Developing a technique to improve your talent

Developing a technique to improve your talent

Latent Talent

In the United States, there has been a strong push to reform our general education in recent years, with federal initiatives like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top capturing headlines as innovative ways to improve the worst-performing schools in our country.  On the other extreme are teachers like me who are working primarily with students one on one in intensive hour-long lessons on a weekly basis to achieve the pinnacle of possibility.  One thing that has always fascinated me is the question of talent: is it innate, or can one learn it?  Many of my teachers have made statements such as “anyone can be taught how to play the cello, but there are some things that are innate and cannot be taught,” “That’s god-given talent” and so on.  I have had the pleasure to work closely with many students over the past 13 years of my professional career in the Chiara Quartet.  Some were beginners, some very advanced, some were considered prodigies, others were considered untalented by their teachers or their peers.  In many hours of lessons with these students, I have found both cases that support and contradict this conventional wisdom.

After years of work as a teacher and an observer of my own improvement in areas such as music, chess, soccer, programming and writing, I have come to believe that there is a process by which all human beings are capable of speeding up the learning process to approximate what we think of as “talent.”  In short: you can improve your talent.  Lately, I have begun to actively implement these ideas in my own teaching with very interesting results.  Before I continue, I should state the caveat that this is not a scientific paper, and all results are anecdotal.  There are many resources available that address the question of how we learn, should you wish to examine the field further.  I will only be speaking of my own experience as a teacher and as a learner.  In addition, I am going to speak from the perspective of assuming some basic motivation is in place for the student, such that the student is at least attempting to improve already, and has no active animosity to learning the task.  Developing a love for music is a separate but equally important part of improving, and I may blog about that in the future, as there are some ways to help that along, but it is one of the great challenges of education that I still find to be an unsolved mystery.

Often, students will approach me with questions similar to these:

  • How do I play more in tune?
  • Am I making a good sound?
  • Do you think I should focus on technique or music?
  • What should my bow arm look like?

Although these are all wonderful questions indicating a true desire to improve, they are not the right questions.  It is like asking whether you should use a fork or a spoon to eat a cheeseburger.  Either could work, but for your long-term health, you should be eating something else.  Not to mention it’s just weird to eat a cheeseburger with a utensil, but never mind.

When one is truly aware of what is happening in the sound, the way your instrument is responding to your technique, what your body feels like while playing, and the musical content of the piece, magic and genius emerges.  One of the first questions my students think of when I describe this true goal of practicing and performing, inevitably the (rather sarcastic) question pops into their heads: “So how can one achieve this mythical state of musical nirvana?”

If you’re beginning to catch on, you should be thinking that the question is not the right question to ask.  By asking about a nirvana, we introduce two assumptions that are part of the core in American education that make it harder to learn music successfully:

  1. progressing towards a known goal (achieving a state of nirvana we do not currently occupy)
  2. judgement of good versus bad (the idea that nirvana is good)

On the surface, it would appear that these are harmless at worst and helpful at best.  From an external viewpoint, this is certainly true.  Musicians who practice with a goal and a clear sense of what sounds good almost always sound better than those who haven’t practiced as much or practice listlessly.  What I have learned from my teaching is that discerning the difference between a good and a bad thing is not the same as instant feedback judgment (“That was a bad note”), and improving is not the same as keeping a goal in mind.  Rather, the best measure of success in practicing is whether we can solve a new problem without re-introducing an old one.

Put simply: we do not practice to get better, we practice to notice more.

With this in mind, it is clear that the essential question students should ask is this:

  • Am I able to notice more of what is actually happening this time than I did the last time I played this?

Students with a stubborn habit that refuses to solve itself almost always suffer a deficiency in attention while playing.  In fact, this is a very ancient truth, understood by practitioners of meditation1 and a recently rediscovered truth in the field of psychology2.  In meditation, what we need to learn is called mindfulness.  In modern psychology, it is called fluid intelligence.  Whatever you call it, you need to develop this to be a musician.

