Talent Inversely Proportional to Reliability

November 16, 2017, 1:26 PM · As a teacher whose business model appeals to a very wide potential customer base (mostly beginners, though), I get quite a diverse range of students, and so I inevitably draw patterns in my head from my experiences with these differing students. One of these patterns is mentioned in the title of this thread: Talent is Inversely Proportional to Reliability.

I get plenty of naturally-capable students who pick up instruction effortlessly and have smooth bowing and beautiful finger/hand formations from day 1, but who resist consistent practice. On the other hand, I get plenty of students who struggle with the motor skills involved (or the ability to recognize differences in pitch, etc...), whom practice every day, diligently.

Of course, there are a few who manage to have both natural talent and consistent practice routines without being coerced, but these are definitely not "the norm."

Anyhow, I was just curious if any others have noticed this pattern in people; not just pertaining to violin, either. It seems to pop up everywhere I look, that the most naturally gifted - or just generally capable - people often struggle the most with discipline and reliability. I have drawn some of my own conclusions on why this is; one of the big ones is that I think talented people simply aren't accustomed to having to work hard to achieve a result, but in the case of something very difficult like violin, they end up having to push hard at some point no matter how talented they are. The difference between a talented and untalented student might be that the former might not have to try that hard until book 3, whereas the latter might have to try hard from the very first day. But in both cases, they eventually HAVE to push, and when the talented person gets to that point, they seems more likely to simply given up and pursue a different hobby until they also hit a wall doing that.

And BEFORE you respond, PLEASE avoid saying anything like "have you tried this? Have you tried that?" This is not a request for advice on teaching, as I already have found a multitude of ways to maximize success in the cases of both the high and the low ends of the bell curve. I am simply curious if anyone else has noticed the inverse proportion between talent and reliability, and perhaps speculated on some of the causes.

Replies (27)

Edited: November 16, 2017, 2:11 PM · Well I myself am one of those talented kids, and I certainly struggle with discipline and reliability, but not because I am not accustomed to working hard.
In my case, it’s rather that I have very high standards and an inclination towards perfectionism, therefore I can get get discouraged very easily when the gap between my current playing and my end vision looks so big.

It’s somethting I have observed in others as well, that chaps who are the most talented have the biggest troubles to stay on course when hitting a wall. They know they could play like amazingly well, but the road there still seems so long so they say screw it, while the folks that aren’t so talented won’t expect any big results and are therefore more likely to follow advice and practice x amount of hours everyday, even if there isn’t any noticeable progress.

I think it’s just that the brain makes some cost/reward calculations, and most folks, even the talented ones, don’t have the desire/motivation/need to go through the process, because the costs are too big, so they just give up.
We want to play a certain way, but can’t achieve the result as fast as we would like to, so we give up.

In general, highly talented players actually have a very low self-esteem, and a negatively skewed perception of their own playing, so we are quite depressive people. I personally never compare myself to people who are on a lower level than me, only those higher.
And also the reluctance to practice creates a vicious cycle: we don’t practice as much as we should, so we start playing worse, which makes us feel bad, therefore we practice even less, etc.

Edited: November 16, 2017, 2:07 PM · Actually I’ll give an example from my own life, which illustrates your point:

I have a friend, decent violinist who started playing in his early teens, so pretty late. He is in his twenties now, and has been playing for 10ish years.
We were at a summer course together, and I got the opportunity to observe him and his practice. At the time he started preparing for a competition which was going to take place a few months later. Every single day, he practiced 6-8 hours. I don’t even know how he could do that, but in this case, something drove him. He was motivated, he had a desire to prepare really well, win that competition, impress his peers and prove to the world he was a great violinist, or whatever, I don’t know what was going on in his mind, but he had that desire to improve his playing.
I, on the other hand, did not practice nearly as much as him, and only did so because my teacher forced me as I was scheduled to play some pieces at a concert and because I had a recital right after the summer course for which I had to prepare. I did not have a drive, a burning desire to improve, therefore I did not practice as much, and not as seriously as my friend.

Now here we are, a few months later. I had a lesson with my teacher yesterday (we have the same), and she told me she was amazed by my friend’s playing, and by the tremendous progress he had made since the summer course. He commited to practice, had the desire to improve, sticked to his practice schedule, and got the results.

