How to be talented

What musical talent isn’t

Musical talent used to be a mystery, and to many still is. Some people even want to believe that it is God-given. Not a very empowering  view, unless you think prayer will change your lot. And this belief may be simply down to a want of observation.

Indeed the moment – yes, the moment – when a talent is acquired often passes by unnoticed, precisely because it happens in the mind of the learner, unaccompanied by any external manifestation. Even the learner herself might not notice it.

“The idea that is possible to rapidly and unconsciously assimilate conscious patterns of genius and then display them in your own behavior shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s succeeded in surviving infancy” – John Grinder in the video below.

Many talents are not even counted as such. And some talents can obstruct others, or have destructive results. We might say someone has a talent for losing things or breaking hearts. We don’t have to be ironical to mean this. So we have to ask, why call them talents?

Well perhaps we shouldn’t. The word is too loaded.

We admire talented people because their skills produce amazing results. Even the word “skill” has positive associations based on the usefulness of the fruits. By their fruits you shall know them.

Narrowing down the search

In the last half-century with the study of Inner Game and NLP, some useful thinking has been done on the subject. By “useful” I mean stuff that you can actually put to use if you want to acquire a given talent. Basically, it involves breaking a skill down into inner protocols or strategies, using the appropriate channels of perception/cognition.

In the course of breaking down mental processes, we come to realize that the most spectacular effects of talent – the Sistine Chapel, Mozart’s Requiem, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Coltrane’s Expression – are mere by-products, a flowering, a fruiting body. But not its essence. Our observation needs to be result-neutral.

Talents are acquired by a process popularly called “cottoning on”, or assimilation. A talent is something that is often transmitted surreptitiously, by micro-expressions and hints, by-passing any overt instruction being given. You might call it empathy, modelling yourself on that person.

That is to say, often enough, while the instructor demonstrates the outer steps or goals, the performance side, the student manages to fill in the appropriate mental, visual or kinaesthetic steps for herself…

…or gets it wrong and gets stuck in a frustrating sense of inadequacy. The process can seem haphazard.


Nowhere is the mismatch between formal education programs and real (undercover) transmission of talent more gaping than in the teaching of music, with language teaching coming a close second. Just look at the drop-out rate.

Fortunately, research into the way the mind works has come to our rescue. NLP researchers can look at a flute-player’s eye movements and tell if she is using her visual, auditory or kinaesthetic channel. Eye direction can tell whether she is accessing a memory of the score, visualising the instrument’s key layout, harking back to or imagining a sound quality, or mentally preparing a complicated third-octave fingering.

She may be trying to patch together deficient strategies to cover the gaps in her technique. She may change horses midstream depending on the passage she is playing. This might be a source of glitches that only a trained eye can observe and correct.

These are the truly great teachers who teach one-on-one and can tell you what you are doing wrong and how to do it right. At great expense, of course.

Modelling excellence

Those of us without the time and money or access to private lessons need to break down what they are doing for themselves. The process is one of modelling the inner strategies that someone else is using in order to perceive, prioritize and manipulate so called submodalities.

In the video below, NLP founder John Grinder tells you to first find your genius. He explains that genius is something you don’t have to look far to find, something that everybody has in restricted spheres of action, or contexts.

The three steps to model excellence, which you can read about here, are,

  • observe the model
  • find the difference that makes the difference (then strip away the superfluous)
  • design a method to teach the skill

What MOVES does (and doesn’t do)

The MOVES method is the slow-maturing fruit of many years of personal observation of great improvisers, and particularly my very first mentor in improvisation, Dudu Pukwana. You can get an idea of the sheer force of his playing here (he takes the alto sax solo).

If I had to sum up Dudu’s “difference that makes a difference” in 3-5 words, I would say it was his determination to “cut out the jive” (to use his expression to cover everything that you think you need to stuff your head with). It was intimately connected with his amazing charisma.

MOVES notation is purposely non-visual. You don’t see notes going up and down on a line grid. MOVES is too cumbersome to notate whole tunes. Its job is simply to generate and notate ideas and building blocks to train your intervallic awareness and melodic reflexes. It makes you concentrate on the auditory side, regardless of tonality and written forms.

Goal-wise it doesn’t teach you to play or memorize pieces.

Its aim is just to enable you to improvise guided by what you hear in your head: to play like singing in the shower. By notating intervals instead of notes, it describes the inner dynamic of melody and shuts out the distracting noise of learned structures: scales, arpeggios, right and wrong notes. All the “jive”.

Hope it works for you.

About jazzpanflute

jazz panpipe pioneer and designer
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