As an example, I recently worked with a student who has always struggled with his bow grip.  Early on in our time working together, I put him through the technical wringer as I do with all of my students, re-tooling his approach to breathing, sound production, left hand acrobatics with scales/arpeggios and friends, but somehow the bow grip just wouldn’t relax.  A collapsed bow thumb, rigid fingers and a stiff upper arm were all symptoms of a larger issue that had eluded a solution for 10 years.

Something needed to be done.

So, we took a step back and I began to work with the student on breathing.  As it turns out, this student breathed almost exclusively into the chest cavity, and never filled his lungs fully.  After learning how to breathe down with the diaphragm, we then tried to make changes to the bow grip again.  This time, with a focus on breathing, there was some improvement.  Next, I directed the student’s attention to two points on either side of his spine in the lower back.  Again, there was some improvement, but it was still not enough.  Finally, I asked the student to stop thinking and just listen to the sound.  At this point, there was a dramatic shift in the sound.  Resonance boomed throughout the room and shook the floor, the student’s bow grip looked completely fluid and natural, and a broad grin splashed across the student’s face.  The grin may have been a natural reaction to the ridiculous little dance of joy I did, but it was genuine.

There are several elements of developing attention span that I regularly use with success that you can use in your own work:

  1. Breathing awareness and control
  2. Alternative focus points
  3. Memory work
  4. Non-judgmental mistake awareness
  5. Total mental visualization
  6. Complete release

I will expound upon each of these techniques in a separate blog post, so stay tuned!  Here is a quick definition of each:

Breathing awareness and control

This is the process by which we learn first to notice the breath, then to notice it while playing, and finally to learn how to control the breath.  This control allows you to choose to breathe deeply, to coordinate it with important gestures in the music, or to open up the amount of breathing so that more oxygen is available.

Alternative focus points

This is a simple method of choosing places to direct your attention.  For most students, I ask them to listen with one ear or the other, or to listen to the sound from different points in the room.  This can also be a body awareness process of noticing a point in the body you normally ignore while playing (i.e. not the hands).

Memory work

This includes both memorizing the notes you will play, but also developing a good short-term memory for what happens while you are playing a passage so that you can quickly identify both things to improve and notice when you have made improvement.

Total mental visualization

This technique is an advanced technique, and requires a synthesis of most of the other awareness tools.  In essence, it is the visualization of not just the sound you wish to make, but the exact shape of your body in relation to the instrument, the fingerings you will use, the bowings, the part of the bow, and anything else that would actually happen were you to be playing.  For non-string players, substitute your unique technical issues (pedaling for pianists, for instance).  Using this technique to practice normally without the instrument is one of the most exhausting ways to practice, but the payoff is faster and more permanent than any other practice method I have tried.

Non-judgmental mistake awareness

This is a process by which you notice what you do while playing without judging them as “good” or “bad.”  All too often, in the effort to “improve” we unconsciously ignore or try to forget the mistakes we make because it feels bad, and over-emphasize things we are doing well.  By treating everything we do as simply an alternative way of playing, and re-creating accidental mistakes intentionally, we gain peace with our inner critic and develop real control over the instrument and the music-making.

Complete release

This last technique involves developing the ability to let go of everything and re-direct all of your energy directly into listening.  It also involves taking your energy and removing a single point of focus so that you are aware of everything holistically.


Before I leave you for today, I will give you musicians a challenge: can you play a C major scale 5 times, as slow as you can comfortably play the scale with one note per bow, and each time notice something new?  It can be your breath, the way part of the body feels, the way the sound interacts with the back of the instrument, the quality of resonance when the notes are in tune, the straightness of the bow – the choice of what to notice is yours.  After you have taken the challenge, play something that you have been struggling with, and then report on the experience in the comments below.  Note: these are all examples.  If you play a non-stringed instrument, you should choose something to notice that is relevant to your instrument’s technique.

Looking forward to hearing from you!  Stay tuned for the first post on breathing awareness and control to be posted 1 week after this post.

