Sometimes you just have to write…

Musical genius


Classical guitarist Sharon Isbin

Yesterday my host family took me along to a concert by the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yaniv Attar, who was essentially being auditioned to become the orchestra’s new conductor. The performance featured an appearance by Sharon Isbin, a classical guitarist, as well. After the concert, there was a reception, which I was able to attend because my hosts are active supporters of the orchestra.

Both Attar and Isbin spoke at this reception, and what they said made me ponder what leads a person to become a musical genius. The way these two brilliant musicians described it, their musical careers began as little more than chance occurrences.

Apparently Isbin’s older brother fantasized about being the next Elvis, and their parents signed him up for guitar lessons. When it turned out the teacher was a classical guitarist, her brother lost interest, but she took it up instead. In her words, she began guitar lessons “by default.”

Attar, the conductor last evening, started as a classical guitarist before moving into conducting. In fact, he was a student of Isbin’s at Julliard. His story was that his mother simply bought him a guitar, and that he didn’t really get any choice in the matter.

These stories made me think about my “extra son” and his cello. He took up the cello because his parents are professional musicians: his mother is a violinist and his father a cellist.  He had the opportunity from birth; music was in his home, part of his natural environment. These guitarists, too, had these opportunities.

Clearly, though, opportunity isn’t all that is needed to become a great musician. I had the opportunity as well. I took classical guitar lessons for a year as a child, but lost interest and quit. I lasted in violin lessons for two years before quitting. My parents would have continued to fund the lessons as long as I wanted, but I just couldn’t seem to make an instrument sound the way it should, and gave up in frustration.

It seems to me that great musicians need two more things: talent and motivation.

My “extra son” is certainly incredibly talented, which he inherited from his parents. I don’t know about these two guitarists, but I assume there’s a great deal of talent there as well.

So “extra son” has two things going for him: opportunity – the example of his parents – and talent, also from his parents. Really, both of those things are coincidence. He didn’t work for either one; they just happened to him – fortunately.

The same goes for these two guitarists: they happened to be in situations where they had the opportunity and the talent.

The third element is motivation. Isbin wanted to learn guitar when her brother rejected it. Attar didn’t choose the guitar, but stuck with it enough to reach the level he did, eventually moving into the related field of conducting. “Extra son,” on the other hand, struggles with this third element. He is, after all, a teenager, and distracted by all of the things that distract all teenagers from whatever they should be doing. Hopefully, the motivation will return. I would say that it is already returning, since he’s practicing much more lately, compared to last year, but it’s still not enough to reach the heights he could potentially reach.

So what’s the required mix for greatness? One-third talent, one-third opportunity, one-third motivation? Or is talent the most important? Or could someone without the talent still become one of the greats just by sheer hard work?

I’ve just begun to read an interesting book that addresses this topic: Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. He argues that we tend to focus far too much on the individual and aspects of the individual that make him or her successful: genes and hard work, mostly. We treasure the ideal of the self-made man, the rags-to-riches story. We want that story. We tell our children, “If you work hard you can become anything you want.” According to Gladwell, though, the circumstances of the success story are the key to success: the environment the genius lives in and grows up in, the people in the life of the genius, and so on. What I would simply call “dumb luck.”

And it makes me think of the thousands who must be out there in the world who are born with talents of various sorts, but never have the opportunity. They’re never exposed to an instrument, or don’t have the money or parental encouragement to play one. They have the brains to become Nobel Prize-winning scientists, but don’t receive the education they need. They have the genetic potential to excel at a sport, but are undernourished and don’t reach that potential. No matter how much talent they’re born with, they will never reach the level of achievement they might be capable of reaching.

Talent + opportunity + motivation = success. Of the three ingredients, motivation is the only part of the equation that we have control over. So the next question becomes: how do we develop and sustain motivation?


6 comments on “Musical genius

  1. DTaRelle F. Tullis
    April 16, 2013

    Hi Rachel,
    I find this post very interesting. I believe that anything can be developed, you just have to be willing to put the time in to develop it. I think that motivation comes from love. And sometimes motivation comes from parents or teachers that see the potential in you until you connect with it yourself. I also believe that eventually people do get the opportunity to express their talents, whether or not it’s to an audience of thousands or millions or just one. The whole joy is in the expression of it. Of course we want to be acknowledged and recognized for it too. I believe that greatness will not be denied. :-). Thanks Rachel for a very inspiring post. 🙂

  2. Kebba Buckley Button
    April 16, 2013

    Rachel, what an interesting article. How does natural passion for the violin, or golf, or basketball, fit in your model? Thanks for the great post.

  3. Edward Elliott
    April 16, 2013

    Great post Rachel. Love Outliers. Amazing book. Motivation is totally the missing element when all other things are in place. I have found that the environment of a young person is what helps to drive their motivation forward, especially their home life. Thanks for sharing. Enjoy the rest of your book.

  4. rachela
    April 16, 2013

    Thanks for the comments! Kebba, what do you mean by “natural passion”? Isn’t that the same as what I’m calling motivation?

  5. Kebba Buckley Button
    April 16, 2013

    Rachel, I couldn’t find the element of passion in your model. Passion can place you in forward-pull and is a strong element in the achievements of many geniuses. Take a person like Phil Mickelson, who from age 4 had a passion to play golf. Tiger Woods also. Pure passion drove them forward, and they became world-famous achievers. I think of “motivation” as intellectual, like a student preparing for an exam; motivation is something others can help you get, or which you can develop. The student is motivated to work/risk by the potential reward of success. But there may be no passion there.
    Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had a passion to help Blacks rise, and to find nonviolent ways to do it. He died for his passion, but he accomplished much in his short, empassioned life.
    Anyway, thanks for considering! All the best–Kebba

  6. Pingback: O is for… « RACHEL'S RUMINATIONS

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