In this pioneering 1994 article, Ricardo Iznaola puts forth a manifesto defining his fundamental belief in a compassionate and non-judgmental musical pedagogy based on the debunking of 'the myth of innate talent', a view shared by many modern cognitive and neuro-psychologists.  


Ricardo Iznaola

The Myth of Innate Talent

Traditional musical pedagogy is still tainted by the conventional wisdom which teaches us that musical talent is an innate 'gift' with which a few privileged people are blessed, and that its presence or absence is not necessarily related to a vocational calling, which may exist in the 'untalented' individual.

This deleterious viewpoint shuts the door to the riches of musical training to untold numbers of people who never give themselves a chance to pursue their musical dreams, in the belief that they were born without a talent for music.

The belief in 'innate talent' is also a convenient expedient to excuse pedagogical failure; indeed, how can we blame a method or a teacher for the difficulties encountered by this or that 'not very talented' individual, poor soul, full of desire and enthusiasm but 'not gifted'?

This pedagogy of predestination has to be counteracted energetically and without compromise. Traditional musical pedagogy must follow the lead of the great early childhood training methods (like those of Orff or Suzuki) and ground itself on the premise that everyone who shows a strong desire to 'do' music has a talent for it. This is the only truly disinterested pedagogical posture because it places the burden of responsibility where it properly belongs - with the teacher, instead of the learner.

We, as pedagogues, must come to believe in talent as a function of method.

The Adult Beginner

The success of early childhood musical pedagogies lies in their assumption of a universal musical capacity in children not dissimilar to that which allows them to learn their mother tongue by rote, through imitation, playfulness, trial and error, etc. This success gives credence to modern 'generative' theories of music which assume similar mental structures for music as Chomskian linguistics speculate may exist for language.

Be that as it may, these pedagogies deal with a stage in the development of human beings when the spiritual 'slate' is cleaner, less burdened, than in older individuals, who carry a heavier emotional and intellectual load. Our main interest, pedagogically, lies with the musical training of the latter.

Post-adolescent musical pedagogy is notoriously deficient in handling the challenge presented by the 'passionate adult beginner': what to do for those students intensely in love with music but possessing little or no training, who usually bring with them deeply ingrained convictions about their lack of talent, their being too old, too physically badly coordinated, their lack of aural ability and other such negative self-concepts. Where to begin? What goals can we realistically expect to achieve? How far can they go?

There is no denying that the passing of time does have a deteriorating effect on the human body, with joints becoming more stiff, reflexes slower, stamina and endurance lessened. These effects of ageing, however, are not strong enough to produce noticeable malfunctions usually until well past middle age and are practically irrelevant in most normal adults until the sixth or seventh decade of life. Even more, some radical medical thinkers are now disputing the unavoidability of old age's dereliction and are beginning to offer alternative viewpoints of far-reaching implications.

 Of even less consequence is the effect of age on mental/spiritual capacities, except in cases which are pathological in nature. We can keep fully functional intellectual and emotional capabilities for most of our life.

We must then conclude that much more important than the obstacles imposed on us by physiology or the passing of time are those created by our psyche, by our self-concept, by our relationship with authority figures, etc. In short, by the world surrounding us, and our interpretations of it.

The sad fact is that, in most cases, the students of whom we speak will never experience the full realization of their true potential because their real needs will never be addressed or even recognized. Their own self-concepts (and our implicit assumptions as their teachers), will deny them that right. The negative expectations about their lack of success will become self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating and, in our faculty lounges, we will look at each other with a knowing wink as if saying, 'See? I told you so.'

For those of us involved in academia, this scenario is a familiar one (and who, among us, can claim innocence?): the distinguished master, talking about his 'star pupil', with glittering eyes, hushed enthusiasm in the voice, pride in the accomplishment of the pedagogical mission...or talking about 'that other student', eyebrows raised in disgusted surprise, a sneer, and a dismissive shrug.

How commonplace and how terribly unfair! Surely 'that other student' is more a victim of who knows what complex circumstances than of a cruel fate that has deprived this pupil of 'talent'. If only the illustrious and no doubt well-intentioned master would take the time to educate ('bring out') rather than instruct ('pile upon'). If only the teacher could empathize rather than criticize and could become an ally instead of a judge...

Seen in this light it becomes evident that a primordial pedagogical responsibility remains in the discovery or, more precisely, uncovering of hidden talent. For diverse reasons, many people have their talents buried under layers and layers of emotional debris. These are the people we consider 'untalented' (as they themselves do). The 'talented' are those who have managed to maintain unimpeded access to their talent: those souls who are relatively free from the burdens that scourge the human spirit.

Pedagogy as Conspiratorial Alliance

Pedagogy should be passionately committed to helping the 'untalented' (the burdened) become talented (unburdened). What the 'untalented' need is a pedagogical stand of trust and faith. They need a teacher who believes in them with a passion equivalent to that shown by students in their dedication to the art.

