The Talent Myth

Robert recently asked a very insightful question in the forum. Essentially, he wonders what effect talent has on getting work as a musician in the real world.

For our purposes here, let’s define talent as a mix of natural aptitude, exhaustive training and years of practice that, when looked at objectively, distinguishes a musician as an expert. Let’s pretend that talent is a commodity that is easily quantifiable and that some musicians have more and some musicians have less.

(Even though we know that last part is not how this talent thing works. Pretend anyway.)

Do the Best Musicians Get the Best Work?

It’s a very good question. Logic would suggest that the most talented musicians would get the best work. The better you play the more people will want to hire you, right?

The validity of university music programs – especially the ones that focus their curriculum exclusively on performance and completely ignore business, entrepreneurship, or career-building – seems to be predicated on this talent myth. Become the best and you’ll succeed. Why else would you pay $100,000 for a fancy conservatory education?

But we all know the truth. We’ve all seen overwhelming evidence that the most talented musicians do not, necessarily, have the most success as working musicians.

How’s that fair? What’s the deal?

Yes, Talent Does Matter (To a Point)

To a certain point, talent is very important. If a musician doesn’t learn or perform music at a very high level, they will never make it as a professional musician. They will perform poorly at gigs and employers won’t call twice. Eventually it will become clear that this career is not for them and they’ll find another path to follow. It happens all the time.

So who are we left with? The best of the best. A pool of really talented musicians who can play anything you put in front of them.

So yes, to get to this level as a professional musician talent does matter.

An Abundance of Talent

However, it’s at this point that talent becomes such an abundant resource that having a tiny bit more or a tiny bit less of it doesn’t have a pronounced effect on a musician’s career. Put another way – when everyone is talented it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish yourself among the crowd based solely on this marker alone.

Employers may say that they are hiring you because you are the best, but you shouldn’t believe them. At the highest levels of the business, talent is simply not the reason that one musicians gets hired over another.

Distinguishable Traits

Here are some characteristics that employers look for when hiring musicians:

  1. Punctuality – Musicians who miss gigs or consistently show up late don’t get called again. Why would you hire someone you can’t trust when there are plenty of musicians that you can?
  2. Sight-reading – Musicians that sight-read well require less rehearsal time, and less rehearsal time means the employers save money. What is more attractive to an employer than the ability to save time and money while still maintaining the level of quality they require? That sounds awesome. Wouldn’t you want a great sight-reader if you were an employer?
  3. Sociability – Meaning, the ability and willingness to engage in activities and conversation with other people. Would you rather work with someone who’s nice or someone who’s a jerk? Easy question.
  4. Consistency – Professional musicians bring the same energy and accuracy to every performance. Employers value that quality.
  5. Flexibility – Which would you prefer – a musician that complains or resists every time something changes, or someone that rolls with the punches? Another easy question.

There are probably a hundred others. Also check out Cam’s article, 5 Traits of a Professional Musician.

These are the qualities that define a successful musician. These are the qualities that give one professional musician an advantage over another professional musician in the uber-talented, saturated freelance market.

When I meet new musicians looking for work, these are the qualities that I look for, well before I even care to hear them play.

There are two reasons for this: first, I assume that if they are working consistently at a professional level they must be talented, right?

And second, I know that even if they can play circles around other musicians, I won’t want to work with them unless they exhibit these crucial characteristics.

A Real-World Example

Here’s a real world story – I recently started subbing on a Broadway show. For me, this is my 2nd Broadway show.

The people that hired me to play keyboards on this show had never, not once, heard me play a single note before I played an actual, live performance of this Broadway show.

I had worked with them in a non-performance capacity several months ago. We got along great. I liked them, they liked me – and we established trust on the characteristics described above. And now, because I’m already playing on another Broadway show, they assumed I must be talented enough for the job, so they asked me to play.

There is virtually no way to argue that I landed this job based solely on my level of talent – and this is a great example of how the real world works.

To be successful as a working musician it’s first important to establish yourself as part of the pool of talented professionals, then distinguish yourself among the competition with secondary characteristics that are important to your potential employers.

