Talent

When you played with Duane Allman, you either gave it your all or you got out.

Forty-six years ago Duane Allman reached inside me, flicked a switch, and changed my life forever.

—Butch Trucks

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but cannot tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is everyone that is born of the spirit. John 3:8


How did we manage to attach a word to something that isn’t anything?

I don’t know but we do it all the time.

Most people would say, I can’t tell you what talent is, but I know it when I see it, and it’s hard to argue with that.

I never met Butch Trucks, but always had a fantasy of interviewing him. I admired him; his loss was a tragedy beyond expressing. If you visit the Big House Museum in Macon, you can see the set of white Ludwigs he played on the Allman Brothers’ first album. I love that raw, scorching, dreamy record, and since as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the dominant focal point of my listening to music is the rhythm section, drummers especially, I was all over Butch and Jaimoe.

And from that point all of them just kept getting better. Except for Duane, who was already better. He had to be—he was short on time.

I think about that moment, when Butch collided with the superhuman ball of creative energy that was Duane Allman and decided to go into music all the way. And not be a math teacher. Or philosopher or whatever.

The other valves of his attention closed—like stone.

The way I understand it, at age two or three the human brain has twice the synapses it will end up with. We all know how important it is to stimulate our children in productive ways at that age. Repeated use of neural connections strengthens them, while rarely used ones, through “pruning,” get weakened or atrophy away. The human brain demonstrates great “plasticity” especially in the early going, and though genetics lays the basic floor plan, experience builds the house.

I also think of Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour Rule” in his 2008 book Outliers—the assertion that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to get good at something. Critics have crawled all over him since then, and wherever you come down in the nature vs. nurture debate, you have to agree that Tiger Woods was born with the capacity to become a good golfer, but became a good golfer because starting at age two he hit 400 jillion golf balls a day.

And then there’s an entertaining book I used to assign in linguistics classes: The Infinite Gift: How Children Learn and Unlearn the Languages of the World by Charles Yang. His thesis builds on the Chomskyan concept of “universal grammar”—the idea that all language is genetically inherent in the human brain, an ur-grammar containing what all languages have, or could have, in common, and from which specific languages are selected and developed. Kind of hard to prove that, or show how it’s genetic—ie, “hard-wired” into the brain—but it seems reasonable. We all start with something. Yang’s expansion of the concept involves forgetting. Starting in utero we recognize and organize the sounds around us and begin making vowel sounds (as we will make them throughout our lives, by positioning our muscles of ingestion) soon after birth as we fish around for “our” language. We start “babbling” at four months, and continue till death. At about a year we start saying our first words, then begin making sentences. The grammar may be Chinese, or Swahili, or English, or all, but as Mommy says, “no, no, we don’t say ‘goed,’ Susie, we say ‘went.’ Good girl!” we do what she says. Constant reinforcement and reward cause us to stay the course with our native language, and abandon, or “forget,” the rest. We could have developed any or all languages at that formative age, but there is no need. We settle on the one we must learn to survive. Children growing up multi-lingual just speak in one way to some people and in another way to others. Jorge Luis Borges, whose grandmother was English, grew up speaking English and Spanish and reported that he wasn’t aware as a young child that he was speaking different “languages.”

You get good at what you do a lot. And the only thing you’re voluntarily going to do a lot is what you love. So maybe the real unanswerable question is not what is talent—but what is love?