Just Sayin’ – Define Talent: Inborn or Learned?


A couple of years ago, anewscafe.com published a piece I wrote about talent. In that piece I was exploring the world of talented writers. I still stand in awe of a person who can write to a deadline. Every day, or every week or every month they must call on their creative muse and hope she (or he) honors them with their presence.

Do we ask musicians to do that?

Do we ask those in the graphic arts to do that?

Do we ask architects to do that?

Dancers? Poets? Actors?

Well, yes we do.

Bach was the choirmaster and organist of a Lutheran church in Germany for many years and as such he composed pieces on a weekly basis. Back in the day there was very little or no music available in print. Society was just starting to make wide use of the printing press. A choirmaster couldn’t just call up his local wholesaler and ask for 25 copies of the current choir hit to be mailed out to him.

So, every week he wrote music. We have access to most all of that music today and because of that we know that his genius was on display in every piece every week.

Haydn worked for many years in the employee of Prince Esterhazy. His job was to compose pieces to accompany the Prince’s entertainment schedule (hey, this was before Muzak). Hence we have gems such as the Surprise Symphony. It was written because, as the story goes, Haydn got tired of the guests falling to sleep as they repaired to the drawing room after a twelve course dinner followed by Cognac, to hear his latest composition. That was the equivalent of a private movie showing in today’s world. The piece trips along soothingly for several minutes (just enough time for the overstuffed guests to fall asleep) and is then punctuated by a huge, resounding chord. Paybacks are so much fun!

Even Michelangelo worked to a schedule when painting the Sistine Chapel. He took several years to complete it, but worked on it most every day during those years . . . being a creative genius in every corner. And even then the Pope complained that he wasn’t working fast enough.

Most all art commissions have some sort of time line built in.

Architects on commission must submit drawings and proposals on a schedule agreed to by the involved parties.

Dancers have a performance schedule.

Musicians, as well as actors, especially in live performance, have a performance schedule. . . and they have to be ready to give a creative performance every time whether their cat just died or their wife just had a baby.

So this talent thing; these creative juices that flow, is it something that just happens upon us or is it learned? Well, here I beg your indulgence for some more of my non-expertise opinion. I believe that the natural bent for a creative endeavor may be inborn and God-given if you will, but the cultivation of that natural bent is the responsibility of that individual (and their parents when it shows up at a very early age).

And here comes another one of my pet peeves to add to that list of pet peeves about which I wrote about some time ago. When someone shares with me a person, usually a child or young person, displaying some sort of extraordinary skill and that person proclaims, as if it were some sort of badge of honor, “And he/she has never had a lesson!” My response is, “How sad!” Because talent is rather like an uncut stone. The beauty may be intrinsic, but the true revelation of that beauty for all to see comes with the polishing and faceting of that stone. Wasn’t it Einstein or some such person who said that genius is 90% perspiration? Same goes for talent.

Can the talented person accomplish the development of their talent on their own? Of course, but many times they are reinventing the wheel. Pitfalls could have been avoided, lessons and methods they figure out through trial and error could have been shared with them by a mentor.

Conversely, hard work, without talent, doesn’t guarantee a beautiful or inspired outcome. So just what is this ineffable thing we call talent? Well, if either you or I could define it, we could probably be way richer than we are now.

But this I do know, hours of practice, whether at an instrument, in a studio or at a drawing board is essential. Even genius needs polishing.

Adrienne Jacoby
Adrienne Jacoby is a 40-plus-year resident of Shasta County and native-born Californian. She was a teacher of vocal music in the Enterprise Schools for 27 years and has been retired for 11 years. A musician all her life, she was married to the late Bill Jacoby with whom she formed a locally well -known musical group who prided themselves in playing for weddings, wakes, riots, bar mitzvas and super market openings. And, oh yes … she has two children, J’Anna and Jayson.
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14 Responses

  1. Avatar CoachBob says:

    I learned the hard way over the years that “practice does NOT make perfect”…”Only perfect practice makes perfect”.  Wish I’d had better mentors along the way, but oh well….


