Good practice habits alone could have helped Joseph to develop his musical talent

Joseph, my talented high school student, went on to college before I could get him to change his deficient work habits. His undeveloped musical talent showed itself in the widely varying levels of skill within his technique: for example, his quick mental grasp of the fingerboard made music-reading and etude-learning easy for him, but his tone production lagged far behind. Overall, his playing was not nearly as good as it could have been, and did not reflect his superior innate ability.

What might have happened if Joseph had learned how to work hard? Through a mere two hours of practice per day—a lot for a high school student, but not much for a serious performer—he could have dedicated a small percentage of that time to consistent work on bow technique (tone production), another segment to shifting (moving the left hand from one place to another along the fingerboard), and yet another to drilling finger patterns.

These and other skills would have been difficult for him to master at first, as they are for all cellists, but his talent would probably have helped him to synthesize his technique more rapidly than other students could. Then the superior ability he’d obviously been born with would have shone clearly.

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Undeveloped talent: “I can’t remember the last time I had to study for a test.”

Joseph, the student who could easily see the cello fingerboard in his head after hardly any practice, came to my studio when he was a high school junior. With only two years in which to influence him, I always felt like I was observing his talent more than I was teaching him.

I quickly learned that he had no idea how to practice. This is fairly normal, but when high school-aged students don’t know how to practice, it’s usually because they lack experience, coming to private cello lessons somewhat late in the game.

Joseph’s problem was different. He had no practice skills because he had no work or study habits of any kind. He clearly had a high IQ, and his teachers, fellow students, and parents knew it. He’d probably been ready for college-level work by his early teens, but had never skipped a grade. Once, when we were talking about his school experiences, he told me, “I can’t remember the last time I had to study for a test.”

That was when I saw a likely reason that he couldn’t buckle down and practice. More than eleven years of academic coasting had robbed him of his birthright to be challenged, and to struggle to master worthwhile concepts and skills.

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Having talent versus developing it

Talented people display innate ability, often from an early age, for an activity or academic subject that most others struggle with. Through years of cello teaching, I noticed these students because they could do certain things much more easily than their peers.

For example, most of my intermediate and advanced students labored over etudes by David Popper, a standard part of the cello curriculum designed to teach and reinforce “fingerboard geography.” With this skill, cellists know where the notes are on a given string—and which notes are in similar locations on the neighboring strings.

One young man in particular, Joseph, seemed to have an image-making machine in his brain that showed him the notes all over the cello fingerboard. He grasped these spatial relationships much earlier in the process—perhaps twenty to fifty times faster—than did my other students. This outstanding raw ability is a classic example of talent.

Next: What did Joseph do with his musical talent?

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What might have helped Writer B?

My acquaintance with Writer B taught me that a gift such as his must be guarded, nurtured, and if possible, developed with the most special care a parent or mentor can give.

Had things been different for Writer B, his path might have been influenced by early, sustained guidance of the right sort. A wise and trusted mentor, if Writer B had found such a miracle soon enough in his development, may have succeeded in guiding him, or at least convincing him that brilliant flashes did not preclude “homework.” In Writer B’s case, we will never know, but for other such writers, found or noticed at an earlier stage, there is hope.

Unlike my realization of what could have helped Writer A in the current moment of his struggle, I saw no present solution for Writer B. He was in his late fifties when he took early retirement, and his habits and thought patterns were probably set. They appeared so to me, at least in regard to his writing life. I could never convince him that journal writing or practice writing might propel him into the momentum that possibly could have launched him into the flow of his novel and kept him going.

It was obvious to me that Writer B’s total output was likely to remain small: How many flashes of inspiration can one person expect in a lifetime? The stress and intensity of too many, too close together, could burn the writer out.

I began by feeling like Writer B was way ahead of me, in talent and also in creative process. His writing was much better than mine. His moments of brilliance outshone and outpaced my few sparks a hundred-fold. However, late in my acquaintance with Writer B, I began to feel that his gift was in the process of becoming a crippling handicap.

I wrote often or regularly and expected little from a given writing session—even after I became a published, paid writer. I just wrote. Sometimes it was fun; at others, homework. I’d felt like a plodder most of my life, in music as in writing, so I didn’t know another way to move forward.

If my hopes or expectations were out of line with reality, I discovered this, became discouraged, and eventually resumed plodding. Years of this habit trained me to a high tolerance for my slow pace. In the final analysis, this may have put me ahead of Writer B, although his was the greater talent.

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What was holding Writer B back?

Writer B’s desire for fun in his writing was entirely legitimate, I felt. Fun was my own primary motivation for both cello playing and writing—my lifelong passions. Furthermore, if these activities are nothing but drudgery, your audience will sense it and disappear.

Therefore, I thought I understood why Writer B didn’t want his writing process to feel like homework. However, I had not learned to play the cello well by devoting all my practice sessions to fun. My skill in writing was also hard-won, requiring years of work—often unrewarding in the short run.

Writer B and I had discussed the hard-work element of the creative process many times and agreed it was unavoidable. Just to deepen the mystery from my perspective, Writer B was no stranger to “grunt work;” he’d done the work of at least three people in his job, and was always first in line to accomplish the most undesirable component of any volunteer project he was involved in.

Therefore, why did he resist the grunt-work he must have known his novel would require? Was it because a high percentage of his past writing had been, as he termed it, “taking dictation?” I had no idea; I could only speculate.

