone more or less compulsive, for example. Certain instruments favor those who approach physical things delicately or aggressively.
These are just small examples, and in no way a list of all of the “X factors”. Your brain might just be more of a bassist’s brain than a guitarist’s in any combination of ways. Shy? There’s less spotlight and focus on the bass. Like to just keep it simple and do a solid job? Bass works for that. Some people want to be the cake, some people want to be the icing, and some people want to be the whole thing. And that’s cool. I’m a big believer that a musician also grows more quickly once they’ve acknowledged and recognized their identity or voice on the instrument. Knowing what kind of player you want to be – and not what you feel you should be for the role – is huge.
I think that those who really master one instrument as opposed to another may have found that perfect balance of all of those things. This also causes them to feel a kinship and love for playing that instrument and therefore dedicate more focused time to it.
I know that certain styles only appeal to me on certain instruments too. For me, I love playing heavy metal drums but hate playing metal bass. I love playing jazz and funk on the bass, but my body can’t feel it in the same way when I’m behind a kit.
There are so many factors involved, so the only real choice to is to follow your heart and trust that any hard work will pay off, especially when you are fully engaged and enjoying the process. If you don’t enjoy running exercises on the guitar but somehow lock into the process on the bass, then you will likely get more enjoyment and develop faster on that instrument, even if you put in the same time. Because you will be more engaged and on a deeper level with one over the other, which touches on your final question: do both if they both bring you joy. If you find that you don’t really care about the guitar anymore, then it is no big deal. The universe won’t punish you. Play bass. Do whatever makes you happy because that is what will keep you engaged in the process and allows that stuff to sync in just a little more deeply.
I know many of you will have thoughts on this. This is very much my opinion. What do you all think? Please share in the comments.