Discourses of Talent in American Music History, Pedagogy, and Popular Culture
Lindsay Wright

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



University of Chicago

Primary Discipline

The concept of talent saturates discourses around aspiring artists, academics, athletes, and others: those identified as talented often receive unique privileges intended to cultivate their potential. Although scholars and educators affirm that musical, intellectual, or physical gifts are distributed amongst the American population, they “discover” these gifts disproportionately in students with certain racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic privileges. Rather than address such inequalities by returning to well-worn questions of “nature” or “nurture,” this dissertation interrogates talent itself as a historically and culturally constructed concept.The case of music provides a rich and unexplored opportunity to understand how different conceptions of talent shape educational encounters. To this end, my project approaches musical talent as a floating signifier with a range of meanings that depend upon the discursive context and the speaker’s agenda. Using historical and ethnographic methods, I argue that certain understandings of talent perpetuate unequal access to power by naturalizing a set of musical skills acquired through other means. The dissertation begins with a conceptual history, contextualizing different genealogies and mythologies of musical talent. The subsequent chapters present case studies on (1) receptions of the nineteenth-century pianist Blind Tom, (2) discourses of talent on contemporary reality shows like The Voice and America’s Got Talent, and (3) contrasting philosophies about talent in two music teaching methods by Shinichi Suzuki and Mark O’Connor. Ultimately, this project will enable music scholars and educators to historicize and expand their understanding of how ideologies of talent operate, allowing them to better assess and address each student’s needs.
About Lindsay Wright
Lindsay Wright is a doctoral candidate in musicology at the University of Chicago. Her historical and ethnographic research focuses on conceptions of exceptionalism in American music education and culture, critical pedagogy and critical race theory, and the role of the arts in education systems more broadly. These interests grew out of her years of experience as an educator: she has served as a classroom instrumental music teacher for the School District of Philadelphia, a private and group violin instructor, and the conductor of a youth orchestra on the South Side of Chicago, where she also founded a music school to provide increased access to high-quality music instruction. Lindsay holds Bachelor degrees in African American studies and music from Wesleyan University and a Master’s degree in Multicultural Education from Eastern University.

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