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On Moving Away From "Talent"

The question of talent is one that plagues the untrained singer and the over-trained critic in roughly equal measure. It is a concept that eludes easy definition: is it a matter of a free-functioning physiology? A mastery of stage-craft? A total absence of self-consciousness? An intuitive grasp of musicality, acting chops and compelling storytelling ability? Is there some cosmic secret that the talented among us are party to that the rest are denied? Does the lady of song whisper in the ears of a chosen few while the rest of us are condemned to silence? Is talent to be measured by its transgressive aspects or its reassuring accordance with established aesthetic and narrative conventions? By innovation or a perfection and refinement of the familiar? Can it be captured? Reproduced? Trained? Can it be, as certain popular contemporary media would have you believe, homogenised and sold? Who has the right to arbitrate on the collective board of judges as to what talent is and to whom it belongs? Will talent necessarily out and find its due glory or is its emergence and recognition subject to the trends, fashions, prejudices and vicissitudes of its epoch?

To further clarify things, emphasise the seriousness of the subject and hone in on the real issue here, here is a picture of a lugubrious man wearing a fried-egg hat:

Some much needed perspective thus established, here is my take:*

Talent, as it is commonly understood, may be little more than a gestalt, subjectively experienced by a critical mass of people to whom the spectacle of artistic excellence is apparently achieved magically, or by some kind of pseudo-divine providence. Talent, we are told, is a territory of quality that no amount of self-improvement can intrude upon. No one quite knows what they mean when they refer to talent because they are referring to an emergent outcome of many different influences.

The average consumer of art experiences the given work only at and after the point of its completion. It may as well have spontaneously materialised from the well of imagination, transmitted through the talented artist's physical body and into the public sphere. Compounding this impression, the greatest art (and, by extension, the greatest vocal performances) have a spontaneous, unstudied quality. "They make it look so easy" is a common refrain from wondering onlookers, a self-circumcribed creative proletariat condemned to gaze wistfully up at the high marble spires of The Talented.

But skill in a particular area doesn't simply manifest suddenly, without traceable causality. Now, I'm not diminishing the fact that some people are born with a significant physiological and/or neurological advantage over others. But this would remain latent potential were it not for the subject's obsessively diligent cultivation of their art and craft. This ability and inclination to practise is, itself, contingent on a number of other factors: was the artist's pursuit encouraged, nurtured and enabled by their upbringing and is it still so in their present situation? Do they have somewhere to practise? Can they afford the equipment or the time necessary? Does their art accord with the fashions and politics of its time? Will they find a benefactor or will the artist have to be completely self-reliant? Is the artist able-bodied? Does the artist live in a time or place that discriminates against them for some reason and thereby stymies their means of expressing themselves properly? Has the potential artist been subject to some psychological trauma, from whence proceeds an anxiety about creating and performing? Are these people simply untalented? What about those who are just not interested in being creative beings? The problem here is less likely to be a deficit in potential ability but, rather, simple inclination. Without passion, interest, ambition and will, talent is rendered lifeless: a non-entity.

Talent, therefore, is a very vague, reductive and mutable notion, and since we don't really know what to is referring to, it ceases to be useful. So please stop telling yourself you're untalented or, specifically, that you can't sing.

Now, I'm not about to propose that there is a formula that can be used to explain away the peculiar alchemy of a given artist. Every one has a nature, as unique as their fingerprint (only much harder to measure), and that nature cannot, and should not, be reduced to a series of influences, even if we have an inkling of what some of the more significant of those influences might be. Great art and performance involves a kind of refocussing and compressing of the universal into that unique and particular perspective, whereupon said is returned to the audience whose own perspectives will filter, interpret and be influenced by it.

It is also true that not all conditions that cultivate "talent" need be present (and they rarely are) for an artist to flourish. Limitations can be embraced and can lead to unexpected innovations. In the case of singing, good vocal technique and a fully-functioning physical instrument (the body) should be regarded as means to an end, not as ends in themselves.

After all, too many exemplary singers are corralled into expressive straight-jackets, although it’s not a given that a good voice, even given the most permissive and experimental cultural context, will become a great poetic instrument. Nonetheless, such an atmosphere of play, trial and error should be cultivated for the budding vocal artist. In theory, the freer the vocal instrument the freer the artistic expression and, through a consonance of strong physiology, poetic imagination and sensitivity to one’s text, the palpable and unshakeable impression of talent will emerge. In practise some singers, in the diligent pursuit of great vocal technique, will begin to lose the forest for the trees and develop sonorous, healthy but otherwise rather pedestrian or mannered voices. This is not helped by a minority of teachers who are so invested in orthodoxies of “right” and “wrong” that their rigidity negatively inflects the student’s progress and inhibits their personal expression.

To be clear, I am not advocating for laziness and complacency where the singing voice’s training is concerned - such a position would be absurd indeed for one of my profession. Nor am I proposing some singer's equivalent to the sticky, pseudo-egalitarian adage that “your ignorance is as good as my knowledge” or, to import and transpose into this context, “your vocal unfitness is as good as my vocal fitness". I am merely suggesting that, as singers and indeed as teachers, we must always keep site of the final purpose of great singing, while at once emphasising a process-centric emphasis on voice-training.

Why process-centric? As singers and aspiring singers, we may find ourselves “here”, i.e the state of our voice and artistic prowess at a given present point. But there is no “there” (the point of desired achievement) except as we each define it. “There” might be as specific as “sing at Covent Garden to an adoring audience and rave reviews”. But for most of my students, “there” will be more general and more modest, if not necessarily less coveted. “There” might be something along the lines of “to have confidence on stage” or “to comfortably sing my favourite songs” or “to develop a bold, resonant and present speaking voice”. It may even be focussed on the avoidance of something negative rather than the aspiration to something positive, although I would discourage this mode of thought: “I want my voice to stop hurting and getting hoarse" becomes “I would like a more durable voice that carries easily and effortlessly”.

Talent, I feel, is therefore not a concept that should be subject to strict definition; a thing you have or lack; but, equally, it is useful to point out what it is not so as to better disarm the inner-voice of self-criticism that says “you can’t do this”.

So, for those reading this who have very negative feelings about their voices and their capacity to be singers, let me say this: you are simply not in a position to make that judgement. You probably don’t know very much about the vocal mechanism. You just haven’t given your voice a chance, and if you have and you still haven’t had results, you’ve probably just had faulty instruction. For most, vocal excellence isn’t something that they’re born with. It requires diligent training and maintaining, just like any other aspect of physical fitness. It is an extraordinarily delicate mechanism and easy to misalign through bad habits that are all too easy to acquire. I understand the vulnerability of entertaining hope regarding a faulty voice. It means putting yourself in a position of great risk: of disappointment, of humiliation, of the end of a lovely dream you didn’t quite dare to have. But, if your speaking voice is functional (i.e without any obvious hoarseness, which may require medical attention before voice-training can proceed), then your singing voice can be trained.

Even a great voice teacher cannot make you “talented”. But what they can do, first and foremost, is to give you the means of cultivating and growing a strong and free vocal mechanism. You are unlikely to have much inkling of your talent and potential until this is, to some extent, achieved.

In conclusion, here is a picture of the same man we saw previously looking much happier now that he has a birthday cake on his head:

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