If I’m so talented …

I get this kind of mail alot (from Gerry, in this case):

Avery, if you’re so talented, why don’t you go play in a group? If you were that great, you would still be playing, n’est-ce pas?

Well, ok. I don’t get a lot of French interrogatives, but the gist of this is a pretty common complaint from a certain kind of reader whom I hack off with something I’ve said. I usually don’t bother responding to this “comeback” because it’s a self-evidently lame attempt to discredit the person making an argument rather than engaging ideas. But for the record: as a matter of fact, I wasn’t all that talented as a keyboard player. I had a lot of natural or God-given ability, whatever you prefer to call it, that went uncultivated in any formal way until I was so reliant on bad habits and lazy methods that remediation was not exactly hopeless, but close to it.

That said, my talent really has nothing to do with why I don’t play professionally. As a teenager and young adult, I had great teachers who poured a good deal of time and energy into me, and I’m grateful to them. Had I stuck with it, I doubtless would have tried to play professionally and, I think, been modestly successful. But a career in gospel music wasn’t in the cards for me mainly because I didn’t want it. I played long enough to learn that I love gospel music but don’t really care for the life of a gospel musician and certainly don’t have what it takes - emotionally, psychologically, maybe even physically - to put myself on stage night after night. The vulnerability, the theatricality, the rigors of showmanship, the demand to make the same material new each time - for some people this is heaven on earth. For me, it was often enjoyable and regularly deeply satisfying. I would do what I did in gospel music as a performer all over again and I’m grateful to the people who helped make my time as a player possible. But ultimately it was all too exhausting and unrewarding to build a life around.

Does that disqualify me from talking about gospel music? I don’t think so, but more to the point, I don’t really care. I’m not sure where this idea comes from that one must earn one’s own thoughts. For my part, I tend to pay attention to the person who demonstrates she can listen carefully, think clearly, and write interestingly, even (or especially) if I disagree with what’s being said. Certainly playing professionally adds authority to thoughts on gospel music in some cases. But just as often, the professional’s proximity to what he or she does creates blind spots and conflicts that impede full insight and thorough discussion. There are plenty of horse’s mouths to hear from if that’s what you want (and yes, I can imagine what part of the horse’s anatomy many people have in mind for me), but frankly I find the official line from the professional class often unhelpful in its studiously crafted opacity or its incurious thoughtlessness. Thus, Gerry, do I toil on in my own talentless, unprofessional, inexperienced way.

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  1. MM wrote:

    My thought, both in reading the original post and now this article, was, “Why not discuss the matter presented instead of hurling insults trying to be-little someone for making a point.” Completely off subject, but this is the attitude of most “Christians” today. Instead of talking about issues, concerns, comments, or suggestions, we would rather attack one another. When will we come down from the exhalted place we put ourselves and realize that there is importance in being able to discuss matter civilly. I have always found this blog to be informative and entertaining. Although I do not always agree with everything that is written, i understand that it is my choice to read and comment, or not to. Slinging condescending retorts is immature and completely unnecessary in this kind of discussion.

  2. shanjenkins wrote:

    You are right, Avery. We all deserve our opinions. Whether we are professional artists or not, most of us reading this are all consumers and listeners of SG. That alone entitles me to my opinion of things.

  3. Al wrote:

    Here’s an analogy for you. Some of the greatest sports coaches and managers were journeymen players, not stars. Even if their own level of ability didn’t make them superstars, they had that certain something that allowed them to see the big picture, which defined them as great managers. The same is true here. One can accurately write, and express opinions, even having not necessarily been on the front lines. If this weren’t so, very few political pundits would earn a living. As for the NNS, it can actually be fairly sophisticated. Anyone who doubts the validity of that hasn’t taken the time to learn it. It is truly just another way of stating the same thing as traditional notes do, but has the added benefit of being easier to change or modify on the fly than written scales and notes. Many recording sessions begin with the arranger’s sheet music, and end up being played off of legal pads that look like ancient hieroglyphics once the basic arrangement is run through a few times. Some of the great session players of all time were far more adept at reading the NNS than they were traditional music, and I don’t say that to denigrate the need to learn traditional sheet music and theory. Whenever I listen to his albums now, I still think Chet Atkins wasn’t exactly a slouch! Nor was Hargus “Pig” Robbins, and any number of amazingly talented musicians that used the NNS.

  4. Christy wrote:

    I believe Jerry meant that you are very quick to criticize everyone in SG in a holier-than-thou, condescending way. Your response to this post shows that you can critique everybody else but you don’t like it when the shoe is on the other foot. Anyhow…

    You talk about lazy pianists - you’re right, there are many. There are many more who, like you mentioned, have had so many blue-hairs come up to them and compliment them to death that it starts to go to their head and they become a tad divo-ish (I say divo because they are 99% men). I agree with you. And that goes for singers as well! Many believe that they are the next best thing to come along but they simply are not. But please don’t paint everyone in SG with the same brush. Many of SG’s pianists (a dying breed) are so very talented, but they can’t showcase their diverse playing styles within the strict confines of ’southern gospel’. All they need to do is throw in a jazz lick and people in the audience are scratching their heads saying, ‘that’s not the way that song is supposed to go’.

    You can’t learn to play by ear. You CAN practice and become a better player, and I think that everyone in SG has that duty to their audience to do just that. But you cannot ‘improve’ on a talent that God gave.

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