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The Musical Child - Part 1

What is Musical Giftedness?

Musical intelligence was defined by Howard Gardner, author of Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, as "an individual who likes to sing or hum along to music, appreciates music, may play a musical instrument and remembers song melodies." Children who have an extremely high musical intelligence are prodigies. In this series, we will explore what is means to be "musically gifted," what teachers and parents can do to foster these gifts, and what the the two types of musical giftedness. In this first article, we explore the definition of musical giftedness and what it means to say a child is a prodigy.

Clara Schumann (pictured), wife of composer Robert Schumann and a composer in her own right, called them, "youngsters sent into this world already made." David Henry Feldman in Nature's Gambit stated that prodigy was more than just an extraordinary talent; it was a phenomenon which offered "insights into the workings of the human mind."

The word prodigy comes from the Latin prodigum. It first appeared in English in the seventh century and was used to explain something "out of the usual course of nature." Legends surround many well-known musical prodigies that lend themselves well to this definition. The German word wunderkind (literally wonder child) describes these cases quite well. However, prodigy has to mean a child with an exceptional talent without being out of the usual course of nature. Barbara Jepson, in an article for the New York Times, described it as those who "display a level of poise, technical prowess, and musicality beyond their years. Some prodigies are viewed as simply acting as mimics and even derided as "well-trained circus animals." While others are amazing, not only due to their talent or confidence, but also with their great ability to move the audience with their music.

The U.S. Office of Education declared in 1972 that "Gifted and talented children are those identified by professionally qualified persons who by virtue of outstanding abilities are capable of high performance. These children are children who require differentiated educational programs and/or services beyond those normally provided by the regular school program in order to realize areas of their contribution to self and society."

The three characteristics of giftedness are precociousness, independent learning ability and exhibit a "rage to master." Firstly, precociousness can be defined as the child taking the first steps to mastering some domain at an earlier than average age. Learning in this area comes easy to them, and they progress quicker than most children. Secondly, being an independent learner (or marching to one's own drummer) means that the gifted child learns in a different way than other children.They need little help or scaffolding from adults; they are eager to teach themselves. As such, they invent their own rules and devise novel, idiosyncratic ways of solving problems. Thus they are, by definition, creative. The last characteristic, a rage to master, can be defined as intrinsic motivation. They show an intense and obsessive interest and will lose sense of the outside world while learning. All of these aspects of the gifted child combines lead to high achievement.

Many parallels can be drawn between musically talented children and other gifted children, especially those with talent for the visual arts. Children with an exceptional talent for music (or for other arts) are sometimes referred to as "talented," rather than "gifted." “Gifted" is often reserved for children with high scholastic ability. However, talented children do resemble scholastically gifted children in important ways. They posses the three characteristics of

giftedness. As with other gifted children, artistically gifted children often have one dominant gift with ordinary abilities in other areas.

Of all of the types of extreme giftedness, musical prodigies are the most prevalent. It is important the musical prodigies be understood separately from savants. who posses only an average or below average I.Q. Savants do not have understanding of their particular ability. Yet, the average I.Q. of a gifted composer is only slightly above average. The composer who probably had one of the highest I.Q. was Mozart, who's estimated I.Q. is set at 155. This is well below "genius," and far below the estimated I.Q. set at 200 for Goethe and John Stuart Mill. There is only a .30 correlation between musical intelligence and standard intelligence.

Prodigies are both born and made, meaning that they are trained to understand the concepts behind their natural talent. However, some manage to achieve without any help from outsiders. Some famous examples include: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, and Felix Mendelssohn, all of whom composed before the age of 12; Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Frederic Chopin, and Yehudi Menuhin who gave public performances by the age of I I; and Johnannes Brahms, Antonin Dvorak, and Richard Strauss, all of whom drew public musical attention as children. (However, it is important to note that none of these composers would have been able to achieve on raw talent alone; all of them had teachers. For example, Mozart and his siblings all studied under their father [see the painting by Carmontelle below.] Schubert studied under Mozart's contemporary, Antonio Salieri.)