If writing, to Writer B, meant sudden brilliant flashes; a whole poem, nearly a whole short story, to be captured at the moment or not at all, how could he have developed a tolerance for hours of drudgery? Maybe he hadn’t. There appeared to be little or no precedent in his writing life for any chance to develop this valuable, if prosaic, skill.

If this was in fact the reason why Writer B couldn’t get going on his novel—more than seven years after he retired—was there any hope for his project?

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Writer B: A case of writer’s block?

The years rolled on; Writer B typed his notes; researched the historical setting of his novel; and sometimes—not often—filled in little written patches of the whole picture. As I listened to this saga of detours, or so it seemed to me, I saw that these preparations were necessary to Writer B. But I couldn’t help noticing how little he was writing.

I felt that the projected length and scope of the story required intensive writing and revising, and that this work alone would take years. I struggled to understand and respect his unique work process, but finally I said, “Hadn’t you better just start writing? Sure, it’ll feel chaotic, and you might have to put your beginning through multiple drafts. But eventually you’ll see which way to take your plot, and then you’ll get some momentum and be able to keep on going, beginning to end.” I decided not to point out that the first draft of the whole book would also require multiple revisions.

I half-expected him to reply with his usual description of his work process: “filling in [the picture] here and there.” Instead, he said, “Yeah, but if I go at it that way, it’ll feel like homework, and I want it to be fun.”

After weeks of pondering this answer and other traits of Writer B, I finally saw a possible connection between his self-imposed delays and those wondrous flashes of inspiration that were nearly the sum of his writing life.

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Writer B’s lightning bolts of inspiration: hindrance or help?

As my conversations with Writer B progressed, I began to see how his lightning bolts of inspiration could hinder as well as help him. His few poems and stories were almost all little gems, and I was happy for him that he could apparently pluck excellent work out of the air.

Furthermore, when he wasn’t writing (“taking dictation” was his description), he was often being blitzed by ideas and insights. These were miniature lightning bolts, which he worked diligently to capture.

After he retired, he first began to organize his voluminous handwritten notes—all those ideas and insights—by typing them into his computer so that he could quickly search them. This huge task required years, however, he thought it should precede most of his writing on the first draft of his novel.

This seemed logical to me, since he’d often told me that the novel was to incorporate his lifetime’s worth of reading and thinking. Two or three years went by, and the only progress Writer B reported on his actual writing was, “I see things all in a whole, like a painting, so when I write, I fill in a little here, and a little more there.”

Occasionally he mentioned that he didn’t yet see how to start, nor how to escape mere “talking heads” that weren’t characters, but a thin cover for his message. This stage continued so long that I began to wonder if he was ever going to progress beyond it.

Then came the conversation, similar to my moment of revelation about Writer A’s central struggle, in which I began to understand what was probably holding Writer B back.

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Writer B and his flashes of brilliance

Writer B was a dedicated hobby-writer. Probably he didn’t attempt a career in writing because he could make a decent living as a librarian, surrounded by books, which he loved.

Like Writer A, Writer B was an encyclopedic reader and thinker. He was always connecting ideas, and after he retired, he began work on a novel he’d been incubating for most of his adult life.

Writer B and I had many conversations about his creative process. More than once, he admonished both of us, “If an idea strikes, write it down immediately, word-for-word, because it will never come back in the pristine form it first arrived in.”

He reported that his best poems and stories had come to him in just this way—a lightning strike; a moment of perfection in which the only difficulty was to capture it. I was impressed and somewhat envious until I began to see that these bolts of brilliance were a mixed blessing to Writer B.

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Help for writer A?

Like Writer A, I had many ideas, all interconnected. When I tried to write a book to express some of these ideas, I soon became mired down. For at least three years, I floundered, struggling to place my story and insights in a logical sequence any reader could follow.

It was a battle, because most of my attempts to order my ideas, or to eliminate some of them, required me to judge their relative importance. This felt impossible because they all seemed equally significant to me. Only one thing helped.

At this stage of my writing life, I was rediscovering the value of practice writing. I wrote for practice every day, often for as long as 20 minutes at a time. These practice sessions were a huge relief—as though I’d opened a valve through which all my miscellaneous ideas and insights could flow. Many had no connection with the current writing project; in general I had a chronic surplus of ideas anyway.

However, after several months of writing for practice only—not attached to any project—I began to notice a subtle change in the book I was struggling with. The ideas began to sort themselves out and fall into place.

Of course I recommended practice writing to Writer A, but he felt that he didn’t have time for it. He continued to write mega-essays that attempted to integrate a tiny percentage of all he’d learned and thought about. I’ve always felt that his writing was worth reading, despite the hindrance of his own high intelligence.

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Details of Writer A’s Struggle

Writer A, before he even began to compose the essay I was critiquing, had already battled to to edit out the vast majority of the material that was clamoring to be expressed. The outcome of that epic struggle was a piece of writing that was still crammed with ideas.

Probably he’d eliminated many sub-topics, and simplified the flow of ideas to the full extent of his already high ability. The result had to be cut, and cut again, until the prose flowed easily enough that people would want to read it.

The interest-level in the writing was not the problem; he raised many fascinating questions. Rather, the process of composition was where Writer A was nearly defeated, with curiosity, voluminous reading and thinking, and many insights—the key characteristics of his own brilliance—being the main stumbling block.

I’d struggled with a similar problem, on a smaller scale: What did I do about it, and could my solution help Writer A and other gifted writers?

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