Characteristics of Gifted Children Being “in love” with music Caee Assignment
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Characteristics of Gifted Children Being “in love” with music Caee Assignment
Musical giftedness is a mys- tical thing. I have not yet heard an adequate expla- nation about how it hap-
pens,” mused Jeremy Woolhouse, a Melbourne, Australia, jazz piano teacher and performer. He described one of his students, a 12-year-old boy, who has “incredible musicality” and learns extremely quickly. Sometimes this seemed to occur with little or no prac- tice and with a conscious decision from his family, not to “push” for practice.
Children who show exceptional musical skills usually learn quickly and are motivated to play. They are drawn to listen to music, often relish per- forming and may also compose. Did they “draw the long straw” by being born talented or have they learned to be that way? What conditions should there be for a talented child to reach his or her full potential?
Different terminology exists to describe gifted children, and the terms “gifted,” “prodigy” and “talented” come with inherent assumptions about how they got that way. Some academ- ics do not believe there is such a thing as an innately talented child. “Potential for musical ability” may be a better word to describe a child who, to oth- ers, may be a child prodigy. For my purposes I’ll use the terms interchange- ably, but will present the case for both sides of the gifted coin.
Child Prodigies Johann Sebastian Bach famously
played down any “natural talent” when
he said, “I was obliged to work hard. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed just as well.” Others disagree with his assessment.
David Henry Feldman, writer of Nature’s Gambit, a book that studies the development of human prodigies, cites many instances of talented chil- dren who showed an intense interest in their special field from an extremely young age. One of the subjects of Feldman’s studies was Nils Kirkendahl (not his real name) who showed an interest in music before age 3 and was spellbound by hearing Tchaikovsky recordings before his third birthday. By his fourth birthday, he seemed to have an intuitive understanding of the music, one which was strikingly differ- ent from the other children in his Suzuki class.1
I spoke to some adults who were gifted as children, to understand more about their experiences. Kim, a violin- ist from West Chester, Pennsylvania, said, “I loved anything and everything violin. I loved listening to any style of
Judy Judge is a Melbourne, Australia, based writer with a spe- cial interest in music. She sings with a number of community vocal groups and enjoys performing to anyone who’ll listen! She would have loved to have been a child prodigy, but, sadly, wasn’t.
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Born Genius? By Judy Judge
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AMERICAN MUSIC TEACHER 15
it, classical or fiddle, and I liked to per- form for my family and friends.” Kim began playing at 4, had a first solo at a concert at 7, joined the “Select Strings” group at 9 and was first chair in the school orchestra at 11.
David Helfgott, the subject of the film Shine is one of Australia’s most well-known child prodigies. He was not so dramatically attuned to music at a young age though, says his sister, Margaret in her book Out of tune. For the first few years of music lessons, he was completely incapable of distin- guishing one note from another. But by age 8, he showed a dramatic and excep- tional change in ability where every- thing fell into place. From then on he had an absolute passion for the piano, never needing to be told to practice and rushing home from school to play. Helfgott says her brother was “com- pletely in love with the piano from the minute he could touch the keys. He was both entranced and seduced by the sounds it could produce.”2
Characteristics Of Gifted Children Being “in love” with music is com-
mon in talented children. Hypersensitivity to sound is another indication of a child prodigy-in- progress. Mozart was physically ill if exposed to loud sounds, sometimes described as having “sensitive ears.” Yehudi Menuhin, at age 4, broke his toy violin because it would not “sing.” This may have been an indication of an early intense interest in musical and environmental sounds, and a sophisti- cated sense of “goodness” of timbre and tone, common in talented children.
Menuhin’s father also seems to have believed in the mystical quality of his son’s ability, remarking that he was a normal little boy who liked to swim, hike and eat ice cream. “But when he picks up his violin he becomes a stranger to us––there is something uncanny about him,” Menuhin’s father said.3
The characteristics common to chil- dren who show “natural potential to achieve” described by Gary McPherson and Aaron Williamon4 include intellec- tual skills that allow for fluid reasoning
and abstract thinking to develop and the ability to think divergently, use inventiveness, imagination and origi- nality. Children must have a certain socio-affective perceptiveness, with skills including tactfulness, leadership abilities and use of persuasion. Also present should be well-developed sen- sory skills: visual, auditory, smell and touch. Motor skills including strength, endurance, good reflexes and coordina- tion will be highly developed.
