A guitarist is by nature an emotional sort of person. I mean, it’s such an emotional instrument, I think it attracts people of a highly sensitive nature, who need to learn to play so they can express that emotion, so it doesn’t drive them crazy, perhaps!
Because of this, I think we can fall prey to a few psychological conditions that make our progress as guitarists and musicians much more difficult than it needs to be. One of these conditions is the chronic mood of doubt, which manifests itself as the spoken or unspoken question of “Do I have any Natural Talent for this?” “Am I kidding myself here, thinking I can learn to play like these obviously talented players I hear, who make me feel so inadequate?” Boy, I spent a lot of time feeling like that. I remember listening to a Segovia recording of the Bach Bouree in Em, which I was working on at the time. He played it so fast, and I was so struggling to play it at even half that speed, that it put me in a serious state of self doubt.
Well, I have learned a few things about this subject of “natural talent”, and I think they would be good and useful things to share with the aspiring players out there.
You Too Can Be A Superhero!
My first insight into this “question” was when I observed how I reacted to my first experience in taking lessons. I had taught myself guitar for three months before I began formal lessons. I was practicing for 3 hours a day by myself, working out of a book called something like “Teach Yourself Guitar the Easy Way”. It was a pretty decent book, and I learned first position notes, some chords and some songs. When I started lessons, I started with Mel Bay # 2, and had a lot of mis-conceptions cleared up, and started learning a world of things I had no clue about, with the aid of a very good Jazz style teacher.
When I started lessons, I began to practice even more, 5 or 6 hours a day. As a result of this, and because I did have some degree of “natural talent” (which I will define later), I got pretty good pretty fast. My teacher was amazed, and used to show me off to everybody, as I had become his “star pupil”. He would always say, “tell them how much you practice.”
Now the funny thing is, I would always lie about it, and tell them “oh, 2 hours a day”. I didn’t want them to know I practiced so much. I thought ” I don’t want them to know how much I work at it, I’d rather let them think I’m some kind of genius”. I used to get really afraid someone would realize how much I worked at it, then I ‘d just be like everybody else.
Now, I do forgive myself for this character flaw, because I understand why I felt this way. I grew up in a big family, and there was only so much attention to go around (and being someone who would spend a lot of time on stage in later life, I needed a whole lot, by nature). This was the first time in my life I ever stood out at anything, and had people pay so much attention to me, and make me feel special. It was a good gig, and I didn’t want to blow it by having them find out I’m just a common slob like everybody else. No, I’m special. I just picked this thing up, and got divinely inspired.
Besides, my fondest desire as a child was to be a super hero, like Superman, or Spiderman. I’d even settle for Batman! This was the closest I had come to fulfilling that career choice!
Learning What Being Special Really Means
As I began teaching, I got the opportunity to see large numbers of people attempting to learn to play, and I started to really investigate this idea of natural talent. Was there such a thing, and what were the reasons some people got really good, and others did not. I saw many people grapple with the challenges of learning to play, and I realized that yes, I do have some natural talent, because many of these people were having such a harder time than I did. But I also noticed another interesting thing. A very good percentage of the people I was teaching seemed to have at least as much talent as I did. Some maybe more. But very few had the burning desire I had. Very few were practicing the number of hours I did, even from the beginning. Very few seemed to have the almost desperate need in their life for this thing we call playing the guitar.
So I saw that there is literally a whole lot of natural talent around. But there isn’t a whole lot of love, dedication, and “hard work”.
I started to see how immature, and downright incorrect my old way of thinking was, when I was trying to be a Superhero. I began to realize how beautiful a thing it was that someone would love and need something as beautiful as playing the guitar, that they would give so much of themselves to it. I certainly thought it was beautiful whenever I saw my students do it, and I still do. I was beginning to see that love, dedication, and hard work were the really “special” things. (Of course, it has never felt like “work” to me. It is called “playing” the guitar, isn’t it?)
