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Tuesday
Jun072011

The Talent Myth

Robert recently asked a very insightful question in the forum. Essentially, he wonders what effect talent has on getting work as a musician in the real world. For our purposes here, let’s define talent as a mix of natural aptitude, exhaustive training and years of practice that, when looked at objectively, distinguishes a musician as an expert. Let’s pretend that talent is a commodity that is easily quantifiable and that some musicians have more and some musicians have less. (Even though we know that last part is not how this talent thing works. Pretend anyway.)

Do the Best Musicians Get the Best Work?

It’s a very good question. Logic would suggest that the most talented musicians would get the best work. The better you play the more people will want to hire you, right? The validity of university music programs - especially the ones that focus their curriculum exclusively on performance and completely ignore business, entrepreneurship, or career-building - seems to be predicated on this talent myth. Become the best and you’ll succeed. Why else would you pay $100,000 for a fancy conservatory education? But we all know the truth. We’ve all seen overwhelming evidence that the most talented musicians do not, necessarily, have the most success as working musicians. How’s that fair? What’s the deal?

Yes, Talent Does Matter (To a Point)

To a certain point, talent is very important. If a musician doesn’t learn or perform music at a very high level, they will never make it as a professional musician. They will perform poorly at gigs and employers won’t call twice. Eventually it will become clear that this career is not for them and they’ll find another path to follow. It happens all the time. So who are we left with? The best of the best. A pool of really talented musicians who can play anything you put in front of them. So yes, to get to this level as a professional musician talent does matter.

An Abundance of Talent

However, it’s at this point that talent becomes such an abundant resource that having a tiny bit more or a tiny bit less of it doesn’t have a pronounced effect on a musician’s career. Put another way - when everyone is talented it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish yourself among the crowd based solely on this marker alone. Employers may say that they are hiring you because you are the best, but you shouldn’t believe them. At the highest levels of the business, talent is simply not the reason that one musicians gets hired over another.

Distinguishable Traits

Here are some characteristics that employers look for when hiring musicians:
  1. Punctuality - Musicians who miss gigs or consistently show up late don’t get called again. Why would you hire someone you can’t trust when there are plenty of musicians that you can?
  2. Sight-reading - Musicians that sight-read well require less rehearsal time, and less rehearsal time means the employers save money. What is more attractive to an employer than the ability to save time and money while still maintaining the level of quality they require? That sounds awesome. Wouldn’t you want a great sight-reader if you were an employer?
  3. Sociability - Meaning, the ability and willingness to engage in activities and conversation with other people. Would you rather work with someone who’s nice or someone who’s a jerk? Easy question.
  4. Consistency - Professional musicians bring the same energy and accuracy to every performance. Employers value that quality.
  5. Flexibility - Which would you prefer - a musician that complains or resists every time something changes, or someone that rolls with the punches? Another easy question.
There are probably a hundred others. Also check out Cam’s article, 5 Traits of a Professional Musician. These are the qualities that define a successful musician. These are the qualities that give one professional musician an advantage over another professional musician in the uber-talented, saturated freelance market. When I meet new musicians looking for work, these are the qualities that I look for, well before I even care to hear them play. There are two reasons for this: first, I assume that if they are working consistently at a professional level they must be talented, right? And second, I know that even if they can play circles around other musicians, I won’t want to work with them unless they exhibit these crucial characteristics.

A Real-World Example

Here’s a real world story - I recently started subbing on a Broadway show. For me, this is my 2nd Broadway show. The people that hired me to play keyboards on this show had never, not once, heard me play a single note before I played an actual, live performance of this Broadway show. I had worked with them in a non-performance capacity several months ago. We got along great. I liked them, they liked me - and we established trust on the characteristics described above. And now, because I’m already playing on another Broadway show, they assumed I must be talented enough for the job, so they asked me to play. There is virtually no way to argue that I landed this job based solely on my level of talent - and this is a great example of how the real world works. To be successful as a working musician it’s first important to establish yourself as part of the pool of talented professionals, then distinguish yourself among the competition with secondary characteristics that are important to your potential employers. What other characteristics are important for working musicians? Leave a comment below. And Robert - thanks for reading the site and putting your question the forum! If anyone else would like to give Robert an answer, visit the original post.

References (1)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments (8)

to be honest, i am starting to wonder if talent really matters because i am sure somewhere someone is gonna like the music you do no matter how crappy it is. the only thing is to reach that person via proper targeting and then marketing. Marketing comes first, talent second. sad but true.

Cool post. I am a little bummed, though, to not see musicality anywhere. In fact, most of what you list is more about professionalism than talent, at least in my opinion.

