"prodigy" or not? - How do you know?

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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Sun Oct 09, 2005 5:00 pm

Most parents seem to hope (believe?) that their children are "prodigies in the rough." Some get upset when they find out that Mozart's reputation as a prodigy is not going to be challenged anytime soon by their child. This usually results in the child stopping lessons soon after, thereby missing out on a skill and knowledge that will serve him well throughout his life.

How can a parent tell if their child has a special talent for music? What can they do to help such a child? Is it even a useful tag or expectation to place on a child? If you're a teacher, how do you handle especially talented children?

We have seen many children to whom the "gifted and talented" tag has been applied in the schools, who seem to do poorly in school precisely because they have been told they are "gifted." How can parents avoid this "syndrome" with their children in piano lessons?
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Postby Stretto » Tue Oct 11, 2005 11:57 pm

I haven't really had any parents who have voiced their feelings as to whether they thought there child was gifted musically. The main concerns parents' of my students voice are:
1. Just want them to stay interested.
2. Getting them to practice.
3. Being a little anxious to see them advance well enough to play some simple pieces. Most parents of students I've taught seem to just want to be able to hear fun, familiar tunes coming from the piano at home.
4. Being able to play in a recital for the experience not to make an impression on 'talent'.
I guess most of the parents of my students have realistic expectations. I've never thought about it that way.

I've heard a lot of parents mention their 2 and 3 yr. olds seeming to really enjoy music and they think perhaps that signifies a future talent but I've heard enough people say that now that it must be more of the norm for most toddlers.

I have heard and seen some very small children blow me away with precision and difficulty of pieces for their age at some music festivals where I helped with being the 'door person' while in college. Although amazed, I questioned if the kids really were enjoying their playing but I was just basing that on observation. I didn't talk to any of the kids. It would be nice to hear from some parents whose children are really involved in performing as to their perspective.

As a teacher, my definition of a 'gifted' or 'talented' student is one who has a passion or love for music and playing the piano. I think it's the passion or enjoyment of what they are doing that is going to carry them far in music and keep them from quitting short of their potential. I'm not sure where the information is off-hand but I read about a study (I give a copy of some information like this to parents/students when they start), in which the I. Q. was noted in grand chess masters and chess masters. There was no difference in I. Q. between the two. The only difference noted was that grand chess masters had more passion for the game. I've had to work tooth and nail for everything I've gained musically and have never been a 'fabulous' pianist, it's just my passion for music that has kept me in it for the long haul. I would advise not to pull a child out of lessons based on their ability to play, but rather keep them in it as long as they are enjoying it regardless.

The main thing I am concerned with in teaching is not so much how 'super-great' a student can play. I am more concerned with them learning the basics of theory, ear-training, history and style of composers, and some basic general music appreciation. These are the things that carry into adulthood regardless of whether one continues to play the piano or not. I hate to see a student quit lessons before having learned all these things.

Of course, I'm not arguing that there aren't I'm sure some incredibly musically-gifted children. If I saw that a child was really naturally taking off with their playing, or if they just seemed set on wanting to go in the direction of performance, I would most likely refer them to a teacher whose focus is more on training students in the performance realm because I wouldn't want to be standing in the way of their potential. If a parent truly and realistically thought there child was musically gifted, I would suggest they take lessons from someone with at least a masters in music with an emphasis in performance if they could find someone or someone who at least regularly performs themselves. I have one student who is 'gifted' at school. The student skipped a grade, and is in a program for advanced students in school. The main thing I've noticed is that student in piano has an incredible ability to memorize quickly, pretty much can figure out most of the piece at home without help, comes to lesson and has it learned. Mostly what I do is let that student figure out the piece or sections of the piece first at home and then at the lesson just give some pointers for fine-tuning or improving on the piece. Then talk about some of the elements above like theory, composers, etc., they like to take a little of the lesson making up stuff on the piano, and then listening to a recording of some music sometimes at the end. That student does also have a love for playing the piano and is self-motivated in learning. That's another thing I read in a sheet of information I give students, is that only about 14 % of music students are self-motivated and the rest need a little outside motivation - not sure if this is true, just something I read, food for thought.