Sensitivity to the structure (tonality) of music, key, harmony and rhythm and the ability to hear the expressive qualities of music is another core ability in children with musical talent.5 This allows them to remember, play back, transpose, improvise and create music. Mozart began composing at age 5.
Other skills may be the ability to sing back heard songs earlier than other children––perhaps even before they talk. Normally this occurs at about 2 years. Some children can match pitches by their second year and often after one listening.
Rose, from Ypsilanti, Michigan, was considered a child vocal prodigy in her early years. She said, “I was singing (and on key) as soon as I could talk, which was sometime around 1 year of age. My mother told me that once, when she was sitting at a lunch count- er with me as an infant, some classical music came over the radio speakers and I started to cry. The person next to her said ‘that’s a sign that your child will be a musician.’”
Nature Or Nurture? Are these skills inborn or learned?
Giftedness certainly requires some phys- ical innate skill, such as “having a good ear,” and the ability to physically play a certain instrument, for example having a good-sized hand span, good physical coordination or even hypersensitivity to music from a young age. Certain condi- tions must still prevail if this child’s musical skill is to be developed.
Human beings are born with the potential to be “musical,” argues John Sloboda, director of the unit for the study of musical skill and development,
Keele University, United Kingdom, in his 2005 book Exploring the Musical Mind.6 He says that evidence for inher- itance of differences in specific intellec- tual and mental characteristics is very hard to find. No specific gene has been found that indicates high IQ. He believes orientation towards sound is likely to be a universal and natural fea- ture of all human beings and that posi- tive musical experiences influence how children develop musically.
In a detailed study on the motiva- tional factors affecting musical learn- ing, it was found that children can have motivational orientation or “resis- tance to failure.” Some will use failure as a motivation to do better (mastery orientation) and some use it to stop them making an effort (helpless orien- tation).7
What else influences musical talent?
Cultural Values Cultural values and beliefs where
music is valued must prevail. Kim said, “My dad was my rock in terms of understanding and explaining musical theory and practice.” Coming from a very musical family, as Kim did, is also a common background of gifted chil- dren. Rose described her support sys- tem as the most important influence in developing her talent, despite lack of immediate family support, due in part to the early death of her father. “People in the music world took me under their wing and kept me from damaging my voice.” Her school music teacher mentored and guided her and, later, Anatol Rapoport taught her for free.
Parents And Teachers Parents who emphasize intrinsic val-
ues such as appreciation and aesthetic enrichment provide the ideal circum- stances for talent to develop. A study by Yun Dai and Shrader found children whose parents expressed “extrinsic orien- tation” by emphasizing outside achieve- ments rather than internal ones, pushed their children to practice for the “wrong” reasons and may have caused a loss of effort and concentration. Successful childrens’ parents emphasized
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holistic development, self-discipline, diligence and academic achievement.8
Kim said, “My main concern is the competitive aspect of activities that should be fun…sometimes there is too much pressure to be the best…the hobby that once was fun for the child has now become more of a chore and a goal…. But not always a fun goal.”
The choice of a music teacher who suits the particular child’s learning style, may also contribute toward suc- cess. Music teacher, Jeremy Woolhouse believes he is suited to teach the rebel- lious child who may not fit the mold of traditional learning styles and may be looking for something a bit “out there” in a music teacher. The personal warmth of a child’s music teacher is also vital during the initial stages of music teaching.
There is also a need to showcase achievements through performances.
Practice High-level practice is usually
required. Suggestions exist that 10,000 hours of practice, in violin, is needed before a professional career can be undertaken.