So it’s not so much a question of being accustomed to working hard, but one of having a desire strong enough to be willing to go through hours of daily practice.

It’s rare but it happens. Some people have a burning desire to become famous concert soloists that make a lot of money and travel the world, and that desire is so powerful that they are willing to go through anything to achieve that goal.
Others are so commited to Music and spreading it’s messages through the world, or sharing a composer’s works or whatever that they have a burning desire to produce the sounds they hear in their heads on the violin, so they practice as long and hard as needed until they can play the way they want.

But most people don’t have a strong enough desire, so they just get lazy.
At least that’s my take on the subject.

November 16, 2017, 2:19 PM · Learning to play the violin is pretty darn hard.

When most things that you do come easy to you, it's actually quite hard to learn the discipline to really work at something. You're not used to it being difficult, and/or failing despite your best efforts, and so your inclination tends to be to give up and go on to something that is more rewarding, because the world is full of things that are easier and more rewarding than playing the violin.

Also, kids today are in a LOT of activities. The bright ones, especially, are likely to be doing a demanding courseload at school, athletics, and a million other extracurriculars. They are tired, and have almost no downtime. A lot of them are making calculations about how much time they have to put into things that aren't their passion, to achieve some minimum bar that will be considered success.

The kids without talent or drive also quit early in the process. :-)

Edited: November 16, 2017, 2:37 PM · I was one of the 'talented ones' and always had trouble practising a lot of hours. Yes, I was consistent, but found out I could 'get away with' a minimal amount of work (of course this became a lot less reliable with every passing year, and at 18 I'm playing catch-up technique-wise).

I've noticed a lot of talented kids tend to be perfectionists - agree with what Roman R said above.

They can also be quite creative rather than logic-oriented, and seem to have trouble planning things and sticking to schedules, and are prone to distraction. The technique side of things does not appeal to a child who only wants to play beautiful music, and doesn't yet understand that technique is a means to an end.

Also, as a child a lot of the practice discipline can come down to the parents, right? I've rarely seen a 9-year-old pick up and play for say, 2 hours without some sort of 'motivation' (sometimes to the point of discipline or worse) from the parents.

November 16, 2017, 2:45 PM · Talented people get cut more slack in many facets of life. People's praise can turn out to be a curse sometimes.
November 16, 2017, 3:15 PM · I completely agree with what Gemma says, I would just add it’s not only children, but grown-ups as well :)
November 16, 2017, 3:16 PM · I don't think it's one box or the other. I've had students who just didn't have the hand coordination to play, no matter how hard they worked, I've had students who never needed to practice much, some who practiced and were phenomenal players, and a whole range in between. I've also found inconsistency in individual students- when they go through a major life transition- parent divorce, remarriage, deaths etc.

I have noticed, however, that quite a few of the kids who pick up fast in the beginning don't develop good practice habits and stall out when the more advanced techniques aren't as easily mastered.

November 16, 2017, 3:16 PM · I don't think it's one box or the other. I've had students who just didn't have the hand coordination to play, no matter how hard they worked, I've had students who never needed to practice much, some who practiced and were phenomenal players, and a whole range in between. I've also found inconsistency in individual students- when they go through a major life transition- parent divorce, remarriage, deaths etc.

I have noticed, however, that quite a few of the kids who pick up fast in the beginning don't develop good practice habits and stall out when the more advanced techniques aren't as easily mastered.

Edited: November 16, 2017, 4:56 PM · PARENTS!!!!

Did I say parents? PARENTS!!

Stress, lack of exercise, or poor diet, solo or combined these things will create a weak hippocampus. When the hippocampus(where explicit memories are encoded) is weakened than resilience is low. When resilience is low than self-discipline and self-motivation follow.