Dr. Ziegler, you mentioned that parents might prematurely pull there children out of lessons if they don't think they have a talent for it, and miss out on a lifetime of skill and knowledge which is so true. If a parent wants see their child become 'gifted' or 'talented' or 'smart' in general, studying music is the perfect place to put them regardless of how well they can play simply because of all the studies showing how learning music and listening to music aids in brain development and increases the brains thinking capacity. There are so many things a person has to think about all at once in playing the piano: separate notes in both hands at once, rhythm, steady tempo, dynamics, phrasing, not to mention the 'behind the scenes' aspects like chord progressions, etc. Having to think about all these things at once in my playing I'm certain has really expanded my brain's thinking capacity. I am otherwise a one-tracked person perferring to only concentrate on one thing at a time, except when it comes to playing the piano. With piano, being able to think of so many things at once and have two hands playing at once is so much of the challenge and fun in it for me. Also, just examining the ins and outs of how all the notes in a score come together takes a lot of brains, is so amazing, and I'm sure increases thinking skills as well - sort of like math equations - and that doesn't even count playing it. So don't put your kids in music just because their 'gifted', put them in music so they will become 'gifted'.




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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Wed Oct 12, 2005 7:09 am

Stretto wrote:So don't put your kids in music just because their 'gifted', put them in music so they will become 'gifted'.

This is a great insight, though, if I may, let me change it slightly to say: "Don't put your kids in music just because they're 'gifted', put them in music so they will be rewarded for the rest of their lives". That's really what lessons are all about, not winning competitions, garnering some temporary "glory" or adding another half-learned skill to one's "repertoire" (no pun intended). :)

Not all of us have the talent to be great pianists, but all of us have the ability to learn to appreciate and understand the language of music. As we've said in more detail on our Learning to Play page, if you take lessons and become a proficient pianist, but develop no understanding of or appreciation for the emotional language of music, you have missed out on the best part of lessons.

One of the problems I've seen over the years is that, many times, a student with native raw talent is "turned off" to piano because the parents (and, in a few cases, the teacher) put too much pressure on the student to participate in and win competitions. It's one thing to encourage him to realize his potential, quite another to force him to "prove" it.
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Postby 108-1121887355 » Wed Oct 12, 2005 9:23 am

Great reply, as always, Stretto!
Don't know what I can add.
The students I have had over the years, who seem to have an natural talent for music, often are pushed by their parents and some of the joys of music are lost. Most parents do not see music as a professional goal, yet they want to have their child reach the potential that they see for them. This is fine if the child has the same goal.
Children these days are involved in so much - I have talented gymnasts and talented art and dance students. Where do you put the emphasis? Again, parents do not see these as a way of making a living, as the arts do not meet the criteria they hold.
I feel children should have a chance to try music, dance, sports, etc. to find for themselves what they enjoy. It may not be a money maker but could be a life long pleasure. If not, it is fun and a learning experience.
I know a child who is very bright and musically talented. Right now she is into baseball and field hockey, where she is not a 'star' but really enjoys. Isn't this what childhood is about?
There is so much to learn.
I have a print out I give parents about the joys and benefits of music - and it is hard to ignore all that music teaches us and how we can use and enjoy it for the rest of our lives.
Example: I know an 87 year old woman, who lives alone and not in good health. She plays three pieces of music for memory - Chopin, Debussy and Rachmaninoff. (Guess which ones). It brings me joy to listen to her play. Sometimes she says she cannot sleep so she gets up and plays the piano. This says it all!
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Postby Stretto » Wed Oct 12, 2005 12:52 pm

Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Editor wrote:I
Stretto wrote:So don't put your kids in music just because their 'gifted', put them in music so they will become 'gifted'.

This is a great insight, though, if I may, let me change it slightly to say: "Don't put your kids in music just because they're 'gifted', put them in music so they will be rewarded for the rest of their lives". That's really what lessons are all about, not winning competitions, garnering some temporary "glory" or adding another half-learned skill to one's "repertoire" (no pun intended). :)

Not all of us have the talent to be great pianists, but all of us have the ability to learn to appreciate and understand the language of music. As we've said in more detail on our Learning to Play page, if you take lessons and become a proficient pianist, but develop no understanding of or appreciation for the emotional language of music, you have missed out on the best part of lessons.

