On Talent: Is it Enough?

a discussion with the wonderful Mitsuko Uchida

This woman is just kind of a musical goddess. Not only do I love everything I’ve heard her play, from Schubert to Schoenberg, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed everything I’ve ever seen on YouTube of her discussing music.

“To think that talent is something you are born with is wrong.”

She’s an interesting, passionate, talented, and individual character. She moved to Vienna from Japan with her family when she was very young (her dad was a diplomat or something) and when they moved back, she stayed. I’ve seen interviews of her in English (obviously), as well as in German and Japanese. She is a true musician, through and through; it oozes from her when you see her speaking about music, or conducting Beethoven’s piano concertos from the piano, or describing Schumann’s style of writing. She is one of those few people who I instantly would love to sit and just chat with (or listen to) for days.
In this short clip, she makes a few fascinating points. I’d seen this video quite a while back, but hadn’t yet come upon the ‘right time’ to write about it. For some reason, with this week’s piece, it came to mind, and I wrote it down on my calendar as today’s post.
I don’t remember exactly what it was about Prokofiev’s first sonata that triggered the thought of this topic, perhaps a bit unfortunately, but I think it was something along these lines. As we’ll talk about in that post, Prokofiev’s opus one (anyone’s opus one, really) was an important and intentional decision for publication. An op. 1 is a calling card, a first statement, an introduction. Some composers’ op. 1 aren’t terribly memorable, but there are a few opus ones that are entire symphonies (Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky, for example), and Berg’s piano sonata and Webern’s Passacaglia come to mind as powerful, impressive, solid first works.
But what dictates talent? Prokofiev was obviously very talented, not only as a performer but a composer. What I suppose fascinates me the most about this idea is how the four elements Ms. Uchida mentions in the video all kind of interact. They are

  1. Passion (“urgency to have to express one’s deep emotions through music and nothing else…”)
  2. “Intellectual ability”
  3. “Technical ability”
  4. Charisma
Interestingly, the real crux of the point she is making, I feel, is that the last three (passion aside) can all be acquired, “even charisma,” with a study and understanding of music. One could also perhaps argue, then, that even passion can be ‘developed.’ As I wrote above, she says she feels that the idea that talent is an innate ethereal inborn gift is wrong. So back to what I said earlier about interaction. Let’s pretend those four elements above were knobs, and we could adjust their amounts
in each given person. How would it change their abilities? Their career paths? Their success?
My point is to say, let’s take a handful of a few composers: Mozart, Havergal Brian, Milton Babbitt, Felix Woyrsch, and Ernst von Dohnanyi. Perhaps only the first is the only one that most people have heard of. Let’s add Rachmaninoff. To be honest, there are very few people I’ve ever heard say they don’t like Rachmaninoff. Don’t know him very well, perhaps, aren’t familiar with his entire oeuvre, more likely, but few people ever in my recollection have said “yuck… I can’t stand Rachmaninoff.” But let’s take Rachmaninoff out of 100 points. How much of his success would be due to technical ability? to intellect? to charisma? Does one composer’s passion make up for a potential lack of technical ability? Rachmaninoff had enormous hands (and [or because of?] Marfan syndrome), so a lot of stuff he wrote contained enormous chords, but he was also just a phenomenal pianist to begin with.
Was Mozart really that talented? Was he a real genius, or was he just in a fantastic environment to begin learning it from such a young age? One could argue it was in his blood. Babbitt is undoubtedly a genius in more than one discipline, but many people don’t care for his music; those who do are passionate about it. Havergal Brian was moved to write a gargantuan (nearly) two-hour symphony and to continue to write dozens more after it. He hasn’t gotten nearly the degree of fame or recognition as many of his other countrymen, but that’s not to say his music is substandard. Perhaps what he (or any number of other examples) lacked was that last thing Uchida mentioned, the one you cannot control: luck. She certainly had a great deal of it, being plopped down in Vienna as a child, with the opportunities she had, but it’s also, at this point, kind of impossible to say whether or not she already had some kind of predisposition or propensity for it.
And the same can be true of anyone. What I guess I find so encouraging about her little speech here is this: if you want to do something, do it. If you’re not good enough, that can be fixed; if you don’t have enough time, it can be adjusted. When it comes down to it, there’s a hell of a lot to be said for effort and determination, which is also I think part of the ‘character’ she mentions.
People perhaps have the idea that artists like Hilary Hahn and Daniil Trifonov and Yuja Wang and Martha Argerich and on and on are just… kind of half human half god, but I’m sure that many of them would tell you that they put a hell of a lot of effort into it. No one accidentally becomes the best at anything worth being the best at. And I have an enormous amount of respect for willpower, determination, struggle, and persistence, and, as they will with anywhere else, can get you far in music. If you want it, go for it. That’s all the Dr. Phil self-help bit, but the other part is just… well, Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers comes to mind, but the idea is that it puts us (at least more) on a level playing field, and isn’t just that they’re all gifted. Perhaps they are, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t put forth effort to get where they were.
Well said, Ms. Uchida. You are a role model.
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