Three Keys to Excellence in the Arts

I wrote this article at recently.

There are three main keys to being successful in the Arts. It doesn’t matter if the art you’re interested in is painting, drama, sculpture, music, or dance. The three keys are the same: Skill, Talent, and Attitude.

1. Skill

An ability that is learned through teaching, training, and practice.

Skills are developed when you take piano lessons or dance classes or a pottery class. It is also developed by extensively practising your art over a long period of time — many many many many hours learning scales and arpeggios, working on drum rhythms, and improving your dance techniques.

You don’t need any talent whatsoever to become moderately skilled in the arts. All you need is a willingness to stick with it over the long term. Skilled artists can be useful and desireable. But your art will lack some of that ‘spark’ that comes with innate talent — you’ll always have a degree of limitation.

2. Talent

An natural, innate, God-given aptitude

Talent is that inborn ability in the arts — the natural painter, sculptor, dancer with an instinctive eye for beauty, line, colour, movement, rhythm or pitch. The self-taught artist is one with a great deal of natural talent.

Without natural talent, one is always greatly limited in what one can do artistically. It’s also hard to self-evaluate. Usually you find out you’re talented when trained artists look at your art and say, “You’re got talent!”

Talent is potential. You can develop that talent by working on your skills. Without the skills — training and lots and lots of practice — your talent will always remain a potential rather than a reality.

3. Attitude

The mental framework that drives a person to excel.

Attitude. Where your heart and mind and soul are at. Passion. Drive. With regard to the arts, the attitude I look for is the one that drives you to practise hours on end; to take lessons to improve your skills; to experiment widely to find your talents; to show up to practice early, work your hardest, stay late, and practise constantly at home, whether you are scheduled soon or not. The attitude that recognises the powerful importance of arts in ministry, evangelism, and the church community. The attitude that desires to constantly practise the art you’re skilled at — to play that tambourine all the time, to the best of your ability, just because it’s so cool.

Also, a healthy attitude will be humble. It’s axiomatic that artists have enormous egos. I should know.

I remember being handed a book on how to play bass by the leader of a band I was in. I was furious. I refused to open it for years. How dare he suggest that I needed a basic primer on bass playing? I’d been playing for years. I knew I had talent!

It took me years to realise that he’d only had my best interests at heart. Sure I had talent, but insufficient skill — and my bad attitude kept me in that same place for years, instead of improving.

Two Out of Three Don’t Cut It

If you don’t love your art, why are you doing it? If you have all the talent and skill in the world, but aren’t that interested in it, something’s off.

When it comes to using the arts in an group (a play, a band, a church music team, a dance troupe, etc) leaders look optimally for people with all three keys: talent, skill, and attitude. If there isn’t enough of any of those, it’s probably not a good idea to participate in the group.

If you don’t have enough talent to sing on pitch, play drums with accurate rhythm, or dance gracefully, perhaps a formal group isn’t the right place with you. Of course your art can still be valuable in the congregation or at home — it’s okay to “make a joyful noise to the Lord!”

If you don’t have sufficient skill, but you have some talent and a great attitude, then you have a great opportunity to develop your skills! Take lessons, join a choir or community orchestra, buy a book, whatever it takes to learn the skills required to turn your talents into a valuable skill. Also, regardless of what it sounds like, practice, practice, practice, practice, practice.

If you don’t have a healthy attitude — your ego is too easily bruised, or you don’t want to practise, or you enjoy being seen on stage a little too much — it’s very difficult for an organiser to use you. Egos destroy relationship; lack of practice keeps you handicapped; lack of enthusiasm discourages the whole group and is a bad example to the audience or congregation. While talent and skill are essentials, a good attitude can offset those a lot — and a bad attitude can overrule them entirely.

Christians can access the transforming power of Jesus to change our heart and attitude. He may decline to grant us world-class artistic ability, and won’t supernaturally grant us the equivalent of decades of practice, but he absolutely will change your heart and mind, if you keep asking for it.

Why Practise?

Professional artists practise for hours every day. Semi-professional artists practise for hours every day. If these incredibly talented and highly skilled artists still spend so much time practising, then we amateurs should do our very best to dedicate sufficient time to practice. What’s sufficient? I’d say “hours per week”.

When I don’t play guitar for a week, my callouses get soft. When I don’t sing for a week, my range gets reduced and my breath control suffers. When I’m practising hours a week — not necessarily every day, but at least an hour at a time, multiple times a week — my skills are relatively honed and sharp. It’s maintained, if not improved.

If you don’t (or won’t) practice, you can’t improve. The pre-service practice should NOT be the primary practice time — you should be practising the set at least a week or two ahead of the service. The pre-service practice should be just to make sure everyone understands the mechanics of that week’s service, not to learn the harmonies or a new guitar riff.

The High Calling

If we’re using arts in worship or for evangelism, we are participating in an extremely important ministry. So we are scrutinised, criticised, emulated, and held to a far higher account than if we merely warm a pew. We are ministers — and the word “minister” in the Greek can be translated as “servant” or “errand boy”.

We are here to serve God and his people, humbly, with the abilities he’s given us. We should be entering into our art in fear and trembling, as well as joy. We can help usher people into God’s presence — or block them. We can demonstrate God’s love and mercy and grace and compassion — or not. We have incredible power as ministers of the gospel, and we must never take that lightly.