Personality Some children are more motivated
to learn and seek appropriate tasks to help this. Their volition, that is, will- ingness, concentration, persistence, distractibility, reaction to obstacles, boredom and reaction to failure can all affect music learning. A child’s own self-management is important, includ- ing his ability to focus efforts on a spe- cific task for hours or days on end, monitoring and controlling learning, sustaining efforts, even when tired and ability to plan.
Children who show potential for musical development may show per- sonal traits such as over-excitability in psychomotor, emotional, intellectual, sensual, imaginational and emotional areas. Expanded awareness, intensified emotions or increased levels of intellec- tual or physical activity may be exhib- ited. A deep love for the sound of a particular instrument and an almost fanatical love of a particular composer, genre or type of music may exist. Such
traits can work against the child if he places unreasonable expectations on himself, causing stress, burn-out and unhealthy self-criticism and physical, social or emotional difficulties.
Physical characteristics can affect a child’s potential: body build and hand span will affect the type of instrument that might be chosen and repertoire he is able to play.
Rose’s summary of her particular talent was, “I was born with this voice and with the musical sensibility to accompany it.” She had what she believed was an innate love of serious music and that hers and others gifted- ness “simply ‘is’…what’s learned is skill, technique, craft and so on. But the gift is what you get with the rest of your genetic soup.”
Role Of Chance Being in the right place at the right
time should not be underestimated. Louis Armstrong blew a tin horn as he worked for a scrap metal collector to announce his arrival in the neighbor- hood. He then developed his talent by playing informal concerts, beginning his music career. James Morrison, tal- ented Australian multi-instrumentalist, began playing the cornet in his local elementary school band and attributes his beginnings in part to his first music teacher. Being in the right place at the right time should not be downgraded to, “it would have happened anyway.” Perhaps not!
Mystery Factor We know that talent can be nurtured.
We also know genetics can help a child along the path to talent. What then, is the “mystery factor”described by teach- ers and parents and evidenced by skills shown by some young musicians?
In his 2006 autobiography, Blowing My Own Trumpet, Morrison relates the strange story of “virtual learning.” After being mesmerized while watch- ing a fellow band member play the bass during a concert, he dreamed of playing and practiced the fingering in his dream. When he woke, not only did he have calluses on his fingers, but he was able to play the instrument despite having never done so in reality.
He now visualizes or dreams of the practice he needs to do, often finding it more valuable than the real thing.9
Five-year-old budding trumpeting talent, Geoffrey Gallante, was described by his music teacher, Dave Detwiler, in 2006: “When I met Geoffrey I asked him to do a couple of things, I won’t go into detail, I asked him to play a couple of scales, and everything, I just looked at him, I looked around at the horn to see if there was a button on the horn, you know, if this is one of those you push the button and the horn plays. That’s how good he was, I was amazed.”10
I guess the mysterious elements of music talent will never be explained. We can debate how children become talented, but I like to think that the mystery will remain, to give us all a lit- tle wonder and a taste of the unknown when we see a new talent emerge.
g NOTES 1. David Henry Feldman, Nature’s
Gambit (New York: Teachers’ College Press, 1991), 24–26.
Margaret Helfgott, Out of Tune (New York: Warner Books, 1981), 41.
Nicholas Ingman, Gifted Children of Music: the Young Lives of the Great Musicians (London: Ward Lock, 1978), 88.
Gary McPherson and Aaron Williamon, “Giftedness and Talent” in The Child as Musician: A Handbook of Musical Development, ed. McPherson, 242 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
Ibid., 243. 6. John Sloboda, Exploring the
Musical Mind: Cognition, Emotion, Ability, Function (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 297–299.
Ibid., 300. 8. McPherson, Child as Musician,
- 9. James Morrison, Blowing My
Own Trumpet (Sydney: Murdoch Books, 2006), 271.
9 News, “JC & Friends: Geoffrey Gallante,” 2006, www.wusa9.com/news/news/_article.as px?storyid=47305 (accessed January 21, 2007).
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Characteristics of Gifted Children Being “in love” with music Caee Assignment
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