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Talent is a Starting Point, Not a Flag to Wave

Talent is a hard-to-define quality that generally pertains to one’s instinct or innate ability to do something well. We admire talent, but we also find it easy to roll our eyes at it. For truly successful people, talent is only a starting point. I have to agree with author Stephen King when he says:

Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.

The creative arts (composing music, writing books, choreographing dances, etc.) have a way of making people believe that talent is all it takes to be successful. Athletes are more likely to have a more balanced view of talent; a golfer with talent will hire a coach if they want to go as far as they can. For good golfers, talent is a starting point.

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For some songwriters, you only need note their generally negative view of studying music theory to see a common opinion regarding talent: studying theory might cramp one’s musical imagination. It’s another way of saying that talent is what you should be nurturing, that talent is an important endpoint.

If songwriting is something you do instinctively — if you have a feel for it, and that’s what you are relying on — those musical instincts will take you only so far. You should view your musical talent as fuel for improvement, not as a flag to wave.

What To Do With Talent

So if talent is fuel, what’s the motor you’re fuelling with it? The answer is: your songwriting process.

Without a well-thought-out process (and a good work ethic), talent is about as useful as gasoline in a container. That container holds great potential, but not much more.

How do you know that your songwriting process is letting you down?

  1. You use improvisation as your main (or only) process. You improvise musical ideas, and then you keep randomly improvising until you’ve got a completed song.
  2. You find it easy to start songs, but very difficult to finish any of them.
  3. Your songwriting lacks any sense of method. While a baseball batter will go through a set of steps that starts with how to stand at the plate through to the follow-through after a swing, songwriting for you lacks a set of steps or even a loosely-defined procedure.

Having said all that, talent is important to a songwriter. Why? Mainly because musical talent (what we might also call musicianship) tells us what good music is. Talent also tells us when music is bad. The more talented you are, the quicker you’ll be in identifying precise problems with a song.

But talent doesn’t provide you with a process. Talent doesn’t necessarily tell you what to do to solve problems. For that reason, being talented is no reason to brag; it’s not a flag to wave about.

If you truly believe that you have musical talent (and many do, so that likely includes you), you can use that talent as fuel to hone a powerful songwriting process. I wrote a blog post about developing a good songwriting process recently (“Thinking About Your Songwriting Process“), so I won’t rewrite all of that here.

But the take-away is this: stop thinking of talent as a replacement for hard work, and think of it more as fuel for developing a disciplined approach for your songwriting activities. The benefits that come from hard work will greatly outpace the benefits that come from basking in the glow of your own talent.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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