Talent and Luck

The world of art is not a meritocracy. Musicians are happy to tell you about it.

There’s the Berklee-trained drummer who shakes his head in disbelief at Ringo Starr, Moe Tucker, or Meg White while he drags his battered kit through a foot of snow for a gig that will maybe pay $50. There’s the sax player who can play the collected works of John Coltrane in all twelve keys who stands agape at the solos of Albert Ayler, Evan Parker, or Ornette Coleman. Musicians frequently have the habit of comparing their own skills and success against the skills and success of their peers.

Of course, if you don’t realize how cool Moe Tucker is, I might get a little suspicious of YOU.

Their conclusion? Audiences are stupid. Record labels have no ear for real talent. Clubs are more interested in selling beer than in presenting good music.

While much of these can be written off as so many sour grapes, there’s an element of truth as well. Perfect pitch. Flawless technique. Precise intonation. Encyclopedic knowledge. None of these are guaranteed to lead to success. When you get down to it, there’s no guarantee that you’ll even be able to land a twenty-buck gig.

Luck–the accidents of birth of opportunity–always has much more of a role in success than talent.

“The great differences between artists,” writes art historian George Kubler in his highly influential book The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, “are not so much of those of talent as of entrance and position in sequence.”  These terms need some unpacking in order to understand Kubler’s thesis. He describes talent as follows.

Talent is a predisposition: a talented pupil begins younger; he masters the tradition more quickly; his inventions come more fluently than those of his untalented fellows.

This view of talent is likely similar to those held by most people. Some people have the proverbial it. While other kids are banging on the piano with their fists, these children are picking out melodies by ear at the keyboard. Since they have a focus beyond their years, they can start their musical training sooner and when they do, they devour it with an intensity that surpasses anything most of us could muster. With this ability to learn, focus, and absorb, talented people are temperamentally predisposed to do the difficult work that is essential to become great musicians. This is not to say that the less talented can’t also become great through hard work, but since our lives are finite, the talented will simply have more time to spend developing their art than late bloomers or slow-starters.

But even still, talent is not enough.

Undiscovered talents abound as well among people whose schooling failed to gear with their abilities, as among people whose abilities were unrequited in spite of their talent. Predispositions are probably much more numerous than actual vocations allow us to suppose.

People who are born to crushing poverty, or in a time of violent upheaval, or without access to the necessary tools are not likely to become great musicians because the accident of their upbringing and education could not provide the proper environment for their talents to blossom. How many Mozarts died under a machete blade in Rwanda never having seen a piano? How many Louis Armstrongs succumbed to disease and hunger before they could even hum a tune? If those examples seem too extreme, how many Georgia O’Keeffe’s were thwarted by a careless remark from their third-grade art teachers?

Talent, Kubler states, must be reinforced with “gifts of fortune” such as “physical energy,” “durable health,” and “powers of concentration.”

Clearly, talent is not enough.

Earlier in this entry, Kubler also attributed the success of an artist to two other ideas: entrance and position in sequence. These factors are are also out of an musician’s control. Quite simply, we are unable to choose when we pop into existence. If we generalize and assume that jazz guitar is a single tradition, you could have been born early in the tradition (Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt), in the middle of the tradition (Joe Pass, Jim Hall), or later in the tradition (Bill Frisell, John Scofield). Of course Charlie Christian was an astoundingly talented innovator, but his particular talent and temperament were able to take root in the swing era. If Bill Frisell had lived in the time of Charlie Christian and of swing, it is not a given that he would come anywhere near the stature he enjoys among jazz guitar fans in 2015. He might have been a mere footnote, a tiny blip, or may have been discouraged from even starting to play.

This part of musical success seems especially cruel. Kubler writes, “Without a good entrance, he [the artist] is in danger of wasting his time as a copyist regardless of temperament and training.” I will not be so bold as to make any grand proclamations about which guitarists were the innovators and which were only the pupils and followers. I’m sure lots of people will have different opinions about who is who.

Kubler thinks that comparing different artists in a sequence or tradition is ultimately of little value.

It is meaningless to debate whether Leonardo was more talented than Raphael. Both were talented. Bernardino Luini and Giulio Romano also were talented. But the followers had bad luck. They came late when the feast was over through no fault of their own…Talent itself is only a relatively common predisposition for visual order, without a wide range of differentiation. Times and opportunities differ more than the degree of talent.

Also Leonardo and Raphael, but I think Kubler meant someone else.

Thinking about the jazz guitar tradition, Kubler would find it pretty senseless to argue whether Django Reinhardt was more talented than Jim Hall, or whether Joe Pass was more talented than John Scofield. Kubler, who is highly suspicious of the concept of innate genius, thinks that the talent needed to be Django, Jim, Joe, or John is for the most part pretty similar, although there might be slight differences. To play on the level of any of these guitarists requires keen ears, a developed sense of timing, physical dexterity, and good musical judgment. What makes these men so different is when they were born, when they started playing, their education, and the state of the music world when they entered it. A young guitarist starting out now has access to many more things than Charlie Christian did in the 1930s. Charlie didn’t have the access to the almost limitless music available on the Internet. He didn’t have access to the many instruction books now for purchase and the colleges that provide a rigorous and systematic study of jazz. He didn’t have access to the quality of musical equipment that even a beginning student can afford today.

But Charlie Christian not only had it: he also had the when. Charlie Christian was there at a time that was able to process, accept, and understand his special gifts. Likewise, Charlie Christian was able to adapt his personality, judgment, and tastes to the music of his time.

So, the drummer grousing about Ringo Starr, Meg White, or Mo Tucker may be absolutely right in once sense: he or she may be a much more talented drummer than any of these people. However, because of the opportunities afforded to these three by entrance and position in sequence, they were there.

You’re not.

And no matter how many hours you practice, you never will be.

I think a lot of people would view that conclusion as discouraging. And it may be for some people. But there is also a sense where that conclusion is very, very liberating.

Once we realize that whether we are considered innovators, geniuses, or trailblazers is something absolutely not in our control, it allows us to relax and focus on the things we can. While a good ear, great technique, and a sophisticated musical sense do not guarantee you a place in the guitarist hall of fame, I can pretty much guarantee that these traits will greatly enhance your enjoyment of both playing the instrument and listening to music. Barring poor health, dire economic circumstances, or lack of resources, you can exert a good amount of control over how deeply you choose to understand your instrument and your art. You can’t make yourself Jimi Hendrix. But it is perfectly in your control to study hard enough so you can enjoy playing the instrument on the level that Jimi did and see how that shapes your view of the world.

You can study as hard as Beethoven, work with the focus of Beethoven, but it will only be a cosmic accident whether you are Beethoven or not. Once you can truly accept that you cannot make yourself a genius or an innovator by an act of sheer will, all that remains is you, your guitar, and the music.  Take away attachment to rewards and what remains is the infinite possibilities of arranging sounds in time.

And that’s a beautiful, miraculous thing.