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Are Musicians Special? Should They Want to Be?

Musicality is fundamental to humanity, not a special talent.

Key points

  • Many people who become musicians grow up being told they have a special talent for music.
  • The idea of specialness can motivate some people, but it can discourage others.
  • Rather than present it as "special," musicians should promote music as a beloved and integral part of being human.
S. Hermann / F. Richter from Pixabay
Source: S. Hermann / F. Richter from Pixabay

Many of us who have made music an important focus of our lives chose to do so before we were full-fledged adults. Developmentally speaking, this is not surprising. People typically do a lot of identity construction during adolescence into their emerging adulthood.

Being Special

Often, the idea of being special is prominent in young people’s initial immersion into organized music participation. It can be an important motivational factor for many kids, especially in taking music lessons and participating in school music activities. As I have written elsewhere:

Early in a child’s music experience, when everything is new, moments of feeling special abound. You feel special having a shiny silver band instrument. You feel special taking your position on stage on the risers with the other robed choir members. If, as a beginning violinist, you can scratch out something that sounds the least bit like “Hot Cross Buns,” you feel special as parents and teachers smile and show that they recognize the tune.

But feeling special can be a double-edged sword. When the newness of the experience has worn off and praise is not as easily collected, when practice time is required to learn to play the assigned music and still there seems to be students who are better performers than you, then the feeling of specialness may fade (Woody, 2019, pp. 8-9).

When young musicians believe that their being special is the result of possessing a gift or talent for music, their motivation often goes one of two ways: Some avoid putting forth the effort of practicing and studying, believing that their talent should make it come easily to them with working at it. Alternatively, some understand musical talent as a gift that must be nurtured and accordingly feel a strong obligation to do so through practice and advanced music study.

With either of these two paths, the sense of being special can fade. With those who never learn to give the necessary effort to keep growing musically, they do not keep pace with the accomplishments of those who do and, as a result, may come to believe that they were not so special after all. With those who enter a committed life as a musician, they usually realize that most everybody in their musical world is talented and that talent alone does not account for those who accomplish the most.

Ideas of musical specialness and talent do not seem to fade as readily among those outside the world of musicians. Take, for example, that proud parent of a musical kid who often says things like “I don’t know where she got her talent, because she definitely didn’t get it from me!” That parent is likely to invoke talent or giftedness after the child’s first recital in grade school. And it may surprise (or annoy) the musician to hear the parent still crediting talent after the culminating performance to earn an advanced degree in graduate school!

Indeed, many musicians come to resent the notion of talent as the main factor behind their accomplishments. After making music study a huge portion of their childhood and the focus of their adult lives, after tens of thousands of hours of practice, rehearsals, and performances, it can seem rather insulting for people to suggest that their musicianship is not something that they worked at and earned, but a gift that they were given.

Continuing to invoke the notion of special talent can seem like willful ignorance to many musicians. It offers no explanatory power or insight into how musicianship is developed, yet it serves to dissuade many people from even attempting to become more musical (Sloboda, 2000). What’s more, devotion to the talent myth seems to be part of a larger perspective that devalues music (and the arts in general) as a field of study, instead relegating it to the status of mere entertainment.

School music teachers are all too familiar with this perspective. Good music teachers’ classes have stated curricular learning objectives. And arts education is known to equip students with important life skills for exercising creativity and self-expression. Still, school music is considered by many people to be extracurricular activity. In fact, when music is an established curricular subject in school, such as at the elementary level, it is often put in the category of “specials,” which distinguishes certain subjects from the academic “core” subjects that are important for all students. Subjects that are "specials" are scheduled less often than core subjects, and are sometimes not available or allowable to all students.

Clearly this designation of “special” is not an empowering one. Practically speaking, it relegates music to being less important than other subjects. This has been most evident when schools have had to deal with budget cuts. In such challenging times, schools can hardly afford to keep programs that serve only the few talented students. School music can be seen as a “frill” that is expendable in times of budgetary belt-tightening.

Part of Being Human

Rather than clinging to specialness, musicians are much better served promoting music as an integral part of being human. Throughout history and all around the world, music has been a beloved activity available to all people. Yes, there are many in our modern societies who devalue music as nonessential entertainment or a special commodity. Musicians, however, must not “unwittingly acquiesce to this perspective by focusing their efforts exclusively on musical forms that are esoteric, and presenting music education as a special opportunity, of which relatively few students are worthy” (Woody, 2021, p. 6).

References

Sloboda J. A. (2000). Individual differences in music performance. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4, 397-403. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1364-6613(00)01531-X

Woody, R. H. (2019). Becoming a real musician: Inspiration and guidance for teachers and parents of musical kids. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Woody, R. H. (2021). Psychology for musicians: Understanding and acquiring the skills (2nd edition). New York: Oxford University Press.

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