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Posted in Cello, Improve Your Talent, Music
14 comments on “Developing a technique to improve your talent
  1. Helga Chojecki says:

    thank you for posting this, i am a professional violinist, teaching to, i will try yhe C major tomorrow , best wishes, Helga

  2. Raphael Klayman says:

    Thank you for these thoughts. I’m also a professional violinist. These are all very fine ideas, and I don’t disagree as such with any of them. Where I might quibble is with how we might try to define “talent” as such. I do believe that there is such a thing as inborn talent and I might re-phrase your title to “techniques for developing what inborn talent has already brought to the table”. (A lot more verbose, I’ll admit!) Let’s take one of the ultimate talents – Jascha Heifetz. He was a big believer in systematic practice, scales, exercises, etc., which must have done him good – and certainly does me a lot of good. But surely someone else doing the same thing as well as being as mindful as they can be, will not likely become another Heifetz. Because Heifetz was indeed born with certain gifts of hearing, musculature, reaction time, coordination, etc.

    The above focuses more on technical talent. I’d like to say a word about musical talent – though the two are not separated by a brick wall. To me, musical talent is akin to acting talent. A talented actor brings the words off the page and makes them live. Someone who is thought of as “musical” does the same with the notes. There are many highly trained and accomplished musicians who never get past a certain correctness and will always sound pedantic. I really don’t think that flair can be taught, though it can be guided, nurtured and enriched.

    • Greg says:

      Raphael, thank you for your reply. I define talent not as a finished brilliance, perhaps that is where we differ? For me, talent is the ability to quickly perceive and understand mind-blowing solutions to problems.

      The question of innate talent is a very fine one to raise, and I would draw your attention to László Polgár: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%C3%A1szl%C3%B3_Polg%C3%A1r He raised 3 girls and trained them from an early age. One is a chess international master, another is a grandmaster, and the third was ranked 8th in the world out of all chess players in 2005. Are there differences in their abilities? Yes. However, to put this in perspective, it is the equivalent of raising 3 children, one of whom is concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera, one who plays viola in the Emerson Quartet, and the third is Yo Yo Ma. What is remarkable is he published a book describing his theories of genius BEFORE he got married, and still raised 3 children to be happy chess geniuses.

      Most people believe that they cannot improve their musicality, or their innate ability to learn, and use this as a subconscious excuse to wallow in frustration. I have found both to be false, and it is this ability to learn that for me defines “natural” talent. The prodigies I have worked with simply perceive more things at a faster rate earlier in life than other people. On the other hand, one of my students had a “tin ear:” he could not hear any musicality at all. For much of our work together, I have applied and developed these techniques for expanding awareness. You would be shocked to hear the difference in his ability to sound genuinely musically inspired today. The truth is clear to me: musicality is not innate, it is learned. Part of the proof is in the evolution of what “musical” means, as evidenced by the history of recording. Many inspired performances recorded in the early 20th century sound downright weird today with their lack of vibrato and profusion of slippery slides. There is a wonderful book by Szigeti whose title eludes me that lays out a system of how he plays musically. Most of them were simple rules, such as if you have a repeated note, don’t play it with the same finger or on the same string. I have applied many to my own playing and were amazed at how much better I sound without any increase in my own “genius,” so that is yet more proof that musical genius is not necessarily innate.

      I am not claiming that by developing your talent will make you an international superstar overnight. On the contrary, a ridiculous amount of work is required. However, the main point is that if attempted early enough in life, you will develop the skill and flexibility for a major career in music.

      We do agree that talent is not limited to the domain of music, and these techniques for improving awareness will improve talent in any field, as I have mentioned in the post.

      I am very much looking forward to your perspective on the whole series! Thanks again for commenting.

