There is no more overused word in the English language than “talent.” I see it all the time – a young pianist will play very well, maybe even astoundingly well. A pitcher will throw a mind-bending curveball. A gymnast will do an amazing series of flips and end-over-end stunts. The response will invariably be “What talent!”

In reality though, talent is only half the story, and most of the time it’s far less than that. When you see a pianist doing things at the keyboard that are so impressive that it seems superhuman, what you’re seeing is about 10 percent talent, and 90 percent work. You see the amazing results, but you don’t see the thousands of hours of practice that went into perfecting those results. The legendary pianist Ignaz Friedman once gave a performance of the Chopin Etude in thirds (one of the most difficult piano pieces ever written), after which he remarked to an audience member (who had probably just said “What talent!”) that he practiced it 5,000 times before performing it in public. And that’s just one piece.

The most impressive people you’ve ever seen – whether they be musicians, athletes, dancers, or anyone else – didn’t just come out of the womb knowing how to do what they do. They had to work. Very very hard.

Does talent play a role at all? Sure. There are certainly people with a natural aptitude for a given subject. But they’d be the first to tell you that talent only gets you so far. The world is full of talented failures.

Why do we mention this? Because it’s important to know that piano students progress by practicing, not by some magic called “talent”. They have to do what all the greats had to do, which is sit down in front of the piano every day and practice. Would we expect a 7 year old piano student to practice as much as Ignaz Friedman? Of course not. But the degree to which they imitate his practice is the degree to which they will become better than they are, and isn’t that why we take piano lessons in the first place?

 

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