Talent versus Persistence

I’m always telling my students that interest in any subject can overcome a host of roadblocks. If you are keenly interested in something, then you will easily find time to practice it a lot; and lots of practice equals persistence.

That is the proper way that a beginning student should think about mastering the banjo. Just go for it and apply yourself to it with all diligence.

But there is a white elephant in the room that I can’t go on ignoring: talent. I don’t like to attribute much to this quality, as I see it to be a discouragement to students if they aren’t as talented as so-and-so. Fact is, though, talent is so visible in so many students. It helps someone with lots of it do in one lesson what someone else takes months to accomplish. So how do these two qualities relate and combine to accomplish the task of learning the banjo? Let’s look at the 4 possibilities:

1. No talent, no persistence. Forget it – it won’t happen. Sorry!

2. Talent, no persistence. Ditto. So sad, too.

3. Talent, with persistence. Again, a no-brainer; success is highly probable.

4. No talent, but lots of persistence. Here’s the interesting one! It demands a bit of discussion.

In mathematics, we learn that anything multiplied by zero is still zero, no matter how big a number it is. So it is with talent and persistence; if a person truly has NO talent, then no amount of persistence will have a positive effect. In other words:

Persistence X No Talent = 0

But, almost no one falls into this category; virtually everyone has some amount of talent. So the situation is really ‘little talent, lots of persistence’. That is an important point to remember, as talent is like a multiplicative factor. And persistence is also like that.

The student in this case doesn’t make as much progress, nor do they make it as quickly, but it does happen! Persistence sees to that!

Combine this with the fact that not all students have goals of playing the Grand ‘Ol Opry, or winning a Grammy. Most folks simply want to play well enough to enjoy it and I see that as a greater goal in the grand scheme of things than to strive for lofty heights of performance or acclaim. After all, we are talking about an instrument that is often seen as the hallmark of easy-going contentment and satisfaction – the banjo!

I hope this little illustration explains clearly:

1. Why we should value persistence, even more so than talent, in students.

2. How persistence and talent are both so clearly needed in some amount.

About Phill Gibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Software Engineer and part-time banjo instructor. My wife Miiko and I worship at Rivertree Downtown. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin and dulcimer at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play and teach Scruggs, melodic, clawhammer, and 2-finger styles. I'm also very keen on theology, being a Trail Care Partner with the Land Trust of North Alabama, photography, urban planning, architecture, astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, martial arts, and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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