      • Raphael Klayman says:

        So many interesting points – and I’m probably going to forget to address some. But anyway, I, too, do NOT define talent as a finished brilliance but rather as an innate potentiality. Again, please see my example re Heifetz and technical talent. With the best training, practicing etc. etc. very few violinists, if any, will ever be able to play – to take just one example – the 1st mvt. of the Sinding the Suite with anywhere near Heifetz’ combination of speed. laser-like pinpoint accuracy, and somehow still bring out the haunting character of the music at the same time. And musically, how can anyone explain the young Menhuin, and his seemingly effortless grasp of so much subtle music, with that special organic flow? You brought out some examples of styles of interpretation that many would consider old fashioned today. Certainly nothing, interpretively, is etched in stone forever. Yet whether we agree with all of say, Kreisler’s slides, it should be clear to most sensitive listeners, that we are listening to someone very musical – someone who can bring the notes off the page and make an organic flow of music. But again, there are many well-trained musicians who just never get past an educated ”correctness” and always sound pedantic and stilted.

        Certainly there are degrees of talent. It’s rarely a simple yes or no proposition. And yes, some students seem like dead wood for a long time and one day seem to wake up and really go places. Then there are prodigies who hit there level very early, and kind of stay there. Again, talent certainly needs to be nurtured, educated, developed, guided, etc. But there is such a thing as an innate something that goes beyond the some of the parts in an organic gestalt. Yes, some people make use talent or seeming lack thereof as an excuse. We can’t be sure of our potential till we’ve worked hard to develop it. I’m not a young man, and I feel I’m still improving. In a sense, to me, discovering talent is like finding oil beneath the ground of your property. If you don’t drill for it, get it sold and refined etc., you might as well not have any oil. But here’s where I’ll get politically incorrect and say that some properties just have no oil. And in that case, you can dig and dig but…

        • Gregory says:

          I have encountered talent that is hindered by disability. However, the most common hindrance to talent is self-inflicted: fear, lack of motivation, self-destructiveness due to issues with upbringing, and so on. Usually, tackling the student’s awareness is the primary path out of this place, although intrinsic motivation is a must.

          As for agreeing on musicality, I would challenge that with a story of myself. I never appreciated jazz as a kid because my parents simply didn’t like it and so I never listened to it. In my masters degree at Juilliard I decided I really wanted to learn about what makes jazz so great, and so took a course. Halfway through the semester, I was listening to a recording and suddenly realized I had a strong reaction to it: I could finally hear gradations of quality in jazz.

          Many listeners today listen to anything classical for violin (for example), and it all sounds exactly the same to them, but ask about popular music and they can carry on a 10-hour conversation about the nuances of musicality in pop music. Many lovers of classical music say all pop music sounds the same to them, but can carry on about specific performances of the Sinding Suite and their relative merits, for example :) .

          Musicality is actually not an intrinsic part of a performance, but if you develop your awareness in the way that the composer of your chosen piece of music was aware when imagining it, you will begin to spontaneously recognize it and then to improvise your own magic.

          The reason many performers sound pedantic is because they have “figured it out.” They are fearful that their own faults will show if they don’t follow established rules of performing, and sacrifice the spontaneity and love of life that inspired the music they are performing. This love of life is there even in scary stuff like Berg’s Wozzeck.

          Thus, I still maintain the firm belief that the only way to develop musicality AND technical proficiency is to expand your awareness. Once the awareness expansion is self-sustaining, working with many of the greats who are alive today and immersing yourself in tradition can only enhance both. Do these things from a fearful, narrow awareness and the path to pedantry is a straight line.

          I once took a lesson with a great cello teacher who shall remain nameless. In the lesson, I was playing a movement of Arpeggione, and did something I had grown to love that I heard in the music, inspired by Rostropovich. I was told without explanation that I could not do that, it was not musical. My 15-year old innocent response was “but… Rostropovich does!” And I was told that I was not Rostropovich, and so I could not do it.