Dr. Zeigler: Thanks for helping me word what I was trying to say. I was having trouble wording exactly what I meant. There's kind of a lot of ways and angles it could be said, was just trying to sound 'poetic'. :laugh: As you said, the great thing about music is a reward/enjoyment the rest of one's life. I hate to hear stories of people who dropped out of music never to touch an instrument, join a choir, study about or listen to music for personal enjoyment, in other words bow out of the music realm and close the door for good. How many people say they played an instrument and quit and always wished they would have stuck with it, I feel so bad for those people, why not pick the instrument back up? or get involved in music in some other way. Usually these people are trying to make up through their kids what they missed out on. Another thing I write about in the information I give out to new parents/students is that I believe everyone should pursue/study music in some way, shape, or form their whole lives, so if one doesn't stick with piano, try another instrument, and another, or more than one, or voice, choir, listen to music, take a music appreciation class, something related to music even if you only have 5 min. a day to devote to something in the musical realm. I heard of someone who switched instruments so many times, it sounded crazy, but now that person is studying to be a sound engineer (all the varied experience and 'training' led to that).

I also hear of people who say they always wanted to play an instrument or sing, but . . . Usually they were made to feel closed off from the world of music somehow and say, "I have no musical ability". I hate to hear these stories, they don't realize the enjoyment they are missing out on. Why not pick something up that you always wanted to do? Well, you can tell I can get on a high horse on this subject. Bottom-line: music should be a lifelong pursuit in some way, shape, or form.

When it comes to 'missing out on the best part of lessons by not developing an understanding or appreciation for the emotional language of music', you hit the nail right on the head. I have always felt like when I am just playing the notes and making it sound good, with no understanding of the 'behind the scenes' of the piece, something is missing and I can't stand playing a piece this way. It's so easy to play piece after piece never understanding anything about it and saying to yourself, "this doesn't make any sense whatsoever". I think that's why a lot of people don't like classical music (I was in this category for a while), it doesn't make any sense unless you understand it and thus are able to really appreciate it.

I talked to a girl once, she cut my hair, and was a beautician, nothing wrong with that profession, but she had played the piano over ten years and got out of it because of parental pressure from parents in competitions to where the fun was taken out of it, never to touch a piano again. That is so unfortunate.
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Thu Oct 13, 2005 9:42 am

This is a great discussion with a lot of good insights, and I'd like to add just one comment if I may.

I sense through all of this exchange the influence of one of the great diseases of our frantic time: everybody's in such a hurry! We seem to be saying that if someone doesn't get his music exposure and training RIGHT NOW, when he's a little kid, then music will be forever lost to him. But present medical studies are telling us quite the opposite: that the human brain remains receptive and quite capable of innovation well into old age.

It's true that a person who is gifted with world-class talent for music is often a prodigy who should be gotten to the best teacher as early as possible--though some of the greats didn't start out that way; Paderewski and Tchaikovsky come to mind--both late bloomers. But for most of us it doesn't hurt to quit living by the stop watch. We need to ask ourselves if we're being caught up in the hectic rush of today's culture to involve kids in everything at once--not necessarily because they'll develop better but because they are part of an insanely competitive civilization that they'd better keep pace with or drown.

So what happens? The kids learn to skim the shallow surfaces of everything instead of having an opportunity to explore something worthwhile in real depth, and having to develop the concentration and discipline it takes to do that. (Along the way they unfortunately also can pick up sophisticated techniques for cheating and faking it.) And it may be, too, that the piano teacher gets immersed unthinkingly in the frantic campaign to get the kid's attention before something else does.

