Talent—or Time? Searching for the Special Sauce

I keep on plugging away at classical guitar, resurrecting this discipline I haven’t studied in so many long years. I’ve more or less worked my way through the book that was my introduction to playing, compiled and composed by one Christopher Parkening, and have moved on to some slightly more intermediate-level exercises and pieces. This morning I downloaded and printed some sheets with blank staves so I can transcribe music from ancient photocopies that are all but illegible anymore; it’s entirely possible I unearthed my collection at just the right moment, ephemeral as it is. I believe this exercise will also help my playing, that is to say, that the exercise of dotting a treble clef with musical notes, adding the time signatures, repeating measures, et al., will help underscore for my head what should flow through my fingers.

A question dawns on me, though, while these hands with some age on them now try like crazy to do as they once did all those years ago when it was fair to say I at least achieved some modicum of ‘mastery’ (not ‘perfection,’ a different beast, and a subject to tackle another day): Did I…do I…possess musical talent? Inspiration for picking up a guitar in the first place came from a new friend in prep school, a musical savant who at the tender age of 13 was already an accomplished guitarist (she was as smitten with my classical ballet chops, and my own ballerina mom even put the two of us on the same stage once upon a time). It was less inspired by a true calling, I suppose.

Now, day after day as I continue to practice these pretty little classical études and other pieces, and even some popular music arranged for classical guitar, I can hear my 12-year-old self playing them with so much more conviction and nuance than I can massage out of these clumsy, somewhat arthritic fingers. I pore over the notes my teachers, two of them, left on the pages: MEMORIZE! Play louder. Experiment with echo. Learn to diagnose and correct your own mistakes. Make it sing! Try rest stroke here. (Lots of musical notes are circled in red ink, often the ones that carry the melody in a line of music—notes that deserve to be heard.) I find myself repeating the same mistakes I made at age 12 and 13 with my first instructor in Memphis, and later on at 19 and 20 out in Denver, with my second one. I understand what each of them was getting at, by and large, but commuting their scrawl off the pages of a book, or from a piece of sheet music, to the neurons my brain’s now desperately trying to regrow, or reroute, maybe, thence to my fingertips…. Well. Maybe I’ll get there in due course.

Talent? Who knows. And anyway, these days it does not matter, because I’m in this for myself alone, chiefly, and maybe after I achieve a measure of competence will give tiny porch concerts for my neighbors and other passersby. It’s one of a number of avocations I’ve embraced to keep my sanity in the madness we all find ourselves navigating just now.

Mavis Staines, the director of Canada’s National Ballet School, and erstwhile director of the prestigious Prix de Lausanne classical ballet competition, once opined about talent in a television interview backstage at the competition, first explaining what the judges look for in the young artist-athletes, waxing poetic about strong technique, and training, and musicality, and facility (a word that refers to a dancer’s physique). Then she grinned and her eyes twinkled, and she quipped, And of course, we’re always looking for that elusive thing called talent.

In the decade or so I spent teaching young dancers, I’d like to believe I could spot it. And my mentors at American Ballet Theatre certainly could, through six miles of dense fog. When you’re teaching the most gifted, accomplished children gathered at the epicenter of the ballet world, this exercise grows exponentially more challenging—they’re all beautiful kids, but maybe one of them in a classroom of 25 or more has the ‘special sauce’ that somehow draws your eye, again and again and again.

Here’s the rub: Even the most talented wunderkind is unfinished. It takes time to develop the kind of artistry that makes a talented dancer, or musician, or writer, truly special.

I’ve been reading Eudora Welty’s Collected Stories for a little while; it’s a work you can pick up and then put down and return to later, the kind of flexible my life needs right now. This is not my first exposure to her writing; I feel sure I was made to read her in prep school or college. But another author whose work I admire talked me into it, by way of some snippet I read where she described meeting Welty in person near the start of her own career (can’t even begin to describe the scope of my envy). Let’s just all agree, Eudora Welty was dripping with special sauce. But if I’m being honest, I admit some of these stories are lost on me—the kind of lost where after reading the same dang paragraph three times, it still makes no sense, and so you have no choice except to move on or be stuck there the rest of your life; chiefly, I blame myself and my addled brain. But sometimes I wonder whether time has worn on a little too far, so that the culture in that particular rural South is no longer attainable for a contemporary reader to grasp, not without help, anyway.

Well. Lucky for me, I get to make a living as a writer and editor in the here and now. On my best days, I feel a satisfying command of words; on my worst, I am absolutely certain some of my writing makes no sense—maybe it’s a Southern thing, after all. But I do write, and often; these fingers that struggle so much to pluck out melodies and harmonies on a classical guitar have so many, many stories to tell, through a voice most definitely more fully formed, or finished, than it was when I first picked up a classical guitar. I leave you with an exquisite performance of Prelude No.1 by Heitor Villa-Lobos, by guitarist Marcin Dylla; it is a piece I once played, with nothing even approaching this degree of mastery, but maybe one day shall attempt to play again. And now I’ll have all that time behind me.

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