The One Compliment You Shouldn’t Give an Artist

My hubby and I often joke about the plethora of articles and tidbits on social media that swamp us with the feeling we’re doing EVERYTHING wrong. You know, “Slicing Avocados – You’re Doing it Wrong”. And so, after a recent performance, when I shared with him that yet another well-meaning individual had said to me, “You’re so talented!”, we laughed and said that I should write a blog post entitled, “Post-concert Compliments! You’re Doing it Wrong”.

Now, if you HAVE been doing it wrong (post-concert compliments, I mean. I can help you with that avocado thing too, but another time), please don’t fret. We’re not insulted. We know you mean well. And we know it’s your way of saying how much you enjoyed the performance. But the problem with “You’re so talented!” is that it points to a bigger issue with how our society views artistic endeavors and musicians.

“You’re so talented” implies that we exited the womb, perhaps with a Stradivarius in hand, knowing EXACTLY how to play the Prokofiev Sonata. It negates all our educational experiences and efforts, and that in turn affects how school administrators value and give (or do not give) access to arts education. There are far too many people out there who believe that artistic people will do artistic things no matter what their educational and life experiences expose them to.

This is a falsehood.

Just yesterday, I was completing a crossword puzzle, and the clue was, “A 9 letter word for ‘talent'”. The answer was potential.

And as anyone who has studied basic Newtonian physics will tell you, potential energy does nothing, sitting there by itself. An outside force must act upen the object to release that potential.

This outside force, in terms of artistic development, may come in the form of a family member who sings to an infant, music experienced at church or civic events, and (hopefully) eventually, in elementary school music. And hopefully, if a student is inclined to music, they will enjoy their elementary music school curriculum enough to sign up for band, chorus, orchestra, drama, or art class. And it is there, in these classes and the experiences they offer, that those fundamental skills are developed.

I don’t know a single professional musician today who says, “I’ve always done this and I don’t remember when I started.” If you talk to us; if you read the biographies of the famous among us, you will find there is almost always a formative experience. “I joined the town fife group.” “I started playing trumpet in band because we had one in the attic.” “My parents were involved in community theatre and I used to watch rehearsals from backstage where I was supposed to be doing my homework.”

And then there is the grit. The blood, sweat, and tears. I recently had a student decide, after much reflection and conversation, to not major in music. His reason? “I just don’t think I’d enjoy my life spending all those hours in a practice room.”

His reasoning is completely valid. You have to want to do it. And yes, you have to be wired for it. And I mean neurologically wired. What sounded like torture to my student was the dream of a lifetime for me when I was his age. “A college experience where I’ll be expected to practice at least three hours a day?!!! Bring it on!” But being wired for it and doing it are different things. Those were long hours in sometimes dank, smelly, graffitied practice rooms. And the rehearsals. And yes, the coursework – music theory, music literature, ear-training. And many music students must take traditional academic courses on top of this to satisfy state requirements.

And it’s not as though the practicing is done when a musician leaves school. We continue to practice to maintain and further our skills, and of course we have to practice our current repertoire. And then there’s the competitiveness of the field itself, and all the self-marketing most of us must do.

And so, it’s not that you’re speaking an untruth when you tell a musician they are talented. Respectfully, it’s that you’re missing the point entirely. They probably are wired to bring you the concert you just enjoyed. But they also worked very hard to be able to do it.

Instead, tell them about a specific piece you enjoyed, or some particular aspect of their playing or singing or acting or painting or sculpting. Or, if you’re at a loss for words, just say, “I really enjoyed your performance.” Acknowledge the hard work involved in putting a performance together.

But please, whatever you do, don’t say anything that implies the talent fairy simply swooped down and sprinkled talent dust on their head while they were sleeping. That “talented person” was developed, not born.


About fluteromano

An active freelancer, private teacher, and university professor settles down to raise a few kids in a small town. For my professional bio, please see my studio website:

One response to “The One Compliment You Shouldn’t Give an Artist

  1. I love this, Charlene! Thank you for sharing these thoughts.

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