What other characteristics are important for working musicians? Leave a comment below.

And Robert – thanks for reading the site and putting your question the forum! If anyone else would like to give Robert an answer, visit the original post.

Published by

David J. Hahn

David J. Hahn

David J. Hahn (@davidjhahn) is the co-founder of and a former Broadway conductor. He grew up near Chicago, lived in New York City, and settled in California. In 2012, he left the music business to found California Surfcraft, a San Francisco-based start-up that makes high-performance surf gear out of fiberglass-reinforced cork. He is the inventor of the Bodypo®, a sustainable alternative to the traditional bodyboard. He is a cancer survivor, an advocate for unlikely career paths, and, beginning in spring of 2015, a father.

14 thoughts on “The Talent Myth”

  1. Excellent points here, Dave. Music isn’t like a 100 meter race, where the fastest runner always wins. Having a certain amount of talent is a prerequisite for getting any work, but the job goes to the person with the complete package or the right fit for the gig. Playing music is as much a people skill as it is an artistic one.

  2. One thing you didn’t include and may not apply to being in an orchestra pit for a Broadway show but certainly does for any on-stage gig is that musicians are entertainers. Talent takes a back seat to entertainment. Whilst you may be musically talented and play your instrument well, if you don’t engage the audience it’s irrelevant.

  3. I know this sounds quite shallow but I’ve found it to be true if you’re a performer who is on stage being seen:

    Care about how you look!

    When I take the time to do my make up well, get my hair nice and straight and shiny, and wear something kinda hip and cool, I will have better success at getting hired. Let’s face it, even though the inside is important, looks matter and people will and do judge you by it.

    1. “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” – Every boss I’ve ever had

      Regardless of what kind of gigs you’re looking for, the way you present yourself matters to the people that hire you or come to your shows and buy your music. It’s just one way you can stand out amongst all the other musicians that are as talented, or more talented, than you.

  4. I can’t tell you how many bands I have seen get signed based of the amount of views they have on YouTube and not of the quality of the music.

    Music industry peeps want to back the winners I guess, and these kind of stats show there is an interest.

    Often a talent for making adequate music and meeting the right people is enough.

    Who are we to judge talent anyway? ;-)

    – Chris

  5. First of all thank you David for writing such an in depth and ‘real’ blog.

    There are so many ways to become a professional musician. I know that in this article you are referring to acquiring paying work in bands, theatre etc but I think it’s also important to be authentic and make your work happen, especially if you’re not already known on the scene.

    This can mean anything from putting your own project together and getting gigs to playing at a restaurant. Just get out there, don’t be afraid and most important of all, be authentic.

    I’m currently writing a short series of articles on different musicians and their career paths. Honestly, there is an absolute plethora of ways to have your music heard and to make a dime (or two).

    Thanks again for this great blog!


  6. Great post. Also don’t forget the importance of being able to attract lots of people to the concert.
    The best playing means nothing to a concert manager if the hall is going to be empty. That’s why they like big names.
    Many big stars in classical music live on their fame while their playing has gotten mediocre at best over the years. But they still play in packed auditoriums.

  7. All great comments.Let me add one more, networking, networking, networking. Also if you are running a group cold calling potential clients and having a good promo package.

    I knew guys in the Navy who kept asking me, “how do you get all those gigs”? I told them the phone book should be their best friend. Today I would say the web should be your best friend. To many of those guys just thought that some big band was going to call them up to play 2nd alto etc. Also to many of those guys did not know how to converse in standard English. They always talked musician slang.

    Well these were just some other points I thought of.

  8. One thing is for certain here. That is you dam well better have the ‘GOODS’! _________________________________ <) THAT'S THE BOTTOM LINE BABY! SO DO YOUR HOMEWORK!

  9. This post is right on! I know from experience in dealing with amateur musicians wanting to go pro. On our website we discuss the 3 qualifications to become a full time musician. Talent is the #1 qualification and the only one that cannot be taught.

    Musicians need to ‘test’ their talent outside of friends and family several times to see if they WILL have what it takes to become a full-time musician.


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