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Growing as a Musician - Raw Talent vs. Hard Work

"If you're asking yourself, 'how far can I go?', the answer is: 'as far as you want'…"
Over the past few years, through the WholeNote.com website, I've had the privilege of corresponding with a surprising number of older musicians who have either recently re-discovered the instrument, or are picking it up for the first time. This, in conjunction with a few different forum threads concerning the rate of one's growth as a player and musician, has prompted me to address the issue of how much one's raw talent contributes to reaching one's goals, as either a replacement or supplement to diligent practicing and hard work.

Certainly, having a natural ability to learn some of the more common concepts of one's instrument and music, such as chords, scales, rhythm playing, soloing, etc. will place you higher up on the learning curve than if these things were not intuitive. This concept is perhaps applicable to a few different topics such as science, athletics, art, etc. People tend to naturally gravitate towards things that initially come easy to them, and parents often try to nurture these "talents" in their children with lessons, resources, and supplies.

However, this is only the start. To gain any type of mastery of a specific genre, one must spend some portion of time learning, practicing, and honing their craft. As it relates to music, there are those lucky few who could qualify as "musical geniuses", but as Pat Metheny aptly puts it, "you can be almost 100% certain that this person is neither you nor I ..."

With respect to music and when one discovers it, I have seen too many counter-examples to think that the age at which you start to play your instrument means anything. If you love the blues, perhaps you have heard of Ronnie Earl, a Boston-based blues guitarist known for his work with Roomful of Blues. Ronnie didn't start playing guitar until he was 23 years old (spurred by a Muddy Waters concert), but once he began, he went at it full-tilt as the hardest-working blues artist in Boston. This doesn't just apply to those who have professional ambitions. One specific WholeNote member, from whom many have taken a few on-line blues lessons, also started to play in his early 20's. It did not come naturally to him, but his love for the instrument and music, and a bit of practice, have turned him into a fine player. His instrument isn't his livelihood: it's simply a creative outlet.

When you look at the most respected players in any musical genre, they have attained this status because they have worked hard to achieve their various successes. Eddie Van Halen often relates stories of how his brother Alex would go out on a date at 7pm while Eddie was practicing in his room, and when Alex returned late at night, Eddie had not moved from his spot, still practicing and working hard. You can apply these same principles by working with a fellow player, a teacher, a website, an instructional book, or whatever to help address your weaknesses and to help you achieve your short-term and long-term goals.

Finally, I'll finish with a quote from someone with much more personal experience with this concept than yours truly. Charlie Banacos is one of the most respected music teachers in the world. He has taught many of the world's top jazz and rock musicians from his perch in the Boston area. In the April, 1988 issue of Guitar Player, he wrote a letter to the editor concerning some comments that a former student of his, Jeff Berlin, had made about the importance of practice:

"[Jeff]'s right when he says correct practice is the way to great playing; in my experience teaching Jeff and others, it's the only factor separating great players from others. And I'm talking about thousands of students. I actually had Jeff, Mike Stern, Leni Stern, Dean Brown, Neil Stubenhaus, Wayne Krantz, Jay Azzolina, and Bruce Bartlett on my schedule at the same time! They worked hard for their artistry and deserve the recognition they've received..."

So I guess the moral to the story is that if you're asking yourself, "how far can I go?", the answer is: "as far as you want to go, as long as you're willing to work at it..."

Christopher Sung is a guitarist, an adjunct professor at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, and a small-business owner - probably in that order.
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