So why read this post?
There have been a few things I have learned and thought a lot about during the last few years and someone might find these things helpful. Each of my kids has a different level of interest and involvement in music so each has needed a different amount of parental involvement and nurturing.
Why nurture musical talent in a gifted child?
For many of our kids academic subjects come easily. Many seem to know material before it is covered or even if they don't already know it, they learn it in seconds. Learning to play an instrument takes hard work, dedication, and perseverance. Even when memorizing/reading music comes easily or they have an amazing ear, learning the actual technique necessary to master an instrument takes practice. Motor learning requires repetition. With a gifted child, for whom everything else comes easily, learning to play an instrument is an excellent way to teach them how to work hard and practice something for mastery.
Learning to play violin helped "cure" my daughter of her seemingly inborn perfectionism (yes, probably hereditary). Giving her time to fool around with her instrument, to experiment with new sounds and songs, gave her the freedom to see that sometimes "mistakes" can sound good or lead to new ideas. Seeing her favorite Irish musicians occasionally make errors in front of a crowd, let her know that everyone makes mistakes.
How to nurture musical talent?
The specific answer to this is as individual as the child. Haley's violin teacher once told me we'd have to find our own path and that is true for everyone. Some things I have learned along our path have been...
Make music a part of your lives. This may seem a bit obvious but is very important. Listen to many different styles of music, sing together in the car, and dance around the kitchen. Take your child to concerts. We've found so many free and inexpensive concerts of all styles in our little area of the country and it always amazes me that more people don't take advantage of them. Check around...local music teachers' recitals, coffee shop open mic nights, and churches are places to start. Kids will learn to behave in performances but if you have to leave early, that's okay especially if the show was free. Show your child you love music and it is important.
Introduce them to a variety of instruments. Toy instruments are everywhere. Sometimes you can find instrument petting zoos or visit music shops to try out different instruments. There are some great books like "The Story of the Orchestra" by Robert Levine that come with a CD of orchestral music and short clips of the different instruments playing solo. Talk about different instruments with your child and see which sounds he likes best. See what instrument your child is interested in learning to play.
Let the child's interest guide you on when to begin lessons. Many people want to know when they should start their child in music lessons. This is very individual and depends on attention, maturity, and fine motor development in the child plus available family resources. If you have done all of the above, your child may have developed a love of music and have their own ideas of which type of instrument she'd like to play. If your child asks to start learning to play an instrument, it's not too young to begin lessons. Methods like the Suzuki method start children as young as 2 or 3. Children are taught through play and the parent's job is to act as a practice partner and make it fun. Other pedagogies start children at different ages. Some instruments are more difficult for a very young child to learn because they don't come in fractional sizes (like a trumpet or uillean pipes) so they may want to begin music instruction on a different instrument (like piano or tin whistle or violin) until they are big enough to play the instrument they prefer.
Find the best teacher for your child. I started to put...find the best teacher you can afford but that's not always true. The best teacher for your child may not be the most expensive teacher in your area due to personality differences or teaching style.
Ask around to find a good teacher...music stores, music teachers at school, musicians, and other parents with children already studying an instrument will all make good resources.
Who do musicians in your area take their children to for music instruction? Attend a prospective teacher's studio recital and listen to how his/her students play from her earliest beginners to the most advanced students. Learning to play an instrument correctly the first time around is much easier than fixing poor technique...especially for a child who has practiced that poor technique really, really well. Ask me how I know.
Have a trial lesson with your child and the prospective teacher. See how they interact together. Does the way the teacher correct and praise work well with your child's personality.
If you later find the teacher isn't working for your child for whatever reason, discuss the difficulties with the teacher. It may be a matter of the teacher knowing what the problem is and trying to fix it...if not, then don't be afraid to find a new teacher.
Daily practice. Again, here let the child's interest guide you as to length of practice and how a practice session progresses but daily practice is important. In the beginning, it is important to establish a routine. If practice begins daily, it has a better chance of becoming a habit and non-negotiable like brushing your teeth. Sure, some days they practice just a few minutes because of time constraints, illness, or disinterest but it still shows the child the importance of practice. Make practice fun and engaging especially when they are young....charts, games, challenges, prizes. An abacus with the challenge of doing 100 repetitions of a certain passage in a week was one of Haley's favorite things. Other favorites included practicing in different rooms of the house, in front of a mirror, or outside in the yard or making her own flashcards with each piece she had to work on and another set with each technique issue she needed to address then letting me guess which technique she had chosen to work on as she practiced it. Edmund Sprunger's book "Helping Parents Practice: Tips for Making It Easier" is filled with great ideas if you don't think you are creative enough to make it fun.
