Friday, March 18, 2011

Myth buster #1 - you've either got it or you don't

The main purpose of this blog is to pull back the curtain a bit and reveal some of the "secrets" of the life of a professional musician.

One of the most common myths regarding great artists is that they are somehow born with great talent and simply get to play around with it while others struggle mightily just to sing in tune or play a scale.  While it's true that each of us is unique and born with certain aptitudes and proclivities, research has shown that with creativity, it's mostly nurture and a little nature instead of the other way around.

In his book, "Talent Is Overrated", Geoff Colvin states what many other researchers have found: that composers and performers become successful through arduous practice and relentless self-evaluation.  He states that, for these artists, practice is "highly demanding mentally. . . continually seeking exactly those elements of performance that are unsatisfactory and then trying one's hardest to make them better places enormous strain on anyone's mental abilities."

He also notes that this kind of deliberate practice isn't much fun. "Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that's exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands."

The myth of "you've either got it or you don't" comes, I think, from what the public sees in a performance. Just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the tremendous amount of work needed to perform at a world-class level.

No one would find it entertaining or uplifting to listen to someone practice for hours, but, if done well, all that sweat and hard work results in a performance that is engaging. Paradoxically, with lots of deliberate practice, the performer strives for a sort of "planned spontaneity" in performance that gives the impression of freshness and life to an interpretation.  Never let them see you sweat!!

Jazz artists are especially prone to being given the "super talented" label.  What most people don't know is that they, too have put in long hours practicing scales and patterns, listening to and transcribing solos, improvising. Maybe it's the improvisatory aspect that gives people the impression they don't need to work at what they do!
I'm reading a great biography of jazz artist, Thelonious Monk right now.  I'm struck again and again by how hard he worked with his sidemen, teaching them his charts.

Here is a description of Monk's sessions with an orchestrator who was setting Monk's tunes for big band:

"The earliest meetings proved both productive and painstaking. Monk insisted that Overton transcribe his songs directly from the piano. They would sit together at the two instruments and Monk would patiently teach Overton each song, bar by bar, note by note. Monk had lead sheets, but he would not share them. . . on "Thelonious". . . they spent at least fifteen minutes on the first two bars alone, all the while explaining how the song should sound, what notes ought to be there and how the overtones are meant to suggest the key of Bb throughout the song. On "Monk's Mood". . . it took Overton -- an excellent pianist in his own right -- forty minutes to get through one chorus."

You get the picture. Now listen to this YouTube clip of Monk's group playing in Tokyo and don't tell me this hasn't been practiced and planned out to within an inch of it's life!!!

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