How much talent do you need to learn music? It’s a question that I have been asked hundreds of times. The idea that one needs to possess a high level of talent can have a huge impact on whether or not that person chooses to study music. This thought also influences the decision on whether to continue their studies when given the opportunity to give up prematurely.  

I have pondered this many times over the past thirty years observing tens of thousands of beginner children and adults who have attempted to take up the challenge. My conclusions are based on those observations and what I have found might change the way you think about “talent” and perhaps may even surprise you.

First, let’s define musical talent – and I think the best way to understand it is to experience it rather than read about it:

If you haven’t already discovered Joey, he was until recently, a relatively unknown 11-year old phenom in the world of jazz, the likes of which only appear on the scene once in a decade, or perhaps even less frequently – time will tell.

I cannot think of a better example of more innate, raw, expansive and potent musical talent living today. But descriptors like “prodigy,” “savant,” or “genius” serve more to detract rather than explain why for me, I feel Joey Alexander is a fitting yardstick of talent. Although his artistry is already breathtaking, it is hard to grasp that there are still more years of musical development to come.

It also isn’t just about Joey’s technical prowess or about the specific genre he plays; I was as much caught up with the completeness of the music itself. His impressive databank of complex harmonic, melodic and rhythmic ideas along with his deft ability to converse musically with other seasoned musicians at a very young age is proof positive of his genuine and unique aptitude. But how does a clear example of exceptional talent help us answer the bigger question – just how much talent is required to learn music?

child holding instrument
Image Courtesy of Pixabay

Most of my life has been dedicated to building a team of colleagues equally passionate about unleashing the power of music in people’s lives. Perhaps we’re outliers in a way, but we stubbornly believe that all of our students – or future music makers – should acquire the skills very early on to learn how to speak the language of music.

In music education parlance, it’s called “musicianship”. This little anecdote might help explain.

In the mid 90’s I was asked to address an audience of mainly Spanish-speaking people. As I didn’t speak the language, I was offered the use of a live translator, which I declined; I felt it would be more personal and connective to address the audience in their own tongue. After writing the 15-minute speech, it was translated and recorded in Spanish. I remember spending significant amounts of time dissecting every vowel, word, and phrase to capture the flow and mimic the recording as authentically as possible.

I must have done reasonably well – after the “performance,” several people came up to me and spoke to me in Spanish, expecting a dialogue. I had thankfully prepared in advance “Yo no hablo Español” which I thought would serve me better than a blank stare followed by an awkward grin.

kids singing
Image Courtesy of Flickr

Although it is slowly changing, the traditional way music has been taught has striking similarities to my story, which is increasingly becoming recognized as incomplete or even obsolete by today’s standards. Focusing on rote learning or reading the notes from the page, and memorizing the finger patterns to perform a piece for a recital, to pass an exam or jury, of course, has its place, but never at the expense of simultaneously developing full musicianship.

Joey is not just about talent but also a wonderful example of complete and comprehensive musicianship which unlocks the power and joy of music. Without developing the ear, building a practical understanding and vocabulary of harmonic, melodic and rhythmic ideas, exposure to and experimentation with improvisation and composition and providing many opportunities to play (or converse) with others in bands and ensembles, we end up with a very limited skill set; similar to my attempt at Spanish.

music band
Image Courtesy of Pixabay

If our primary music instruction over the years is focused on memorizing and perfecting repertoire, we acquire the ability to perform a few challenging pieces very well.  This may appear impressive on the surface, but we would still find it difficult or even impossible to convincingly play the simplest nursery rhyme without the sheet music, or have a basic musical conversation in a band or ensemble.  

So how much does one need to succeed?

The simple answer is building full musicianship requires no more talent than learning conversational English, Spanish or any other language for that matter. The fact that Joey Alexander is extraordinarily talented is not in question. Nor would most dispute that Winston Churchill, Virginia Woolf or John F. Kennedy were immensely talented orators. But most of us who have learned to play a musical instrument or who can speak English will never reach these extreme heights of musicianship or linguistic skill.

For me, the point of learning a language is so we can converse with others – to exchange ideas, to interact and enjoy the conversation, regardless of how eloquent or erudite we are. And so with learning music or an instrument, virtually all of us have the talent we need to develop a satisfying level of comprehensive musicianship, as long as we start learning the right way from the outset.

There are many music educators that can deliver this kind of holistic instruction, but you may have to dig a bit more to find one that is capable of developing full musicianship than settling for the convenient traditional option just down the street. 

talent and hard work
Image Courtesy of Flickr

This kind of education will allow us to make musical conversations effortlessly and with flow, regardless of whether or not we have what it takes to make a living from it. Becoming musical is all about unleashing the unique and transformative power and enjoyment music can provide, whether it’s Jazz, Hip-Hop, Opera, Country, Folk or Baroque.

Full musicianship and the joys that come with it are available to all of us if we approach learning music in much the same way we learned how to speak our native tongues. And the best thing is that it is completely within the reach of all.

No need to ask Joey how much he enjoys the conversation – you can hear it in his music and see it written all over his face.

Featured Image: Image Credit



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Brain Region for Musical Talent Found, Says New Study

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“In the past decades, the possibility of changing the adult brain through training and experience has raised a lot of interest, and musical training has proven an excellent model to study this,” lead author and German Center for Neurological Diseases neuroscientist Sibylle Herholz, Ph.D., told Bioscience Technology. “Only recently researchers have begun to study individual differences regarding predisposition for learning. In our study, we find evidence for both training-related plasticity, and predisposition for learning. And we were able to distinguish the corresponding neural correlates.” Via Bioscience Technology



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“He said he’s handy on the bass,” Forde, of ’80s band Aswad, tells PEOPLE, “so you never know – we may have him playing bass soon.” Via People