  2. Avatar Chris says:

    Hi AJ, another thought worthy article. I learned in sports that dedicated practice does make perfect. I harder I practiced the better I got and achieved the goal I was seeking. Holds true to life itself. Be well my friend.

  3. Avatar Carol says:

    I am testament to the fact that hard work without talent does NOT result in great performances!  I finally gave up the piano.

  4. Avatar Rod says:

    Ah come on now, chicken or the egg, again?

    Everybody is born with talent.  But does everybody skilfully develop that talent? No.

    Highly skilled musicians make for incredible music.  Talented musicians don’t even practice, they feel.

    Seems to me that talent is abundant while the hard work necessary to acquire skills is in short supply.

    So…..why keep whacking the students knuckles who don’t practice their piano lessons?  Wouldn’t it be better to discover where their talent resides?



    • A. Jacoby A. Jacoby says:

      Okay, Rod.. . but this is a whole other conundrum. Personally, I believe that music education should be part of every child’s life. Just as much as history math and science. As Suzuki, the great violin teacher, said. Music is a language. Everyone can learn to speak the language but not everyone is going to be a poet or a novelist. I had to study math, even though I was never destined to be an accountant.  But my article was addressing the question of the difference between what talent makes one person an accountant or engineer and the next person (me), feeling fortunate if I can reconcile my checkbook. But BOTH require training and practice.


      • Avatar Rod says:

        Thanks AJ, music before math makes sense to many people.  We agree.

        Just Sayin’ – Define Talent: Inborn or Learned?

        My point remains, talent is inborn.  Skill is learned.   Yes/no?
        I say follow your talent wherever it takes you.  Skills will come, IF, you seek their help.  Our talents are diverse and widespread as the whole sky.  Skills tend to require focus on details, muscle repetitiveness, and dull mind numbing follow the leader.  Creativity lives largely in talent without which what would there be to learn?

  5. Yep – talent is a valuable asset, but discipline gets things done. I know that the more lousy songs I write, the closer I get to something I’m proud of. And the more I study the greats, the more I learn about what works and the more tools I add to in my creative toolbox. There’s simply no substitute for the ol’ “nose to the grindstone.”

  6. Avatar Jorgi B says:

    I totally agree, Adrienne. Many people hear Bernie play and think he’s so good he doesn’t need to practice. Or, he’s been playing for so many years he doesn’t need to practice. Wrong. He still practices although he is extremely talented.

    • A. Jacoby A. Jacoby says:

      And I would lay great odds that there was a time in his life when practice consumed many hours of his day. And I’m also sure that during his early development there were many mentors that influenced his growth. And yes, “extremely talented” is putting it modestly.

  7. Avatar Joanne Lobeski-Snyder says:

    Adrienne, thank you.  This is the best article I’ve ever read about the idea of talent and training and practice.

    I worked with young adults for many years, and it was heartbreaking to me that the life dreams of many of these young people were based on the idea that good musicians and artists were just born with the particular talent that made them successful or well known.  And that notion/ lie is perpetuated every time a rap artist or guitar hero fails to mention that they have had music lessons, or have sung in a choir.  (not cool!)  The notion is perpetuated when an artist doesn’t acknowledge their influences and mentors.    Again, excellent article.

  8. Avatar Jan Gandy says:

    Hi AJ,

    I have printed a copy of this article for grandson Max.  Maybe it will inspire him to practice more!

  9. Avatar Lisa says:

    Great read Mrs. Jacoby, practice does make perfect and I disagree that you need perfect practice to be perfect. Goodness knows the only way I ever placed in vocal competitions was from practice. Same with dance, I loved it, I practiced, I may not have been the best but I was my best. Thanks for the wisdom!

    • A. Jacoby A. Jacoby says:

      Well, here’s the deal on the practice bit. Only perfect practice makes perfect performance .. . . HOWEVER, any practice, even less than perfect, improves the product at some level.