Why define what does not exist?

Don’t get me started on dictionary definitions. They are the denotations of language but let us be serious. When is the last time any of us used a dictionary to gain meaning that we did not already understand? We use them to check spelling, to reinforce knowledge that we already possess, and to grease the gears of our minds working as we try to reword something for the benefit of ourselves and others. Why is it, then, that when there are disagreements some folks go to the dictionary for a definition? Makes no sense. Especially when we have retooled so much of the vernacular to where it is but a shadow of its original meaning.

When discussing constructs such as ‘talent,’ I understand that this is a term that provokes an emotional response. Sentimentality swells within. We think of our own experiences, the experiences of our children, the experiences of our neighbors and our friends. We like to label students as talented and we like to call people genuises–we like to have heroes. We like to perpetuate our personal myths. This is not an issue of semantics. It is an issue of honesty.

Who are these diviners? These mystics and magicians? Where is the man or woman who can read minds, see the future, and decide whether a student possesses talent? And when they make that decision, what do they do? They tell the student and the family of the student. Tell them they are special, that they have a gift? What effect does that experience have on that individual? And what are the eventual outcomes? To those who “know it when they see it,” how is your track record?

Something that I often say when addressing future educators is this: We do our students a tremendous disservice when we view them through the lens of our experience. Our past has been romanticized in our minds. We must come to terms with that. We tell our stories so many times that they have become myth and we perpetuate those myths and they become distant from the reality of the original context.

“Success is a peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”-Coach John Wooden (1910-2010)

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  • If we only view our students through the lens of our experience we do them a disservice. We need to view them through the lens of their experience as well. We need to use both lenses.

  • I go to denotation when connotation is muddled beyond recognition. A word like “talent” is a very personal word in our culture, perhaps even sentimental as you say (with a touch of snark). Denotation is helpful then as a starting place for discussion. Talent = natural aptitude or skill. It is a common “construct” in theater where I work. When I recognize it in a student, I try to facilitate opportunities. (Facilitate = make easier)

    It is generally accepted that people have a talent/aptitude for comedy or they don’t. It’s not something easily taught. There is something completely intangible about that quality, but it is easily recognizable by everyone laughing.

    But talent alone doesn’t get you far in the arts. Long-term success is a brutal path for artists. Lots of people have talent. A career should only be undertaken by those who are willing to slog it out through near-constant rejection. A miniscule percentage of people who declare themselves actors make a decent living, regardless of talent. Everytime one of my acting students asks me if s/he should become an actor, I answer “Only if you can’t not; only if you’re compelled.”

    And, while I confess to being a hopelessly sentimental romantic, I am not so about talent. To me, it is a tangible thing, a natural skill or aptitude. It is not special though it may be unique. Once recognized, and I hope it is, then it’s up to the kid what to do with it. Theater skills are very helpful for teachers, for example.

  • Ingrid wrote:

    Interesting. What do we do then, with the child who seems not to exhibit any talent? I had a violin student like that. Her father is an economist and, to learn Twinkle Twinkle, had to think “Every 7th note is long.” Yikes. 7 years later, this student still struggles. However, given her and her parents’ persistence, I cannot with any certainty say she could not become a great musician (as judged by say winning a job with a major orchestra). I can say with certainty that she can play the violin beautifully. I had questioned my own teacher about her years ago – “Help! What do I do with this chid??” She said, “You have to just have faith in humanity.”

    Also, there are studies that look simply at the amount one practices an instrument and their level of playing. Soloists practiced the most, orchestra players next, etc. Practice directly correlated with level.

    That said, can anyone be Joshua Bell or Yo Yo Ma? I still don’t think so, and not simply because of differences in environment. But there is a lot of room and reason for musicians. Does having a hero (genius) necessarily mean I can’t work hard and be inspired to participate and make music or only focus? I’m still trying to understand the point of denying the existence of natural aptitude or genius.

  • Ingrid wrote:

    Sorry for poor editing above. Had to run to answer to moooommmmmyyyyyy….

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