The eminent American psychologist, Nathaniel Branden (1930 - 2014), who devoted most of his professional life to pioneering investigations on the nature and role of self-esteem in people's lives, writes:
“What a great teacher, a great parent, a great psychotherapist, and a great coach have in common is a deep belief in the potential of the person with whom they are concerned - a conviction about what the person is capable of being and doing - plus the ability to transmit the conviction during their interactions.”

Dr. Branden continues:

“Sometimes it can be difficult to go on believing in another person when that person seems not to believe in himself or herself. Yet one of the greatest gifts a teacher can offer a student is the refusal to accept the student's poor self-concept at face value, seeing through it to the deeper, stronger, self that exists within if only as a potential.” (Nathaniel Branden: The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, Bantam Books, New York, 1994, pp. 210-211.)

The teacher must be passionate in this belief in the student. The more difficult the case, the more impassioned the belief.

We must bear in mind that chronological age does not in the least affect this circumstance. Older students need this support as much as children. Pedagogy ('guide for the young') refers to 'youth' in terms of expertise, not age. An inexperienced beginner, no matter of what age, is always 'young' and has the same psychological needs in the particular areas of 'youthful inexperience' as children.

This attitude of utter confidence in the student's eventual success will be one of the two factors necessary to create a teacher/student alliance capable of 'beating the odds'. The other is the student's own passion for the art. Without evident signs of it, the problem compounds. This being a different, though related, topic requiring independent exploration, we will leave it untouched except by saying that, as in the case of 'hidden talent', glimpsed only though the manifestations of vocational calling or passion for the discipline, there is such a thing as 'hidden passion', repressed, suppressed or depressed, much harder to identify and bring out. This situation presents an incomparably more difficult psycho-pedagogical problem.

But given the existence of such passion on the part of the student, teacher and pupil then become conspirators against those forces hindering the blossoming of the student's potentialities.

'Conspirators' etymologically means nothing more than 'mutually inspiring', a fairly exact
description of the ideal teacher/student interaction. My teaching will inspire you to levels of achievement that will inspire me to surpassing levels of inspired teaching, and so on per aeternum.

Hence this alliance, this conspiracy, is subversive. It has to do with the attainment of freedom from the repressive powers of fear, guilt, and pain: fear caused by power -wielding authority, guilt caused by impossibly prescriptive duties, pain caused by fruitless, frustrated effort.

Grounded in an initial act of faith in the student prompted by the latter's enthusiasm, this passionate (and compassionate) pedagogy has as its primary procedural goal, the intellectual, emotional and physical freeing of the student. It focuses on unimpeded freedom of action for the student's mind, soul and body: unbridled mind-doing (thought), soul-doing (emotion) and body-doing (movement). And it has as its final goal the integration of these three 'doings' in the process of preparation for 'the public moment', the successful completion of a performing act through which the student transcends the realm of the petty and enters into the realm of the sublime. (I am indebted to Angel Vigil, former Chair of Fine Arts at the Colorado Academy, Denver, USA, for identifying and describing this concept.)

Conclusion: Towards a Compassionate Pedagogy of Liberation

'Sharing in your passion’: the word compassion says it, referring to the two meanings of passion, as suffering and as the ultimate emotional attachment to something. This is what is required; my sharing in your suffering but also in your love and commitment to the art. By helping you unburden your spirit of the former we will enhance and make more powerful the latter.

This unburdening process is essentially a therapeutic one but this form of pedagogy requires a descriptive/remedial rather than a diagnostic/prescriptive approach. The process starts and ends with the student and both method and teacher continuously adapt to his or her needs.

In particular this pedagogy avoids:

- the overbearing authority of historical traditions, which may easily lead to dogma and rigidity. This is the greatest enemy of intellectual freedom.

- critical statements which express, explicitly or implicitly, moralising value judgements. This is the greatest enemy of emotional freedom.

- standardised or formulaic procedural approaches to technique which constrain the playing mechanism by their narrow and unimaginative perspectives on the issues of technical control and security. This is the greatest enemy of physical freedom.

Instead this pedagogy searches for:

- tangible evidence demonstrating the existence of connecting, integrative principles whose applicability is based on contextual interpretation rather than pseudo-apodictic certainty.

- ways to stimulate the student's discovery and identification of problem areas that are viewed as opportunities for learning and progress rather than as reasons for condemnation or derision.
- the fitting application of functional movement, and its related sensory feed-back, to each individual circumstance presented by the ever-changing technical procedures contained in the work under study.

This pedagogy forewarns of the danger of sacrificing the realities of each student's circumstances to the 'truths' of the method. It abhors the exploitation of students' successes as proofs or validations of the approach; it rejects the dictum, 'no pain, no gain', as the remnant of anachronistic Puritan values that wrongly demand self-denial and suffering as evidence of a solid work ethic; it re-interprets 'work' and 'profession' to mean a committed dedication to a way of living through and in our art, rather than as a way of making a living with our art.

But fundamentally it is based on the radical conviction of the presence of so-called talent in each and every individual that shows passion for the art.

No matter how far from view, how hidden, how obscured talent might be, it is there, claiming to be liberated.

And we, teachers of the Art, are ultimately accountable for breaking its bondage.

©1994 Ricardo Iznaola 
Aurora, Colorado 
27 April, 1994