The Ignition of Talent 2: Practical Ramifications

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So, having considered some of the central elements of people’s stories of how they came to be dedicated to their thing to the point of monomania, it’s time to think about what implications these elements have for us in our roles as teachers and/or choir leaders. There’s no thrill like it for an educator to spark someone into brilliance (both for us and for them), so what can we do maximise our chances?

First, we need to recognise that a lot of it is out of our hands. We can’t force it to happen, since it is essentially about the learner’s decision identify with the activity. Moreover, since there are a limited number of things at which you can be obsessively brilliant at once, it’s clear that not everyone is going to pick my thing to obsess about. That’s fine. That clarifies our job as being (a) to enable cheerful competence for those who are ignited by something else and (b) to be ready to meet the needs of those who fall in love with our thing.

Next, we need to note that if we’re not lit up by our thing, nobody else will be either. Ignition is a process of aspirational identification. Someone sees somebody doing something really well and thinks: ‘Wow, that looks such fun! I want to be good at that!’ So, if we want our protégés’ skills to take off, we need to hold ourselves to the highest standards. If we can bear to do a shoddy or even merely adequate job of it, we’re not going to inspire anyone.

Most importantly, we need to avoid damping people’s passions down. For the people who are lit up by something else, we don’t present too much of an immediate danger. But for someone who is ready and primed for ignition, or who arrives with a passion already well developed, their very openness makes them vulnerable. The thing is, we probably won’t recognise either the opportunity or the danger until it’s too late; we don’t know in advance who is just along for a nice stroll and who is preparing to fly.

So, we need to understand what kind of behaviour alienates people, and learn to avoid it. Examples from my friends’ lives include:

  • Direct criticism of their attempts at something (the ‘please mime in the concert’ approach).
  • Criticism of something which they have professed to like. Jonathan’s violin teacher was very dismissive of brass bands when Jonathan said he might join one; that was the end of violin lessons and the start of a very happy time with the euphonium.
  • Inadvertent criticism of something someone identifies with or holds dear. That is, being rude about something because you assume everyone in the room shares your disdain, when in fact some will take it as a personal criticism.
  • Behaviours that implicitly exclude a newcomer: particularly in-jokes and nobody talking to them.
  • Just being very different in one or more demographic dimensions (too young, too old, too common, too posh, too trendy, too fuddy-duddy).

Of these, only the last one is not directly within our control. (I used to be too young, but that has self-corrected over time.) Most of the others can be avoided by a simple policy of not being so damned judgemental. I was about to have a nice little rant at the way British people can be so bloody snooty with our snobbery and our inverse snobbery and what have you, then I remembered that American classical musicians are just as snooty about barbershoppers, who are just as snooty about rap. So we all just need to relax and be a bit less up ourselves, okay?

Be nice, be open, don’t assume. It’s not just manners at stake (not to belittle their value) – our goal is not to be the force of anti-ignition that frightens potential talent away.

"What implications are there for us in our roles as teachers and choir leaders"

1. It's ONLY singing. Get a perspective. Just because WE are obsessed by it, doesn't mean everyone else is.

2. Don't get upset if choir members don't take it as seriously as you do. They have a life outside singing too!

3. Everybody lies (pace Dr. House). If someone says they live for singing and your choir is the most important thing in their lives and they don't know what they'd do without it - don't get upset if they don't turn up next term and you never see them again.

4. A healthy interest in other things is a good thing. Generalists sometimes have a better perspective than specialists. You'd be surprised how non-music-related activities impinge on music-making.

5. It's OK NOT to be a monomaniac. You don't HAVE to have put 10,000 hours in to be an 'OK' teacher or choir leader. Don't beat yourself up too much.

And I'm sure there are more!! Great post Liz.

From the Front of the Choir

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