Wednesday, February 4, 2015

On Talent: Is it Enough?

a discussion with the wonderful Mitsuko Uchida

This woman is just kind of a musical goddess. Not only do I love everything I've heard her play, from Schubert to Schoenberg, I've thoroughly enjoyed everything I've ever seen on YouTube of her discussing music.
"To think that talent is something you are born with is wrong."
I should (have) start(ed) by saying that most of this post comes directly from almost the exact same article on my other blog, but I feel the underlying principles are the same. So go check it out there in the context of music, and read below for my thoughts on the same concepts as they apply to language.
Ms. Uchida is an interesting, passionate, talented, and individual character. She moved to Vienna from Japan with her family when she was very young (her dad was a diplomat or something) and when they moved back, she stayed. I've seen interviews of her in English (obviously), as well as in German and Japanese, something perhaps more worth discussing on this blog than the music one. She still clearly has some Japanese-ish accent, but speaks English as superbly as anyone.
She is a true musician, through and through; it oozes from her when you see her speaking about music, or conducting Beethoven's piano concertos from the piano, or describing Schumann's style of writing. She is one of those few people who I instantly would love to sit and just chat with (or listen to) for days. Passion in interesting.
In this short clip, she makes a few fascinating points. I'd seen this video quite a while back, but hadn't yet come upon the 'right time' to write about it. For some reason, with this week's piece on the music blog, it came to mind, and I wrote it down on my calendar as today's post.
I don't remember exactly what it was about Prokofiev's first sonata that triggered the thought of this topic, perhaps a bit unfortunately, but I think it was something along the lines of making conscious decisions about your career or style or inventing or reinventing yourself and that it isn't always this nebulous, hippie-spiritual journey. Go check out the other blog for that discussion.
But what dictates talent? What I suppose fascinates me the most about this idea is how the four elements Ms. Uchida mentions in the video all kind of interact. They are
  1. Passion ("urgency to have to express one's deep emotions through music and nothing else...")
  2. "Intellectual ability"
  3. "Technical ability"
  4. Charisma