November 16, 2017, 3:32 PM · I think that a lot of the time, especially in an institutional setting, the talented students aren't pushed hard enough in the beginning, so no work ethic develops. This is especially true if music isn't the only area of talent, and this lack of mentorship and pushing is present in other areas, such as academics. The focus in a group tends to be on struggling students. In a rigid, graded system, the focus may be on preserving the status quo. Often, the assumption is that talented students will be fine on their own, with minimal guidance, but this just isn't true. Such students are a special needs population.
Edited: November 16, 2017, 5:06 PM · I agree with you Lieschen. Sometimes I wonder if it isn't just a case of talented people not being challenged enough. I mean, when you learn something in the 10th of the time others do, you quickly get bored if there isn't more challenges coming your way. A teacher has to recognize that the bar has to be set high enough for talented people that they do have to work hard at it, like everyone else. That however is much more demanding on the teacher's part, as it doesn't fit the mold. I think talented people are sometimes over confident, and develop the bad habit of procrastination, relying on their talent to quickly catch up at the last min, where others had to keep at it all along. A little humbling (failure) early on could help sometimes I think. The earlier, the better! I'd even consider negative re-enforcement. The more you acknowledge their accomplishment and reward them with compliments, the more you re-enforce their bad habits and over confidence. I.e. they may need to hear: you can do better than that, even when they're better than everyone else. As long as they see themselves better than others, what's the point of trying hard?
November 16, 2017, 5:05 PM · Christian, so true...
November 16, 2017, 5:28 PM · Not only do you learn the material, but you learn that you will never have to work as hard as everyone else (which is not true past a certain point).
November 16, 2017, 7:54 PM · "I have noticed, however, that quite a few of the kids who pick up fast in the beginning don't develop good practice habits and stall out when the more advanced techniques aren't as easily mastered."

Very true, Julie. As a new teacher years ago, I often made the mistake of letting certain students move as fast as they were able to, without letting them "grow into" their natural abilities. Then, they'd hit a wall and because they weren't titrated into it, they'd end up quitting.

Of course I've long since learned that even with exceptionally talented students, it's always better to go a bit on the slower side to allow a buffer in case of technical issues or life issues. "Sideways improvement" rather than "vertical improvement" has been a great help in this area.

Edited: November 17, 2017, 6:43 AM · They are very good at a lot of things; therefore, they are going to take the path of least resistance where they get the most praise. It needs to be easy for them, they need to stand out, and they need constant praise and recognition.

November 17, 2017, 9:15 AM · I couldn't help but postulate the following: the middle of the road students (both in terms of talent and reliability) are most likely to succeed. Thoughts?
November 17, 2017, 9:25 AM · I think there is definitely a social image of talented people being unpredictable, unruly, unbound by social conventions. I have never seen any evidence (as opposed to anecdotes) that it's really the case, though.

Certainly a talented person can be better able to *get away with* otherwise dysfunctional behaviour.

November 17, 2017, 10:28 AM · When I was a kid I rode my talent instead of working. Imagine if I worked with my various talents instead of riding them? Now I still ride some of my talents, so that I have the ability to do other things that require more work, but I'll be darned if I don't have to work my butt off to play what I'm able on the violin. (I'm told I'm "talented" with the violin, and a couple of other things, but I'm not inclined to believe it anymore...)

I think a lot of it is that if things come easily, why work hard on it? Without the parents, teachers, etc providing a firm structure kids are not going to put that effort into an activity when they could be rewarded with other easier activities. Talent is simply the boost to keep things going when the going gets tough - it isn't the stable ground that we can build upon.

Edited: November 17, 2017, 10:54 AM · I would suggest that we're dealing with varying individuals with not just varying degrees of talent (or better of combination of aptitudes required for violin playing) but also of varying degrees of comittement, love for the instrument, priorities, etc. And the interaction with the teacher plays a role. And what the studeng might not reveal might be determinant. So i have doubts about generalizing of this kind. I really dont see logically the link, the inverse proportionality. Way too much obscurity to really validate this.
Plus I would suggest that talent, although such an easy word to use, suggesting a certain atemporary essentialism, is more nuanced than the way it is used. There are people who lose something on the way, others gain (late bloomers)...etc
November 17, 2017, 12:19 PM · Not gonna lie, I'm unfortunately one of those stupid ones with high standard and goals but limited practice time. But doing my best hahaha
November 17, 2017, 12:52 PM · Tammuz, it is indeed true that "talent" is an incredibly general term.

