Talent Unlimited part 2

We should never feel that anything is ever set in stone. Nothing is ever too late. We do not have limits: the only ‘ceiling’ of ability that exists comes from what we truly believe we can achieve.

Read Part 1

Talent takes so many forms that it would be wrong to be prescriptive about how anyone progresses. The truth is that where there is love and enthusiasm, determination and focus can and will produce positive results.

Of course, negative targets from parents and mentors can be deeply discouraging. Without dwelling too much on this, I cannot help but remember a parents’ evening many years ago at a primary school when a teacher was overheard commenting on a five-year boy with the words ‘We just have to accept that he is one of life’s plodders’! To typecast anyone in such a dismissive way is always wrong, but to pick a young child for such treatment seems particularly negative.

I like to think that in 2022 such typecasting would be unthinkable from any professional working in education. But we also have to be mindful of labelling from within. Students themselves can suffer from poor mental health via low self-esteem and the dangers of feeling overwhelmed.

One of the saddest memories I have is of hearing an exceptionally gifted fourteen-year-old pianist perform vibrant Debussy in a masterclass. Her magnificent imagination was one thing, but she played with her shoulders raised to an extraordinary degree, and her seated position was contorted.

When I suggested realigning her posture, she immediately replied by saying: ‘But I am too old to change now, it is too late to adjust the way I sit at the piano’. Needless to say, I was not the only person in the hall deeply concerned by such fatalistic resignation from someone so talented and with all of life ahead.

About our targets

We have to be careful about how we present targets. It is all too easy for parents and students to feel that they have to get a certain mark at a certain grade by a certain time… or else they miss the boat. For many years a certain well known piano pedagogue used to frequently tell anyone who would listen that you have to be able to play the Liszt sonata by seventeen in order to be a concert artist’. The truth is that timelines can often be the least important aspect of progress. We should never feel that it is ever ‘too late’.

My very dear early years music teacher in Aberdeen was a remarkable lady called Mary Alexander. In her later years Mary trained recorder choirs of pensioners, most of whom were well over the age of 75. None of them had previous experience of playing or reading music. Mary literally taught them the very basics of music in their twilight years!

She was able to nurture at any one given time a group of up to twelve pensioners and give them performances at the local art centre in Aberdeen. I will never forget the enthusiasm, the friendly camaraderie and excitement felt by the hall as a whole when I was privileged to attend one ensemble performance many years ago, with Mary herself conducting and showing extraordinary relish at the age of 79. The ‘youthful’ enthusiasm was everywhere in the room!

Joseph Long, pianist

Certainly, life delivers different challenges to all of us. Staying in Scotland, it is fitting to mention the wonderful concert pianist Joseph Long. Joseph has battled with being partially sighted all of his life, and whilst there are obvious disadvantages to his condition, I have always felt that Joseph’s playing shows many special qualities that may have been enhanced by it to an extent.

It is interesting to note the way in which he has worked over the years, which has included practise studying scores in advance of playing them:

Joseph Long:
‘Inevitably some of this tendency to look at a score (with or without recordings present) and get an overview of it before sitting down at the piano and playing is a result of my being partially sighted, which means I can’t (fluently) just sit down and sight-read through something to get a feel for it.

I can read it off the score on the stand, but not at a fluent speed – so memorising (whether in a conventional manner by looking at a few bars of music on the stand and then playing and committing to memory little by little that way) or by memorising away from the piano (with or without the help of recordings) has always played a much larger part in my music-making than it does for many others’.

Such care and patient work in small sections unquestionably pays dividends. It is not always those who sight read most accurately who play most sensitively. Turning apparent negatives into positives is possible with virtually everything that life may throw at you. This was briefly alluded too in the small size keyboard blog earlier: finding creative redistributions and arrangements if you have smaller hands can lead to discoveries of voicing, bringing exciting new possibilities to interpretation.

‘What you’re not good at, what you can’t think of, even the mistakes you make all contribute to your personal style. To have no such constraints is to be shapeless… and to have no voice’. These insightful words from Lionel Shriver’s 2021 novel ‘Should we stay, or should we go?’ seem especially relevant here. In short, we should celebrate our so-called ‘weaknesses’, and in so doing, turn them into strengths.

Karen Marshall on Specific Learning Disabilities, (SpLD)

Of course, we live in an era where it is common to see individuals given specific labels. I have often worried that so called SpLD’s (specific learning disabilities) could be extremely uncomfortable and limiting if approached in the wrong way by parents and mentors, but outstanding author, piano teacher and mother Karen Marshall has much of value to say on this subject:

Karen Marshall
‘For some children it can be a real relief to have a label, it can give them understanding of characteristics or difficulties they may have encountered in life which they realise are different to their peers. For me personally, and our children (who both have dyslexia) the label has been helpful as it’s given me understanding (and self-compassion) but I think it really is something to consider on a case-by-case basis. Parents and teachers should always seek advice from a qualified professional’.

Karen’s remarkable work and particular circumstances triumphantly prove that talent can and should be magnificently unlimited:

‘It has become more apparent over the years that my dyslexia (along with its difficulties) also comes with its gifts. These include the ability to laterally think, seeing the obvious that some of my colleagues can miss in a given situation and also being able to see the ‘big picture’. As things were harder for me at school (and for two of our children who are neurodiverse) the work ethic we have all developed is extremely tenacious. We simply don’t give up developing coping mechanisms to still make things happen.’

Don’t give up

‘Don’t give up’ is the vital lesson for everyone whatever fate may throw at us. I have worked with late starters at piano who show phenomenal sensitivity and facility, but who can barely read the notes on the stave. Lessons need to be aurally and imitatively based. Pupils with ADHD can be encouraged to move around the room at regular intervals, taking breaks to recover focus and concentration.

Finding the appropriate pathway to move forward and ‘celebrating’ the so called ‘weaknesses’ that may appear in any individual’s playing or approach to music making can be extremely positive creatively, turning individual needs into special strengths.

As Karen comments: ‘We can develop much creativity in our teaching by having to work out how to teach the same concept in millions of different ways until we find the way that works for our students’.  

It is so refreshing to look beyond speed, stamina, security, and strength when considering the technical requirements for progress. Too much facility can be just as much an issue as too little. In an art where communication is everything, the most mechanically talented players always need to exercise caution lest their facility stops them from finding the space to reflect and consider what the music they are so eloquently playing means to them.

The race between the hare and the turtle comes to mind, as indeed does the old platitude about the glass being half full rather than half empty. And does Karen agree that talent truly is ‘unlimited?’

‘I think the important thing is to always compare yourself to yourself! In my view, we need to sit our own exam without comparison to other people. As a teacher, my aim has always been to help students play whatever they are playing to the highest standard possible (for them) so they can feel self-satisfaction, value in what they’ve achieved and feel at one with their music making. As a teacher, I have learnt far more from teaching children that have not progressed quickly (many with learning difficulties) than those that have without difficulties’.

Similarly, and away from music, we can use this attitude to enrich every aspect of our lives. Whether we teach or not, by remembering Karen’s wise words we will unquestionably continue to find so many different approaches to all the challenges and tasks that present themselves in life day by day.

Positive perception will give us unlimited possibilities and power.

One thought on “Talent Unlimited part 2

  1. FionaWhelpton says:

    I was talking to Joseph on piano network UK yesterday ! About learning piano as a partially sighted pianist following a question on the subject we got into lengthy discussion! What a “Coincidence “he should be in your feature .one of those instant connections !

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