You Expect Me To Practice Only 5 Hours a Week!!??
It took me a while to understand why all people who said they wanted to play the guitar didn’t spend most of their day doing it. I remember being in high school, and filling out the form for getting extra credit for taking music lessons. Mine said you had to practice at least 5 hours a week to qualify. I raised my hand and said, “excuse me, I think there’s a mistake on mine. It says you only have to practice 5 hours a week, shouldn’t that be 5 hours a day.” I couldn’t understand the concept of only practicing 5 hours a week! Boy, did I learn different when I started teaching full time!
Now as the years have gone by, I have become much more tolerant. I can accept the fact that there are people in this world who want to play the guitar, and yet only want to practice maybe ½ an hour a day, or whatever. I also realized that these are the people who are probably not planning on becoming professionals, and that’s okay. There is a place in the world for people like this, although the world would probably be a better place if more people spent most of their day playing the guitar. But of course, professionals do need some people who just like to listen, and admire how special we “full-timers” are.
In all seriousness though, I am always moved when I see so many people, school teachers, landscapers, office workers, mothers and fathers, make such a commitment to keep up their efforts to learn to play this instrument, in the midst of otherwise very full and demanding lives. Maybe they only get to practice 20 minutes a day, but it is very important to them, and they make sacrifices to keep it in their lives and have it grow. That’s one reason I have made a specialty of showing these people how to get the most out of the time they put in.
Okay, So What Is “Natural Talent”?
Natural Talent is a pre-disposition in the mind and the body, to do the right thing. When a person who has natural talent for singing hears someone sing, their body and mind “know” what that person is doing to get that sound. And their body/mind knows how to do it too, or how to begin moving in that direction. (They don’t have to know this consciously, that is “know what they know, and how they know it, they just “know”). Some people come in for lessons, and they “tend” to do everything right, from sitting comfortably with the instrument, to positioning and using the fingers. Some people do everything wrong, and must be shown, painstakingly and minutely, exactly what to do. These people are the ones I have learned most from, about teaching and about playing.
Understand that everyone falls somewhere in between the two extremes of total cluelessness, and being a genius. Yes, I have some talent, as do many people. If I didn’t work really hard, it would have got me nowhere. I needed a whole lot of education to go with that talent. So did Beethoven, who studied with Haydn, and so did Bach, who spent his life copying out the music of composers he admired, in order to study their work. So did Eric Clapton, who spent years copying every blues record he could find.
Don’t Worry If You Think You Don’t Have Any
I have, as I said, some natural talent for guitar, but I sure don’t have it for singing. When it comes to singing, my head is on backwards. Whatever the right thing to do is, I’ll do the opposite. I don’t need “Singing For Dummies”, I need “Singing for Retards!”
But guess what? I get paid every week now for singing, and people compliment me all the time on my voice. That is because I tried my hardest with many teachers over the years, and slowly began to “get it”. Not as fast as someone with natural talent, but I discovered how to express myself with my voice, make a sound that was pleasing and not ugly or strained, and fulfill my desire and need to sing. I also found that I could move people with my singing, and transfer my emotion to them, which is what music is all about.
And that is the good news. With the right approach, any one can learn anything. I have proven this as far as playing the guitar goes, for myself and for my students, many of whom have had their “heads on backwards.” In fact, the more you really try, the more “Natural Talent” you will discover in yourself. It is like having a little voice in your head guiding you in the right direction if you will listen. I have found the more I listen, the louder that voice gets, and I hear it more often.
Having “talent” is not the primary factor in whether or not you will become a good or great player. Your burning desire and desperate need to play, coupled with the correct understanding and approach, are the most important things you must have.
There are lots of people with talent, but not a lot who allow their desire to grow, and become powerful. If you can allow yourself to feel this need and desire, and use the power of that to overcome all the obstacles you might encounter along the way, you will find all the talent you need to be the player you are meant to be.