As we have seen, Joseph missed the opportunity to develop good work habits during his formative years. At age 17, he could still have learned to work hard, though this probably would have been difficult for him. As it was, the only way his talent showed itself was in the few areas of his cello playing that rose above the other portions of his technique: a classic case of having talent but not developing it.
Younger students, I’ve learned, might temporarily resist hard work, however, they are much more likely to establish consistent practice patterns than a student of Joseph’s age. What happens when a talented person works hard and regularly? I’ve been surprised to discover that their progress is often not spectacular at first. I’ve seen dazzling spurts of ability, seeming to come out of nowhere, that settle into a battle to recapture those glorious but elusive moments.
An emotional roller coaster can follow, until student and teacher realize that the same hard work, the same slow, persistent practice, is required for greater talent as for lesser. The difference is that less gifted students usually struggle harder and have to wait longer for spectacular moments, achieve fewer of these spikes, and their spikes are often shorter in height. But the general pattern of musical progress seems to be about the same.
The jagged shape of the most talented students’ learning curves surprised me before I’d taught enough of these high-ability people to observe what they actually need to do. I’d begun my career thinking that the lucky few who display quick facility with one or more components of cello technique possessed that same level of specific ability every day. Therefore, I assumed they just wouldn’t have to practice as hard as do the rest of us.
I was mostly wrong. Even prodigious ability comes and goes; waxes and wanes at first; until steady work hammers it into place. Where talent seems to “tell” is in the ultimately faster progress and greater depth achieved at a younger age by the genius who works hard.