Musical Ability is Not Fixed

For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, “Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, “Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master answered him, “You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 25:14-30)

I have always found it interesting that the word “talent” primarily carries in modern parlance the meaning of a natural or spiritual gifting or ability. While our Lord doubtless included that meaning by implication in this illustration (and likely intended it as a primary meaning), “talent” in Scripture refers to a unit of weight, most commonly as a measurement of large sums of money. Focusing for the moment on the modern connotation on the term, though, what is most interesting about the master’s criteria for praising or punishing his servants is that he intended that these talents that had been entrusted to them be developed and put to greater use. A talent of money was to be multiplied by means of trade and investment, and I don’t think it out of line to suggest that Christ would have us do so with money, both to better provide for ourselves and to better further Kingdom work. Still, I would agree that his primary thrust was to say that whatever abilities, endowments, opportunities, etc. are afforded to us by Providence are not to be idled, but are rather to be exercised and extended for the service of God and man. “Talents,” in the modern sense, can be developed and increased.

I actually did not set out to write one of my mixed reflections on music and Christianity this week, but wanted to invoke this parable to introduce an idea that I think is lost on most people in our society today, both musicians and non-musicians. Put simply, musical ability is not fixed. Too often when Americans refer to music as a “talent” what they really mean is “some folks got it, and some folks don’t,” and by extension the musical endowment (or lack thereof) which one has at birth is all that he will ever enjoy. This is simply untrue. While each person has a greater or lesser innate aptitude for music, one’s ultimate success or failure in musical endeavor is determined largely by how much that aptitude is developed through practice, study, listening, and enculturation. Indeed, in many cases a person with a lesser amount of “natural talent” has through proper instruction and diligent effort ultimately surpassed those with greater innate ability.

I hope the reader will forgive me for using my own experience as an example, but I think it can be illustrative here. As a musician and brass player I have enjoyed tremendous natural endowments in the area of aural perception. I was evidently born with so-called “perfect pitch,” meaning that I can recognize particular notes by ear and sing particular notes on command without an external pitch reference. Needless to say, this makes many aspects of musicianship much easier for me than would otherwise be the case. Because I know what pitch should sound for a given note before hearing any external references, I am able to recognize correct and incorrect pitches instantaneously, and thus learn new pieces of music more quickly than some other folks. I don’t have to devote much practice to merely “getting the notes right,” at least with regard to aural perception.

However, whatever endowments I possess with regard to my ear, I am equally bereft of natural gifting when it comes to the physical capacity to play brass instruments. Because of my good ear I was able to achieve quite a bit as a younger student despite using my embouchure in a way that was less than ideal, and a certain amount of adjustment was necessary during my college years for me to be able to progress further. (To some extent this remains an ongoing process.) At that time I knew players who practiced far less than me and yet were able to play higher notes, with greater flexibility, and seemingly without any effort at all. For a time I gave up hope of ever being able to play that way, and am thankful for some encouragement I received at a critical moment, where I was told that those skills were available to me, but might take 15-20 years to develop. Fifteen-plus years later, that advice has proven to be true. I can play every bit as high and as fast and as flexibly as those guys I remember from school…but I still have to work on it a great deal each day. Indeed, the time I my ear allows me to forego spending on learning music is more than compensated for by time spent playing fundamental exercises to maintain and extend my physical ability to play my instruments. I’ll confess to smiling a bit when my students hear me play some ridiculously high passage and act as if I’m some sort of freak, but I’m always quick to tell them that this “freakishness” was born out of lots of hard work, and is available to them as well with similar effort.

You see, if I had simply accepted that my limited ability to perform extreme registers and techniques on the trombone was simply “how it is,” I would never have been able to enjoy the measure of success that I have. Even my ear, which was naturally very good, has improved. Instead of merely hearing “tone colors” like so many folks with perfect pitch do I have learned to listen even more to pitch relationships; in other words, I have developed “relative pitch” as an almost separate skill which has improved my musical perception tremendously. All of my musical abilities are greater now than they were when I started, and I am still improving. Are there people out there with better ears than mine, or with better ability to play brass instruments than me? Of course there are. Loads of them. Enough that I am thankful each day that I’m able to work at all in this profession. Some of them probably started with more “natural talent” than I have, and others with less, but all have worked hard, improved, and in one way or another found success.

Now please don’t misconstrue my words as saying that anybody, no matter how low their level of innate talent, can work hard and ultimately make a living as a professional musician. I agree with one of my former choir directors that no one is truly and completely “tone deaf,” but the person who has to work really hard simply to match pitch probably isn’t going to get very far. Still, he might get somewhere. He might at least develop the discernment to hear and enjoy music, to sing on pitch at church, etc. The point is that no one’s musical ability is inexorably fixed. Everyone can get from where they are now to a place of increased skill and achievement. This should be an encouragement to frustrated music students in particular, especially those who have come to college and encountered for the first time people with greater gifts than theirs in some area, or who have been able to “ride on talent” to a certain point but suddenly find themselves unable to proceed without correction and hard work. To those students I would say simply to get up and try again. You’ll find that all of your musical heroes have experienced the same thing many times, and all of them are better musicians and teachers for having done so.

And once you arrive at that greater level of musicianship, you can chuckle quietly when people remark about how “talented” you are, blissfully unaware that your “talent” was forged through many lonely hours in the practice room.

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Interim Music Director at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released two solo recordings, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOLS. 1 and 2, on the Potenza Music label in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
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