Growth and the Balance of Skill vs. Taste

How do great writers, great musicians, great artists become great? Let me suggest, from observation and personal experience, that for talent to bloom there must exist a delicate balance between skill and taste. Specifically, development of good taste must not advance faster than the skill of the artist.

We’ve all met the promising writer, the nineteen year old (or twenty nine year-old!) who writes prolifically and with imagination, but whose taste is evolved beyond her years. She is discouraged by her own work because she has the critical ability to compare her own work to that of her literary-superstar idols. In discouragement, she often stops writing, though she should continue.

Then there’s the opposite problem… one a little closer to home for me! The guitarist who has pretty good skill for a self-taught kid but whose taste never matures beyond heavy metal (or rackabilly, or whatever crap with which he grew up). He usually continues playing, though he should stop… or better yet, mature.

The optimal scenario balances these two forces, and has a young, promising talent whose artistic taste lies always just over the horizon of his or her ability. His taste in music must be such that, as he rocks out to the bar chords of Iron Man or Smoke on the Water, he must be capable of thinking to himself “man, I sound good!” Until he wakes up 12 months later to realize that Pink Floyd is the bomb, and that he must learn to play like David Gilmour before he can get back to that “man, I sound good!” that felt so wonderful. If his taste never quite evolves from there, he becomes static, not to mention annoying.

On the other hand, if a kid starts-out loving Django, he’ll be so discouraged at his slow progress that he’ll likely drop the instrument. It’s no accident that kids start really taking to their instruments between the ages of 13 and 17… it’s right in the sweet spot of poor taste (or rather, lower standards), emerging manual dexterity, and brain circuitry capable of quickly climbing steep learning curves.

Everything always seems to comes down to a question of balance.

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