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Etymologically speaking, this may be a distinction without a difference, but I tend to think in terms of “aptitude” rather than “talent”. In a cursory check of definitions on several online dictionaries, one tends to be included in the definition of the other, and they often turn up as synonyms. Nevertheless, in my personal parlance/experience they are not quite the same thing. When people talk about “talent”, there tends to be an unspoken “natural” in front of it. The implication being that the ability to, in this case, play an instrument well was inborn. Talent is more of an observation of the result; he plays well, he’s very talented, I wish I’d been born with talent too. Whereas for me, “aptitude” tends to speak to potential, and the capacity to learn. When I recognize aptitude, it is in the form of seeing someone with one or more of the tools necessary for the task. This is something we can work with.
As I mentioned way back when I began this line of inquiry, rhythm is one pretty rudimentary indicator of what I think of as aptitude. I have 3 students aged 10-12 who can all pretty much mirror back for me any strumming pattern/rhythm I throw at them. They listen for a couple of repetitions, watch what I’m doing, and then they do it. Lovely. I have adult students who have played all their lives who couldn’t tap their foot while playing a Bo Diddley beat or a John Lee Hooker boogie if I held a gun to their head. Two of the kids are siblings, which really makes me wonder about that whole genetic thing. But this aptitude doesn’t guarantee they play well, it just means that they won’t be struggling quite as much with this particular element. On the flip-side, another kid I’ve worked with for several years shows a distinct difficulty with this part of playing guitar, but he works his ass off and the change over the time I’ve known him has been remarkable.
“I was born tone deaf with no sense of rhythm.” – Robert Fripp
Between you and me, I don’t actually believe that. Not quite, anyway. But as a stretch of the truth in order to make a more important point, it rings very true for me. Whatever we are dealt in terms of genetic and organic material to work with, “aptitude” in the context of this discussion, very little happens if we don’t work with it and build on it. But even more importantly, aptitude is not the prerequisite. Work is. We begin where we are, the aphorism goes. If where we are is pretty comfy, that could very well be as far as we get. I think anyone who has ever taught a musical instrument has had the experience of working with someone who has some musical aptitude, and been in that place where you are about to break into new territory, only to have the student right at that crucial moment snap back into something safe and reliable. Why would I endure the pain and humiliation of publicly sucking at something that isn’t coming easily to me, as I grapple for new possibilities, when the stuff I can do without working at it works just fine, thank you very much? The experience for me as a teacher is just heartbreaking. You feel all of the air go out of the room. And you are left with the sense that we didn’t just go back to where we started, but we took a huge step backward.
So, here’s a question. Was this guy…
…actually destined to become this guy?