          This is a prevalent attitude in teaching classical music: do it this way, and don’t copy those crazy people no matter what. I try to avoid that method like the plague in my own teaching. Not just because it is annoying to me, but because I have found that when I force students to do something they have not discovered through their own path, it always sounds like a pale reflection of what I wish them to do. The instant they are aware enough to hear what I am hearing, they always, without fail, solve the problem that the music poses in a way I had not imagined that is greater than what I had hoped for them. This is why I decided to write what will eventually be 12,000 words on the subject of how to improve your talent, because talent IS awareness at its essence. We may quibble on who has the most of it, but art, at its greatest, is a creative act that expands your awareness so that you come away changed and thirsty for more. Talent, then, is the thing that allows you to get to that creative place in the fastest time possible, and to project that for your audience.

          I know I am waxing poetic here, but the stakes are so high, I can’t help it!

  3. Raphael Klayman says:

    I agree with you on the central importance of awareness. Where we may disagree is my maintaining that certain potentialities are innate – though as potentialities, they must, of course, be developed. As to jazz, there’s a well-known saying – “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” Classical has its own kind – in fact many kinds – of swing as well. I would agree that fear, or self-consciousness, or a need to follow certain perceived procedures an be A reason for musical pedantry – but not always THE reason. Sometimes the potential for that swing just ain’t there, though sometimes it takes time to discover. At any rate, I think we’re going to go in circles after this point, and I have my own chamber music project looming. Very nice Ravel, btw, and very impressive memorization!

  4. Suzanne says:

    Great ideas! I tried the “play the scale 5 times” assignment and each time focused on something different. It helped me a lot! I teach the cello and always ask the student to focus on one thing as they play a short phrase. Sometimes we’ll add one more thing but never 5 different things. It was a great way to expand the noticing of what is actually happening aurally and physically and as a result to be able to enjoy playing much more. It’s a sense of loving the sound I’m making while enjoying how my body is feeling and moving. I read this blog on cellobello but am glad I found your site. I just read the breathing blog and know I need to notice a lot more in that dimension. I found it hard to notice my breathing just sitting with my cello and not playing at all! So that is where I’ll begin each day.

    • Gregory says:

      Thanks Suzanne, I’m glad you found this useful. Yes, I know exactly what you mean – finding focus is so often taught to us as a monolithic single point at a time, it almost feels like we’re doing something bad when expanding this. cellobello is a great site, and if you feel like an encore, the whole series will be posted just a bit later than it is here.

      • Suzanne says:

        I just read your previous reply to Raphael and it seems that you could substitute the word intelligence for talent. I’ve always believed in nurture rather than nature but we may never know since there are way too many factors/variables that affect what a person will rise to as a human being.
        With music, the sense of pulse which seems innate in most people can appear missing in a few. I’ve taught 4 students in the last 10 years who had a limited sense of pulse which I was not able to help them improve. Synchronization is hard or impossible for them and so easy for most of us. This is why I think that is innate.

        • Suzanne says:

          By the way, have you read “The Simplicity of playing the violin” by Herbert Whone? It is a beautifully written book with chapters on “feeling awareness” “integrated playing” “the role of breathing”. This is a wonderful book for all musicians, not just violinists.

        • Gregory says:

          I do know what you mean about talent seeming to be innate, but I have seen unbelievable improvement in the three things that seem innate:

          musicality
          pulse
          inability to memorize

          When it comes to rhythm, most of the students I have worked with who have bad pulse don’t intuitively make a physical connection between rhythm and pulse, but instead only conceptualize it. By this I mean they think rhythm is something they think in their heads, but rhythm must be viscerally connected to the body. Others simply move at the rate their hands naturally move, and have no mental connection to the physical action (can’t visualize anything mentally in a way that connects it to the body). In both cases, it’s nearly killed me in multiple lessons to find a way through these hurdles, but when I found solutions, they inevitably led to increasing the student’s awareness. The obvious disclaimer is that I have not worked with every student, so this is a limited sample size.

  5. Suzanne says:

    I’m just loving your articles. So helpful and inspiring for me and my students. I’m reminded of this quote by Agatha Christie, “Teaching can only be satisfactory if it awakens some response in you” You’ve come up with so many great ideas on how to awaken responses in a student.

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