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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Friday, July 29, 2011

Talent = Inception + Work

The film Inception is based upon the concept that the most powerful thing in the world is an idea.  Moreover, that idea cannot be consciously planted in the mind of an individual . . . it has to be born there, if only on the conscious level.  Daniel Coyle's book The Talent Code offers some compelling evidence that talent is nothing more than skill that is a product of intense and efficient practice, fueled by inception.  (Coyle calls this ignition, but the idea is the same.)

Practicing music was something I did because it was fun and interesting to me, until something huge happened.  I was listening to the radio, a program on Boston public radio called Eric in the Evening, when I heard something that blew my mind.  It was one of the Mingus Changes albums, and the late George Adams was doing things with the tenor that I never dreamed possible.  He played with speed, range, and reckless abandon.  Something in my brain jolted with electricity at the moment of inception:  If I practice hard enough, I could do that!  In retrospect, I also see that I didn't want to have to work myself to death in a factory like my father, so the idea really had the urgency of I must practice hard enough . . .

As a university professor, I have witnessed this again and again.  A student only works as hard as they want to, and the level of commitment is directly proportional to the power of the idea that lives in the mind.  The student that isn't convinced that they want to be great will never be great.  Deeper still, one cannot force an idea to take hold.  Being in an inspirational environment is a key element, but each individual must eventually turn on the engine of internal motivation.

For an individual that hasn't experienced inception, Practice Monster is the enemy, constantly expressing the subconscious feeling of "I can't do this."  Meanwhile, Practice Monster is the friend of the person who deeply believes that they can do it, and that they must do it.  While there may be something to the physiology of talent, certain body types or physical structures making some skills easier to obtain, I have my doubts that talent really exists, at least in the way we love to over-romanticize it.  We say that someone is talented after the fact.  No matter how much we wish it were true, nobody is born with skills pre-wired.  Talent is earned.

So . . . what kind of Practice Monster do you have?


  1. A very hungry one. Mine says, "You can't do this, but you must, but you can't. You will never earn your talent unless you learn to let me beat you down and come back for more. What you've accomplished is in spite of me, but I will have my due."

  2. pwlsax: Make the monster work for you. Turn that energy into positive momentum. Read this: