The other week I overheard a conversation that made me really angry. It went roughly as follows: Man: “I’m just so bored at the minute. What I’ve always wanted to do is play music.” Woman: “Well, why don’t you then?” Man: [after a brief pause] “Three reasons, really: I’m not talented, I can’t play any […]

The other week I overheard a conversation that made me really angry. It went roughly as follows:

Man: “I’m just so bored at the minute. What I’ve always wanted to do is play music.”
Woman: “Well, why don’t you then?”
Man: [after a brief pause] “Three reasons, really: I’m not talented, I can’t play any instruments and I’m lazy.”

The final sentence, contrary to what this man says, does not contain three reasons, but one excuse. Allow me to explain why.

I always loved music, but I hated music lessons. At the age of 12 I was more or less forced to learn the clarinet at school. I wanted to learn the sax instead, but apparently there weren’t enough of those shiny gold beasts to go around, and they established quite quickly I wasn’t God’s gift to music. Every week I sat in a cramped practice room and the teacher would ask if I’d done my practice. Each week I would reply no, because I can’t read music. Most weeks she would send me outside. I’d go home and try to play, inevitably throwing the clarinet across the room in a huff and declaring it defective. In the final end of year performance I had to pretend I was playing along with some elaborate piece of music, much to the amusement of my parents.

For years afterwards I would tell people I wasn’t musically gifted. I didn’t have it in me. I didn’t have ‘talent’. But this all changed when I decided to dust myself off and get back on the horse. I got a bass guitar for Christmas when I was 16, and the following year I bought an acoustic guitar for a tenner. I taught myself both, aided by the internet and drunken singalongs with friends. I’ve never had a lesson on either instrument.

More and more these days, particularly in music journalism, ‘talent’ is seen as a miraculous and invisible attribute, a kind of abstract potential measurement usually applied to young bands and producers who have exceeded expectations. Although I admit that you need to start early if you want to be an acclaimed classical musician, the idea that you should avoid playing music because you are not ‘musically talented’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the only victims are the lazy people who can’t be bothered to apply themselves. Imagine being thrust into a strange country at the age of 50. You don’t speak the language, and you quickly realise that you will not survive without it. It might take a bit longer – after all, adults are slower to absorb new information than young uns – but you will eventually learn it.

In his 2008 book Outliers, Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell argues that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become truly great at something. Basing his statements on research by Dr K Anders Ericsson, he contends that ‘genius’ is only truly achieved by doing 20 hours of practice a week for 10 years. He also factors in environmental variables like access to appropriate resources and good old-fashioned luck. Gladwell does not deny that some people can have a predisposal to any given task, but the main thrust of his observation is that environment and practice are by far the biggest defining features of all geniuses (or is it genii?).

What we call talent, as Gladwell argues, is more like a combination of hard work, determination and luck, not some “exceptional or mysterious” magic potion that inevitably takes you to the top. Songs don’t write themselves.

I would like to point out at this juncture that I do not think of myself as a ‘talented’ musician, but I am a musician nonetheless and have never been formally taught. So to anyone reading this who thinks they are not musically talented – you have not properly applied yourself. If it is really what you want, then immerse yourself in it and the rest will follow.

Oh and by the way, I still can’t read music, but I am under no illusions that this is due to anything other than my own laziness.

Sam Walby.