A common cultural perception (which probably is a misperception) is that musical prodigies are the products of dysfunctional families and grow up in unstable homes. Books and films (such as Amadeus and Shine) oftenlead the audience to believe that while the lives of prodigies may seem inspiring, they are also maladjusted individuals. Some people believe that these children have no childhood, that the parents or teachers are commonly abusive. While it is true that musical prodigies often miss out on normal childhood activities. Cellist Yuli Turovsky notes, "They often simple don't have the time for cultural experiences like going to museums or the theater or studying literature. They are eating themselves up and are unable to renew themselves intellectually or emotionally. In general, gifted children are often feared by their peers and are viewed as "oddballs," much like mentally challenged children. Their parents are often considered to be pushing them too hard to live vicariously through their children, and as a result depriving them of a "normal" childhood.

Socially, all types of giftedness effects the way that the child is able to interact with his or her peers significantly. They usually have a very different concept of humor than other children their age. Their idea of funny might not make sense to their peers. They often get a kick out of puns and plays on words. One mother event reported that her son could understand an adult sense of humor at the age of four. But, the gifted child's idea of what is funny can turn to biting sarcasm. It can make the child viewed as mean and unpopular with their other children. Parents should be aware of this and point it out to the child that their peers may view their jokes as put-downs.

Gifted children need continual involvement with their peers. Most of them are considered to be cooperative, likable, and good leaders. Adults need to encourage these children to use their talents in a positive direction. Many gang leaders are actually talented kids who have challenged their talents in a negative way. After all, leisure time is essential for the musician to stay on top of their creativity. Over-working tends to quiet artistic inspiration and dull-down passion.

It is very important that parents and teachers make sure that prodigies are given plenty of opportunities for social growth. Anastasie Prokohorova, who began her piano studies at a music school in Leningrad at the age of 10, recalled that the wunderkind were in isolation from the "regular" students. "They were five or six years younger. but were capable of playing a repertoire usually reserved for adults," she says. "We used to see them on stage at concerts, but I don't remember communicating with them very much."

MUSIC is the FIRST of Gardner's Multiple Intelligences to develop. The average age that such talent emerges is four years, nine months.

Family roles make a world of difference in the success and failure of a musical prodigy. It is important that prodigies be encouraged to begin their musical studies as early as possible. Music is the first of Gardner's Multiple Intelligences to develop. The average age that such talent emerges is four years, nine months.

Children who show signs of a strong musical aptitude should be encouraged to explore becoming composers, musicians, conductors, studio technicians, recording artists, recording engineers, etc. Common statements from musically gifted children include: "I have a good singing voice;" "I know when a notes is off-key;" "I listen to music a lot;" "I play a musical instrument:" "I can sing or play a song with some accuracy if I hear it just once," often make tapping sounds or sing while I work or study." The most important factor in determining musical giftedness is the child's interest and delight in musical sounds. Some, such as the composer Haydn, could sing before they could speak. Musically gifted children can sing back melodies by the age of two, as opposed to the normal age of five.

When you notice these wonderful gifts emerging in your children, encourage and show them that you appreciate their gifts. A well-qualified music teacher can help guide them on their own unique musical journey. In our next article in this series, we will go in-depth into ways parents, classroom teachers, and private music instructors can help the musical child bloom.

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Bloom, Benjamin S., ed. (1985). Developing Talent in Young People. New York: Random House.

Boerner. Steve. The Mozart Project.

De Mink, Freya. Musical Prodigies: Past, Present, And Future.

Jourdain, Robert. (1997). Music, The Brain and Ecstasy. New York: William Marrow and Company, Inc.

Kenneson, Claude. (1998). Musical Prodigies: Perilous Journeys, Remarkable Lives. Portland. Or: Amadeus Press

Multiple Intelligences: What Does The Research Say?

Renuad, Lucie. (2000). Child Prodigies: A Poisoned Paradise?

Using Multiple Intelligences Theory In Choosing A Career.

Watson Fellow to Explore Myth. Reality of Musical Wunderkind. The Chronicle.

ZIker, Sally Yahkne. (1991). The Survival Guide for Parents of Gifted Kids: How to Understand, Live With, and Stick Up for Your Gifted Child. Minneapolis. MN: Free Spirit Publishing.

Winner, Ellen. (1996). Gifted Children: Myths and Realities. New York: Basic Books.


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