I think you guys might be missing the point a little. The truth is, EVERYBODY that makes a living as a musician is very talented. At a certain level, it isn't a question of whether or not you can play, it's expected that you can play--by default, you should be incredible at your instrument and know how to make real music, not just play the right notes.

At that point, it's everything else that matters. Those are the traits that set you apart from all the other super talented musicians on somebody's call list.

Yes, the article is mostly about professionalism and connecting with people, but while that may get you a gig, you need talent to keep it and get more gigs. Contractors & musicians are busy people, and don't have time to check out other people to see if they can play or not. A recommendation from someone they know saying, "This person is on time, easy to get along with, and plays well" is your ticket in. If you get invited in and can't back it up musically, you won't get called again…

June 9 | Unregistered CommenterIctus75

Yep. Took me a long time to come to terms with this, but for young performers, it's a catch-22; you get a gig, cuz you got a gig, and being a better player than the next gal is no help at all. Audition for a spot on a tour, and the first thing they'll ask is who you've been out with; it's assumed you can cover the material, cuz you'd be committing career suicide walking through the door if you couldn't. You also need the emotional intelligence to 'hang' well; being a fun person to gig with, having the proper wardrobe and an easygoing, helpful attitude are way more important than being the best player. It took me many years to get over myself and leave perfectionism in the rehearsal room, but when I did, I enjoyed the music, the shows and the people more. That's when I started getting better gigs. ;D

June 9 | Unregistered CommenterMojo Bone

BB King supposedly always said that for his band, give us a great guy and we can make him a better player if he needs that. But you cannot take a really good player and make them a better person if they need that. Always go with the better person. And yes- it is expected that you are very competent with you instrument within professional environments- that is a given- are you a pain? that is what everybody is curious about and will not suffer. As far as this whole article about lack or abundance of talent- I think it takes a very MULTI talented person to make a living at music- music just being one of the talents. People like to point to someone being seemingly less talented yet successful. Well, I believe it is just one talent they are focusing on. It is a symphony of talents going on- and the lack of any one jsut means there are other areas where they are probably pretty damn good. There are plently of marginal singers that either play marvelously- or write amazing- or promote themselves tirelessly- or just have the ability to see where its going and be there before anyone else. Alll true talents- all admirable- all pay well-
All frustrate the ones who chose to sit in their room and not learn how to interface with the world while they were running scales and mastering obscure works of other introverts. I have bought plenty of records of people that I either sensed or heard are nice people- and I have avoided stuff because i heard or felt the opposite-

June 9 | Unregistered Commentercw

Hmmmmm, I think there are a few points here. Starting with like it or not, musicians are people FIRST and musicians SECOND. And any career that you're dedicated to is like a marriage - doesn't matter how good each of you are separately, if you're not good collectively it isn't going to work. Especially if you're touring or in close quarters. And while we're on the subject of 'people first', remember that applies to promoters, managers and even people like bar tenders... if you're a jerk you're a jerk and then look out, you've made your own bed!

In regards to talent, while I'd like to think talent plays a huge part in 'making a go of it' as a musician, the fact is there are so many mediocre at best to truly crappy musicians out there 'making it' it makes me crazy! And plenty of them are pretty big names!!! So what is THAT about? What am I missing? And on a broader though no less important level, this also holds true for songwriters. While there are a LOT of fabulous songwriters (and many just seem to be getting better and better) the disparity between the good ones and the crappy ones amazes me. What amazes me more though is how many crappy songs have become 'hits'. Honestly I can't even begin to understand how some of the songs that have become 'hits' have even made it 'out of the gate' from melody to lyrics, crafting to chord structure.

If you're talking strictly studio musician, then true talent is very important Why? Because to paraphrase Cam, "Time is money" for a producer or promoter. And if for instance you can sight read (well) and have a great feel, or you're able to transpose in your head (meaning you understand that the relative minor in the key of A is the f#m verses the key of C which is the Am and you can read one thing and play another because you're 'translating as you go, that is a useful skill. At which point you're far more likely to be hired than someone who might be a great guy, BUT they can't sight read, or have a lousy feel or translate in their heads or... Of course If you're a jerk you may not get hired back or at least not on a regular basis but you will work.

Actually, I think there is one element missing in the article and that is the ability to promote yourself. There are a lot of good musicians who aren't able to say, "Hi, I'm so and so, I'm a very solid guitar player and I'd really like to work with you, can I give you a tape/Mp3? Bottom line is ability without opportunity does you no good.

So, learn your craft, mind your P's & Q's and get yourself out there! And if you're not willing to do what it takes, maybe this isn't the best career choice for you! - Nancy

just taking the advice... Controlled Folly

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