I consider talent in some of the following ways:

1) Motor skills and coordination.
2) The ability to recognize small variances in pitch.
3) Multitasking.
4) Cleverness, which can be used to solve problems easier.
5) The ability to manage the regions of one's brain.
6) High levels of fast-twitch muscle fibers in the body.
7) Good spatial awareness.
8) Ability to disconnect right vs left sides of the body.
9) Flexible joints
10) Sticky fingertips


Now, each of those traits can certainly be developed, but if a student STARTS with many of them, then I would mentally think of them as "talented." However, perhaps that are finer gradients of talent that we don't consider. Perhaps the ability to practice consistently is a talent. Perhaps having a positive attitude is a talent. However, I personally think those things are more "nurture" than "nature," so I don't tend to call them "talent."

By the way, another pattern I have noticed: only talented people try to discredit the influence/existence of talent (me included, although I don't consider myself more than a 6-7 out of 10 on the talent scale)! I spent many years telling people that my progress was ONLY hard work and that talent had nothing to do with it (because in my head talented people didn't have to work hard). But having dealt with so many different levels of students at this point, I can 100% attest to the existence of talent. I've had students who made it to a Suzuki book 5 level in a fairly solid way in a YEAR, and I've also had students still stuck at -essentially - a book 1 level after 4 years, even with consistent practice (only adults have had this latter situation). And anyone who denies this is possible simply hasn't taught very many students. Short term memory problems and unsolvable motor skill problems tend to be the culprit in really bad situations, but I still lump those in with a "lack of talent."

Peter: I think that's a pretty plausible postulation. In a NORMAL situation, the kids with a reasonably good attitude/demeanor, who are challenged but not crushed by the violin, and whom have parents who assist them in practicing in a fruitful/patient manner, are going to make it the farthest, given enough time.

November 17, 2017, 6:24 PM · In the earlier days of cutting records, most great conductors were not trusted by the record companies to keep their renderings within the time constraints inherent in the then recording process, and what would happen is that an understudy would be employed to study their interpretation and then conduct the actual recording in their place. Possibly Boult was an exception, which may be why in recordings he tends to stand out as the greatest of his time.
November 23, 2017, 12:02 AM · Parents, parents and parents. A child learns dicipline from the parents and one should demand more from a gifted child.

But then again not every gifted child truly wants to be a great violinist, they might just want to play a bit.

The third component being the teacher, the gifted child should be taught differently I think for her to get the same sence of reward fro hard work.

November 23, 2017, 10:40 AM · "...the middle of the road students (both in terms of talent and reliability) are most likely to succeed. Thoughts?"

Middle of the road students eventually end up in the musical purgatory known as "pretty good."
They get heavily recruited by lower-tier colleges and music schools as fodder for profs who need to fill their studios for benefits and tenure. If they're lucky, they end up making half a living in some podunk orchestra.

Music is not a career for the "middle of the road" students. For them, I'd suggest something less rigorous and better-paying, like law or medicine.

November 23, 2017, 11:06 AM · Erik, I think you are right - and I think it applies to every field.

I think those who are working against their limits (but with success) from early times will learn how to do this in every endeavor. More Power to tough high schools!

But you never know which way some "incredibles" might turn next. I had an employee on one of my programs who was the most amazing and creative research engineer I ever knew of, beyond what I (or anyone in the 5,000 employee organization) could imagine (and he was granted awards for it). Heaven only knows what he might have advanced too in that field, and then in his late 20s he fell in love with a fundamentalist Christian "girl," saw the "light," they married in 1989 and went off to Afghanistan to spread their faith. (I retired at the very same time and much later was greatly relieved to learn they had safely returned to the US.)

Edited: November 23, 2017, 11:53 AM · There maybe correlation, but no causal connection. If there seems to be a high correlation between talent and poor work ethic, it's the result of a culture of fixed mindset.

fixed vs. growth mindset
Substitute "talent" for "intelligence."

November 23, 2017, 1:07 PM · Lol Scott, it's interesting how your perspective is always from a professional/career standpoint. In my life, I'm just hoping I can get young students to care enough to make it to a solid book 5.

I think what Peter means by "succeed" and what you mean by "succeed" are two very different things :)

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