Interestingly, the real crux of the point she is making, I feel, is that the last three (passion aside) can all be acquired, "even charisma," with a study and understanding of music, or in this case, language. One could also perhaps argue, then, that even passion can be 'developed.' As I wrote above,
she says she feels that the idea that talent is an innate ethereal inborn gift is wrong. So back to what I said earlier about interaction. Let's pretend those four elements above were knobs, and we could adjust their amounts in each given person. How would it change their abilities? Their career paths? Their success?
At FFT, I discussed these different elements and how difficult it might be to determine who of the famous composers of the past potentially had one more than the other, because one tends to beget the other. Intellectual ability and technical ability in the right environment (she mentions luck) could lead one to finding their passion for music that they'd never have otherwise known they had. On the other hand, passion and charisma can make up, to some degree, for a lack of technical ability. 
So, in the context of language, let's think about environment. Mozart had a sickeningly perfect environment for blossoming as a musician. You could almost say it would be surprising if he weren't some kind of musical Wunderkind based on his upbringing. But what about language?
I've mentioned that friend in elementary school who had a mother and father who spoke Spanish and Farsi, respectively (well, and English), and he grew up speaking them at home. That is environment. I think the whole idea of the struggle of foreign kids raised in America and the identity crisis is fascinating, but at the very least, it puts them in a unique position to see the world(s) differently than anyone else. 
But what if you don't have that environment? What if you're raised, like I was, in a whitebread American monolingual home? With no need for foreign language or interest in speaking one, it's almost certain that any talent or passion in that field will go undiscovered (and the same could be said of music). I would argue that almost no matter how strong the passion, if you aren't aware of the existence of the thing you may be passionate about, it will still not suffice to drive you to pursue it. What I mean to say is Franklin von Frankenstein might be a talented musical genius (by whatever definition and whatever means one has such talents), but if his family lives on a farm in the 18th century and he never comes across a piano, much less sits in a concert hall, there's a good chance he's never going to have the emotional response that tells him "I love this!" At most, there may be perhaps a flush of emotion or interest when a hymn is sung at church or during a children's game, but that may be it. I don't know. You get what I'm saying. 
So the same is true for language. As I've said previously, I believe my brother is quite sharp for language, but he just doesn't have the interest or determination to pursue it (yet) or the necessity to force him to do so (yet). 
The day prior to my writing this, I was getting a haircut and talking to the haircutting person about the idea that I don't like not understanding things, and that spills over into the sensitivity or self-consciousness I have about being an American when I travel. The idea that Americans are loud and obnoxious and uncultured and even uneducated or insensitive and almost assuredly monolingual makes me do everything I can not to be that way when I travel (mostly the monolingual part), and honestly, it does come down to Ms. Uchida's points. 
  1. Passion- a passion for what? For communicating with people, for wanting to be understood and to understand, to experience. The example I'll use of my travels is in Thailand. I've been twice, and of all the places I've been, it's the place I've been most cautious about being scammed or 'taken' by vendors or drivers as a foreigner. It's far more apparent for a white guy like me than if I were to travel to Italy or somewhere else in Europe. I want to experience the culture, not in the way you think I want to experience it, but as it really is, not through an aquarium window or some castrated, watered down version of reality. So I want to speak the language. That's the first one. (I also don't want to be looked down up on or scammed or laughed at.)
  2. Intellectual ability- in an intellectual endeavor like learning a language, it may be a bit difficult to distinguish this one from technical ability as you would have in music. It's arguable that speaking a foreign language (or even your native one, sometimes) is a performance art, but I suppose there is some sort of intellectual prowess that allows some people to learn better/faster/more thoroughly than others. One facet of this could certainly be memory. If you have a solid short-term memory and can work to store things long-term, you'll go far with language.
  3. Technical ability... again, I think it's harder to distinguish these two in the context of language, which is largely a cerebral function. Perhaps this comes down to speaking ability, expressing yourself clearly, your ability to pronounce words and strange sounds properly, and so on. But these two also really come down to experience. The 'technical' side of language may also be growing familiar with the inner workings of things like German grammar or Chinese tones or something equally complicated. Understanding grammatical concepts in one language inevitably helps when moving to learn a new one, and it's this kind of tacit knowledge that, gained over time, is invaluable in a language career. 
  4. Charisma- In a language setting, trying is endearing. You may botch up a sentence in Swahili, but simply the effort put forth to do so instead of demanding that everyone speak your language will warm the hearts of your listeners. The same may not be said for speaking French in Paris, but the general idea probably stands. And it isn't true for musical endeavors either. Listening to someone botch a piano concerto isn't endearing. They're just incapable. Giving it your all to communicate with someone is a wonderful gesture, and you can make a quick friend that way, even if you can't speak with them. To me, that's charisma (or at least a part of it). 
Luck, then. Where does that come in? Well, you can't control the country you're born in or to whom you're born. Some of us grow up multilingual. There are also job opportunities, chances to travel abroad, or serendipitous meetings with new coworkers or acquaintances that can set one on a path of international proportions. But when it's all said and done, it takes work and dedication, and that's where we can reconnect our discussion with the musical one. 

People perhaps have the idea that famous musicians like Hilary Hahn and Daniil Trifonov and Yuja Wang and Martha Argerich and on and on are just... kind of half human, half god, but I'm sure that many of them would tell you that they put a hell of a lot of effort into it. No one accidentally becomes the best at anything worth being the best at. And I have an enormous amount of respect for willpower, determination, struggle, and persistence, and, as they will with anywhere else, can get you far in music. If you want it, go for it. That's all the Dr. Phil self-help bit, but the other part is just... Hard work will make up for a lot of cards stacked against you. There's that idea about focusing not so much on the destination, but on the journey. Enjoy the journey, and the destination won't seem so far away. Learning is a process, but if you view it as a chore, it will be. And that's true for anything.

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