I know it's easy for me to say this from the comfortable perspective of semi-retirement, and I well know the frustration of fighting the attitudinal framework that has been fixed on a young student that makes it nearly impossible to slow him down and give him the true richness and joy of music that you genuinely want for him (I have a PEP article on teacher burnout that goes into this). But we need to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we can often sow a seed or two that will only sprout much later in life, at a time or place you never know about. And that's worthwhile, too.
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Postby RAC » Fri Oct 14, 2005 2:31 pm

Stretto wrote: I also hear of people who say they always wanted to play an instrument or sing, but . . . Usually they were made to feel closed off from the world of music somehow and say, "I have no musical ability". I hate to hear these stories, they don't realize the enjoyment they are missing out on. Why not pick something up that you always wanted to do? Well, you can tell I can get on a high horse on this subject. Bottom-line: music should be a lifelong pursuit in some way, shape, or form.

People are made to feel that way in Art classes too. If you can't draw photographically/realistically, to many people, it's it and that's that in Art, goodbye. Sports too, in many cases--look at how traumatic it is for lots of children when it comes time to pick team members. I agree that individual sports are so much better for self-esteem (and lack of stupid "group punishment" for every little thing. Our swim coach was always concerned more about how we improved individually.
Did you know you can "letter" in all sorts of things other than sports these days in high school?

But as far as Art goes I think that changed a good deal with the publication of books such as Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards and Drawing With Children by Mona Brookes. Both dealt with realistic drawing in a way that most people could pick up and understand.

Are there any such "breakthrough" books/learning methods for piano that overcome such feelings of "I have no talent for this"?
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Postby 97-1128742375 » Fri Oct 14, 2005 2:56 pm

have you tried looking at a general music store?
I don't mean like the music section at Barnes and Noble but a store specified for music to but CD's, music scores, little music trivia? i'm sure if you ask they might have what you're looking for
or you could just go to a bookstore and ask for what you're looking for there.
these are some suggestions. sorry if they don't help :)
this is a great topic :D
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Postby RAC » Fri Oct 14, 2005 4:09 pm

I meant some new way of teaching that has perhaps been written up in the professional journals and/or the general press--I have been to several music stores and unless one considers "chord" piano to be a "valid" way to teach piano (and most regular teachers of piano seem not to), there really doesn't seem to be much out there to change someone's mind about their ability to "take on" the piano, so to speak.

The drawing books I mentioned, especially the Edwards book (although people seem to be getting away from Right Brain/Left Brain theory) really took an ability that seemed to be all talent, and turned it into a skill that could be learned by most people (if you can see, and hold a pencil, you can learn to draw).

The only methods that sort of accomplish this in piano are the chord methods, and they have their limits. But I'd rather see someone encouraged to try piano/keyboard even with a chord method than not to have music at all, and perhaps miss a musical genius somewhere.
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Postby minorkey » Fri Oct 14, 2005 8:43 pm

Guest wrote:Are there any such "breakthrough" books/learning methods for piano that overcome such feelings of "I have no talent for this"?

I mentioned this in another thread, but it may be worth repeating: the book "Piano for Dummies" may accomplish this, as it teaches the basics of reading music and introduces multiple styles of music (including classical) in a very entertaining way. The tone of the book is definitely non-intimidating.
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Postby Stretto » Sat Oct 15, 2005 12:03 am

RAC,

It sounds like you are thinking in terms of a "motivational" book and/or piano course that would convince a person that "anybody can do this". Minorkey, the "Piano for Dummies" sounds good, I should get a copy of that. RAC, there are probably other books out there like this but I have one that came from a regular bookstore called, "Making Music for the Joy of It, Enhancing Creativity, Skills, and Musical Confidence", by Stephanie Judy. On the back cover it says, ". . . for every adult who makes music or would like to . . . Starting from the belief that we all have musical ability . . . challenges popular assumptions about musicality." It says that the author is a freelance journalist and an amateur musician. As far as other books, perhaps a general "motivational" book that emphasizes, "I can do this" for people who have convinced themselves they can't or who have been convinced by others they can't. As far as piano courses, there seems to be a lot of courses saying basically, "teach yourself to play the piano in these easy steps" or something similar although don't know much about them. Or I have seen an ad around town from a local piano store advertising a course for 55 and up, kind of "for those who always wanted to learn" and gives a list of health and mental benefits that come from learning to play the piano. Also there are I'm sure a lot of piano teachers willing to give private lessons in an encouraging way to anyone who always wanted to learn piano and thought they had no ability.