Practice to make it easier. This phrase has been my favorite throughout my daughter's violin "career." I am sure we all have heard "Practice makes perfect." or "Perfect practice makes perfect." I think perfectionism can be a huge problem for many of our gifted children. They know how they want to sound but it takes time for them to achieve their goal. In the beginning, whenever Haley found she could not do something the first try, she balked. She'd talk to her teacher about anything that popped in her head or lay down on the carpet in the lesson room (it was a cozy carpet). Taking the pressure off of her with the above saying, then breaking the task into smaller, more easily accomplished tasks and letting her know it was okay if she couldn't perform it perfectly....we were working to make it easier, eventually taught her she could learn to do anything she wanted to through practice whether it was learning to do a cartwheel, do a math problem, or play a challenging violin piece.
Praise the work, not the child or their talent. A child has no control over what she was born with. Haley has a good ear. She learns and memorizes quickly. Praising her for those things does nothing but feed into perfectionism. What happens when another child comes along who learns more quickly or plays better? Instead, I praise her for things like completing 100 repetitions of a skill or for putting in 4 hours of practice on a given day, those things she does have control over and can change. When she performs, I praise specific aspects of the performance...her intonation in a spot I know she worked hard on, her phrasing, her vibrato, etc... For Haley, it works best if I do not discuss a performance with her the day of. I do not go over anything she is working on by telling her to remember this or that. All her work is done during practice in the days leading up to a performance so one the day of the performance, I simply give her a hug, tell her she'll do great, and let her go. When she comes off the stage, she gets another hug and specific praise on those specific things she did well. Even if she forgot to do something, I don't bring it up. I figure the performance is over, why dwell on anything negative.
If your child likes to perform, find them opportunities. Whether it is in front of a line-up of stuffed animals or in front of a crowd of people, kids who enjoy performing need those opportunities. From the very earliest time, even when all she knew was how to hold her violin in rest position and bow, my dd was involved in small performances. Nursing homes, group classes, relatives...are all wonderful first audiences. Working on something for a performance is a different mindset than simply learning the piece. I know Haley has much more focus on details if she knows she is going to perform something.
Pushing vs. nurturing. Progress in music is as individual as each child. Please be careful to avoid comparison with other children even within your own family.
The Suzuki method worked wonderfully for my daughter and our family but I tend to dislike the prescribed order of pieces in the method. It seems one of the first questions we were asked when meeting new Suzuki friends was "what piece are you on?" It seemed sometimes it was to see what the kids had in common but sometimes it was to establish a "pecking order." Telling someone what piece your child is working on really tells them nothing about how your child plays that piece which is the important thing with learning to play an instrument. Enjoy each piece your child is working on. Enjoy the process and show your child moving ahead from piece to piece isn't as important as learning to play well.
There are days when practice is not what my child would chose to do but usually I only have to tell her it is up to her whether or not she practices. I think she wants to know she does have a choice in the matter. We often discuss her long term goals and whether she is happy about the way things are going with her music...what she likes and doesn't like about it. I think pushing or nudging a child to get over a hump and keep working toward a their long term goal is sometimes necessary and not a bad thing. When kids are young, they may not know how to reach their goals or they may not have the drive every single day to work hard.
To me, the difference between nurturing and pushing comes down to whose goals are driving the process. Is one working to meet the child's goals or their own parental goals for their child...living vicariously or projecting their desire for praise or their idea of success onto their child? Sometimes the line between each is difficult to establish and requires a bit of soul searching.
If your child develops a passion for music, nurture that passion in whatever ways work for your family. We (and some of our good friends) do some things others might consider crazy to nurture our child's musical passion...miles of driving, travel all over the country and outside the country, downsizing our home, giving up our own interests and family vacations, not to mention the costs involved. Some families might decide what we do isn't for them. I make my decisions by asking myself...if my daughter decided to quit tomorrow, would I feel we had wasted our time/money on this? That's just my litmus test, I am sure you can come up with your own.
Here's a little video of two of my kids and their friends at camp last year....
I have read some great books on talent and music....they are on the sidebar of my blog so I won't list them all again so hop over there if you are interested in reading more on this subject.
This post is part of a series of posts for the Parenting the Gifted Blog Tour 2013 which is going on all this week. To read the other blogs participating in this series please click here.