Parents seem to fall into one of two camps when they think about their own children. Most are inclined to believe their child is above average in their abilities, more intelligent than most of their peers and more skilled at what they do. The second, less common camp is to assume the opposite, that their child is below average, performs poorly or shows worse than average skills.
Of course, an impartial assessment will most likely show that the real story is that each child is somewhere between the two extremes. In fact, logically, most children must be closer to “average” than to an extreme of intelligence, ability or “giftedness”.
People in education often talk about “gifted and talented” students. It is a current buzzword in Australian schooling. But what do these terms actually mean? The most common definition is that
Gifted students are those whose potential is distinctly above average in one or more of the following domains: intellectual, creative, social and physical.
Talented students are those whose skills are distinctly above average in one or more areas of human performance.
– NSW Department of Education and Communities: NSW Curriculum and Learning Innovation Centre, after Gagné (2003).
In other words, gifted students have potential and talented students can actually do something above average.
The definition of giftedness is very broad. Who could argue that any student doesn’t have above average potential in some area? This suits a contemporary model of schooling in which there are no winners or losers, where every student is gifted and every teacher is the equal of every other. Everyone has potential, but so what? What really matters is what someone actually does, not what they might be able to do.
This is clearly the case in music. Audiences flock to see and hear musicians who can actually play brilliantly or entertain them. Exam grades are awarded not for potential, but for how well a student actually plays in the exam. Top HSC students are those who play the best in the HSC. Famous and successful musicians are those who are excellent at what they do. They all had potential, but these people are the ones who actually acted on it and achieved excellence.
So what is the answer to the question then? Is my child talented? To find out, we need to answer this question: Is your child’s playing actually above average? Above average compared to what or who? Obviously using the currently trendy definition, half of all people are talented. That is heart-warming, but not very useful.
The question isn’t “do you love your child?” or “are you proud of your child?” Of course! The question is how good does someone have to be to really be “talented”?
Well, if your child is better than most, then they have a talent for what they do, they are pretty good at it. If they are better than most people at their school, then they are among the most talented in their school. But what about talented students elsewhwere in the world? Your child’s school isn’t really a very big sample of people. We probably need to broaden our sample for a realistic comparison.
What about the whole world? Is your child receiving regular invitations to headline major international music festivals, to record albums and do concert tours? If the answer to that is “yes”, then your child is certainly talented (or has great PR). Their teachers and other parents will readily agree with you, that yes they really are talented. They may grow tired of hearing about it, but they will agree.
If your child isn’t already an international superstar, then they are not among the most talented musicians in the world. They may be among the most gifted (ie, have great potential), but it hasn’t developed into actual playing yet. They still have work to do.
This may sound harsh or unrealistic, but it is quite serious. Even if a young musician is one of the best in the state, or in the country, that is fantastic. Well done. Now go and compete with the rest of the world. Being a big fish in a little pond is not the place to end up, and is just boring and too common.
Most of the parents who proudly tell teachers and friends about how talented their child is are only comparing them to a very small sample. Yes, they may be above average, but really so what? Half of all people are. You need more than that to impress anyone.
Potential doesn’t equal talent. You don’t get talent without hard work. You need to stick at something and constantly develop, remaining open to learning all the time. You need to practice, to listen and to learn.
The real story is that what’s important is not what your child is, but what they are willing to become. They and you need to be prepared to develop their potential into real performance. Potential is a fine thing, but someone is only good if they can actually do something well. No excuses, no “going to…”, no “could if…”. Your child is not talented if they sound dreadful or ordinary when they play. No one cares if they have Asperger’s or ADD or ADDH or ME or Bipolar or have a Low Socioeconomic Background or NESB, or whatever excuse you want to use. Those things might be sad or awkward, but many of the greatest musicians through history have come from backgrounds of poverty, abuse and drug addiction. Many don’t speak English! Django Reinhardt was disabled and dealt with it. Tom Harrell is one of the finest trumpet players on the planet. He also has schizophrenia and just deals with it.
No excuses, just great playing. Potential realised through action. That is talent.
Saul Richardson, July 2012.