Talent

Much is made of “being talented”. What, exactly, is talent?

No one has been able to nail that down. To me, talent is the ability to do something with little or no training, and do it well and easily. Talent for singing is not hard to find. There are many people (Judy Garland comes to mind) who were excellent singers at a tender age (Shirley Temple sang sweetly at 5 or 6. Tanya Tucker was a star at 13). Some of the people who are famous had no formal training in either singing or music (Billie Holliday) but it might have been because they were not trained that they were unique.

This becomes a particularly tricky situation in formal education. Schools of any kind at all levels are aimed at giving the best information possible to a broad range of students. In any subject, this generally means that those individuals who are “not particularly good or talented” and those that are “extremely talented” are not the target of the educational materials. In the case of singing training the idea that someone could be trained to be OK rather than exceptional, especially if that training is in high school or college, doesn’t much get discussed or addressed directly. College students who are accepted into training programs that give applied degrees in voice are usually assumed to be “talented” or they wouldn’t get into them in the first place. If these degree granting programs are aimed at helping the students get work singing after graduation, then that ought to imply that the graduates are, in the end, both talented and qualified to be a professional singers, but that may or may not be so, depending.

Some kinds of “acting training” actually take whatever natural talent a student has for performing and/or entertaining and beats it out of her. I have seen kids with natural ability to “sell a song” [move naturally and relate to an audience] be told to stand still, with arms drooping at their sides, while they search for “motivation” for their character. In the case of a song that was written during the heyday of Vaudeville, to be sung by the likes of Eddie Cantor or Bea Lillie, who certainly had never heard of Stanislavski, this is just silly. I once had a student work on a song (“Let’s Do It” by Porter) that had been assigned to her in one of her “performance” classes in which she had to build an entire “inner scenario” in order for the song to “accepted” by her teacher. I had to remind her that the song is about sex, it was meant to be tongue in cheek, flirtatious and ENTERTAINING and that no deep “motivation” was necessary. After that, she did much better on her own resources. Unfortunately, her training was guiding her to be very “unmusical” and that, in turn, was actually making her “less talented”. How does someone with not one shred of musicality or talent teach someone who has it naturally in their molecules? Badly. This is not so rare an event as one might think.

People who do not have natural ability CAN study, they can learn the mechanics of acting, singing, dancing, piano, etc., They can become proficient and can do a good job, and they have every right to pursue whatever course of training they wish to investigate. But when these people end up with master’s degrees or, worse yet, doctorates, and they have had no real success in the real outside world [instead of in the ivory halls of some college], they can be quite deadly as teachers, unless they understand their own limitations and honestly know that they never had that “special star quality” that comes with natural talent. That, at least, makes it possible that their teaching will at least be honest. And yes, people who are talented cannot always get by on talent alone. Skill is skill and you have to develop it. Life experience can take you a long way, but it has very definite limitations. I have known really talented performers who would or could not be disciplined in developing what they had, and who, in the end, did not go as far as others who started with less but worked hard to expand their abilities as much as possible.

Students can survive bad training, and especially talented students will sing, no matter what obstacles get in the way. In fact, sometimes such students do best when they have something to overcome. Wouldn’t it be great, though, if we could always have talent breeding more talent?

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