Talent vs. Skill: Can You Learn to Be a Virtuoso?

I’ve always been fascinated by people who seem to have an innate talent for music. I always wonder, when I watch these virtuosos, how much of their ability comes from being “born that way” and how much is from intense study and practice? The question for me is if you don’t have a lot of innate talent for an instrument, will enough practice still get you to virtuoso ability?

Here’s an honest to goodness virtuoso in action:

If you visit the guitarist’s site, he began practicing in his early teens, studied guitar “obsessively” in high school, and was mentored by guitar masters. It seems, then, that hard work, dedication, passion, and a lot of practice were the keys to his becoming a bona fide virtuoso. However, there are some clues in the biography that point to natural talent being an important contributor, such as references to his “uncommonly dextrous fingers” and his “keen sense of rhythm”. These sound more like inborn traits that can’t be learned.

My sense is that natural ability has three main effects on the road to being a virtuoso. First, it gives you a boost — a head start that makes learning things a bit easier and breakthroughs more frequent. It makes you more likely to be noticed by teachers and given better instruction (you see this in sports all the time). Second, natural talent — in part because of this boost — fuels passion for a skill. The better you are naturally at an instrument, the more likely you are to want to practice, and to maintain your interest and passion for the many years it takes to become a master. Finally, a specific lack of natural talent can provide a ceiling to your excellence. If you are not naturally dextrous, you can only improve your ability so much.  You can work extra hard and sometimes overcome an inherent weakness, but given the same passion and practice time as someone with natural ability, you will not be able to match their skill.

I take comfort in that fact, for some strange reason. I don’t think I have any specific natural talent for guitar, or at least what I do have is not exceptional in the world of great guitar players, so I won’t be disappointed if I never become Ingwe Malmstein or Stevie Ray Vaughn. I don’t yet know where my ceiling is, and I’m really enjoying the road to finding out. I hope that I will surprise myself and excel beyond my fairly optimistic goals. it gives me great joy when I do something on the guitar that I thought I was incapable of. I don’t need to be a virtuoso to be a great guitar player, and I’m comfortable with that.

I’ll still always be fascinated by guitar gods, so I’ll close with this little gem, from my favorite rock guitarist, John Petrucci of Dream Theater.

One thought on “Talent vs. Skill: Can You Learn to Be a Virtuoso?”

  1. There’s a great book by Daniel J. Levitin called “This is Your Brain on Music”. Levitin’s thesis is that virtuosity is pretty much a skill/work thing, not a talent/natural gift thing. In my own limited experience as a guitar teacher, its seems almost like a gray area… I’ve seen a kid get really good on guitar really quickly, but that kid for whatever reason was motivated to spend 4-5 hours a day practicing. So the actual guitar playing is a skill, but the ability to focus on it specifically to acquire the skill, maybe that’s a talent.

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