Not everyone, of course, can be a 'prodigy' or 'exceptionally gifted' enough to perform on famous stages world-wide. But everyone, given the opportunity to learn, can be 'gifted' in some sense of the word. One person might be great at performing and giving recitals and concerts, another might be good at writing music, another good with teaching music to children, another who plays for sing-a-longs at family gatherings. Even someone playing soley for their own personal enjoyment is 'gifted' with the ability of uplifting themselves and expressing themselves. The same could be said for art.

I have a hunch that most people who feel they have no talent for music convinced themselves of it or probably were more likely convinced somewhere along the way by others that they had no talent. It seems like there are usually a lot more people around us telling us, "it can't be done", "that will never work", than people who say, "go for it." When I was at the juncture in life of trying to choose a career, I seriously considered studying music in college. I talked myself out of going into teaching. I was met with skepticism by others who wondered if I had what it takes or whether a person could make any money in music. I scrambled for a different degree (at least still related to art) but in the long run eventually went to pursue a music degree. Then I was met by skepticism while in the music program, where I ended up being "talked out of" a degree in composition and settled for a B. A. in Music, and also meant with skepticism as to whether I would be able to get to the level of playing required to graduate. I ended up finally telling my advisor that I would haunt the music dept. until I was 65 if that's what it took to get to the required level. I had a friend in jr. high choir that just sounded like any ave jr. high kid, until she took voice lessons, and eventually went on get a master's in music and make a career out of it. If a person always wanted to play an instrument or sing, etc., it's important to rise above negative self-talk or skepticism from others that makes one feel defeated before ever getting started. A person needs to tell oneself, "go for it". If someone doesn't have time to learn an instrument, etc., take a music appreciation class, join an adult choir, etc. The local college here has an evening collegiate choir course consisting on mostly adults (I'm pretty sure with no requirements).

I would be interested to hear some teacher's comments on the part of Dr. Zeigler's question as to how one tells that a student has 'extraordinary talent'. Also, as a teacher, I have always wondered if a student really wants to make a career of out piano performance, what are the steps that need to be taken by the teacher and student to get to the point of going into piano performance in college and/or a career in performing?




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Postby Beckywy » Sat Oct 15, 2005 6:21 am

I've only met one student who has extraordinary talent. SHe's now learning from one of my old teachers - she's 14 years old and has 5 Liszt etudes, all of CHopin etudes, 6 Beethoven Sonatas, and that's not the end of her repertoire.
"The real purpose of studying music-to unite ourselves with our special gifts in such a way that one would add strength to the other" Seymour Bernstein
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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Sat Oct 15, 2005 8:43 am

Beckywy wrote:I've only met one student who has extraordinary talent. SHe's now learning from one of my old teachers - she's 14 years old and has 5 Liszt etudes, all of CHopin etudes, 6 Beethoven Sonatas, and that's not the end of her repertoire.

This is comment is one of the reasons I started this thread - to point out that exceptional talent is, well, exceptional. It must be wonderful to be blessed with such ability, but even those of us who don't have it can still enjoy and benefit from learning the piano.

Becky, do you have any paritcular "definition" or set of criteria for identifying the exceptional student. Since you have already dealt with this matter once, how did you determine that the child was exceptionally endowed with piano skills?
All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man's life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom. - Albert Einstein
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Postby Beckywy » Sat Oct 15, 2005 10:14 am

This young lady jumped out at me. It wasn't any test that determined her talent. The fact that she would astound me by playing back a piece I just introduced to her, and she would mimic my play exactly. She has great sight reading skills, her technique was music. Her skills are already well past mine. She can play the Chopin Polonaise in A-flat faster than anyone I've ever seen or heard.
"The real purpose of studying music-to unite ourselves with our special gifts in such a way that one would add strength to the other" Seymour Bernstein
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Postby RAC » Wed Oct 19, 2005 3:37 pm

Thank you for the book suggestions. I hope the "Dummies" book is well-written--I have found that both the "Dummies" and the "Idiot's Guides" to vary widely in quality, depending upon the author.
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