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Potential vs. Skill vs. Talent

When most people hear good singing, the comment that follows is some form of, "Wow! You are really talented!" But what does this really mean?

When most folks refer to someone as talented, the unspoken meaning behind that is often, "You're doing something I could never do." Of course, as singing teachers, we know that most folks can sing, but it can take more time and intention for some than for others. How can we talk to folks who wish they could sing, but think they lack the talent to do so?

First, I do think we need to acknowledge that for most of us, singing came somewhat easy. All of the singing teachers I know were able to match pitch from an early age and had a generally easier time getting the basic skills of singing mastered. While we can be compassionate and skilled in helping clients of all abilities, most of us will not truly know what it is like to have the worst singing voice in the room. I don't think that means we can't sympathize with those who struggle to sing, but it's much more difficult to empathize. Acknowledging how difficult and brave it is to pursue something that you're bad at is important. What a privilege to work with people who have that much courage!

When I talk to folks who think they lack talent, I often ask them who told them they didn't have any talent. Nine times out of ten, they will think about it for a second, and then they'll tell me about their parent or a teacher when they were young who told them they were not good singers. Very rarely will someone say they came to that conclusion themselves. I then remind them that all people are born with innate musical potential because they have a brain. Brains are where potential begins. I remind them that they were singers as children, before anyone told them they weren't good at it. They had the same amount of potential as any other child, and they enjoyed singing. They didn't think about what other people thought!

Then I talk to folks about skill. For adults, I'll ask them about their first day on the job in whatever career they have. Were they as good as they are right now, after years of doing it? And the answer is always no. Over the years they have developed their skills so they are much better at their jobs than when they first started. I remind them that folks who are pretty good at singing usually practice a lot more than folks who don't, and that usually starts the thought process that skill in singing is a real thing, can be developed and honed with practice, and maybe, just maybe, anybody can get at least a little better at it. And it's not wrong to want to be better at singing, even just for your own enjoyment and confidence.

Talent is a tricky subject to get into, because so often we don't question its existence, but I think we should. We tend to think of talent as a type of proficiency that comes without working on it. I do think there are certain kinds of genetic gifts that some folks have that make singing easier, in our own cultural context. But what we consider "good" singing is so subjective based on where we came from and what is valued in the culture. A Tuvan throat singer may not be considered a good singer when compared to an operatic soprano, but is that a fair comparison? The skill to execute throat singing in that cultural context can take years to develop, and those are skills that your average operatic soprano won't have. Who is more talented? I would actually say it's neither. They are both skilled. Talent is a slippery cultural construct that I don't think has much use for us, if we really get down to it. There is a point in almost any venture that natural proficiency runs out, and to keep going will take time, intention, and practice. And that is how we develop skills.

The analogy I use all the time is learning to walk. Babies are terrible at walking at first. Like, they're really bad at it. But some of them will learn more quickly than others for whatever reason. Some will need a bit more time. A few will need some extra help from an expert to learn to walk, or even some correction after they learn so they develop different habits that are better for their bodies. But every capable baby learns to walk eventually. And they get good enough at it to do it without thinking. Walking is mostly about coordination, after all. And so is singing. When we sing, we are coordinating aerodynamic, muscular, neurological, and emotional systems, and getting everything to line up correctly on command is A WHOLE STINKING LOT of work for a body to do! We don't tell babies they are terrible at walking (even when they are) and that they should quit trying. NO! We give them the encouragement, tools, and time to develop those skills. Singers of all abilities deserve the same consideration while learning to coordinate all those systems. Very often, as singing teachers, if we can figure out where the misalignment is in those systems, we can help our clients make real progress.

How do you talk to people who lack "talent?" Do you agree with my thoughts? I'd love to hear from you! Comment down below to share your own ideas with me, and let's talk about it. Every one has the right to be a singer, because everyone is a human with the need to express themselves. May we be teachers who help bring out the voices who aren't used to being heard and honor them!

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