Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Supporting musically talented children: Challenging social and emotional roadblocks to success

Musically talented children often face an uphill battle when trying to maintain enthusiasm for their studies. What typically starts with excitement and focused effort can end in boredom, apathy and disappointment. Several authors (e.g., Haroutounian, 2002; Parncutt & McPherson, 2002) have offered ideas for enhancing musical training and motivating young musicians. Yet, parents often question how to support and sustain their child’s passion when interest starts to wane.

Along with offering training that enriches their musical education, it is just as important to anticipate, challenge and eliminate social and emotional barriers to success. While the technical challenges and demands of music performance are an ever present reality, children need help navigating the emotional pressure and uncertainty they may experience at different stages of their progress.

Offering emotional support to musically talented children is often as critical as the music instruction itself. 

Some of the emotional roadblocks parents and teachers may need to address to support gifted young musicians include the following:

1.  Boredom – Repetitive practice, studies that fail to spark interest, and distraction can sap the drive and passion out of any aspiring young musician. Attention span varies depending on the child’s age, as younger musicians may need more breaks and shorter practice time, and adolescents may need an environment free from competing distractions, such as electronics, phones and other interruptions. Capturing their interest and engaging their creative spark is essential. Adolescents need a sense of purpose and understanding of the methodology to their practice (i.e.,”why am I doing this?”), and may quickly lose interest if they dislike, misunderstand or dispute why they need to practice in a certain manner. Some rudimentary understanding of music theory may help to spark their intellectual curiosity and help them stay motivated.

2.  Perfectionism – While music performance ultimately requires perfecting one’s repertoire, some gifted young musicians become preoccupied with achieving unrealistic results and develop exceptionally high standards for themselves. They become frustrated and self-critical if they fail to achieve their goals, and may allow a real or perceived setback to undermine their confidence and overall sense of well-being.  While a goal-oriented approach and dedication to one’s craft is admirable, it can be a curse for a child who buckles under pressure to succeed beyond what is reasonable. Perfectionism is a characteristic that has been frequently associated with giftedness, and as Silverman (1999) has noted, it can be a catalyst toward excellence and not necessarily a sign of emotional disturbance. However, musically talented children who are unable to strive for excellence without unrealistically rigid and harsh expectations, and who cannot modify these standards with the support of parents and teachers may need counseling to learn to challenge these beliefs.

3.  Performance anxiety –  These fears can include worries about being judged, freezing under pressure, making mistakes in public, forgetting a part when performing from memory, or being the center of attention. While a problem that often plagues even accomplished musicians, Kemp & Mills (2002) pointed out that performance anxiety affects young musicians as well. A variety of cognitive, mindfulness and imagery tools can be helpful. Green (1986) offers an excellent resource for challenging thoughts and behaviors that contribute to these fears. If performance anxiety interferes significantly, counseling also may be beneficial.

4.  Disappointment – All musicians eventually face rejection. Helping children handle disappointment requires significant effort from parents, as these children may lack the developmental tools for understanding how “unfair” the world can be. Gifted children, in particular, have an acute sense of what is fair and just, and may become outraged or disillusioned if they feel someone has been mistreated. Adolescents may give up their musical goals completely if disappointed, choosing to abandon their dreams rather than suffer another rejection. They also must grapple with feelings of envy when others surpass them, and may respond with anger, bitterness, or despair. Adults need to help children put their feelings into perspective and learn that they cannot control some of the unpredictable variables associated with success. However, they can focus on their own progress, learn what they can change so that they improve, and develop a plan that will allow them to reach their goals.

5.  Social isolation – Although many musically gifted children are introverted (Kemp & Mills, 2002), they may still suffer from the negative effects of social isolation. Focusing for hours on practice is a solitary activity that also may preclude participation in other extra-curricular or social activities. Performing in a band, choir or ensemble is enriching, but practice can be a lonely pursuit. Children who are not musically trained often do not understand how much dedication and practice is required, and may tease or cajole the young musician to stop practicing. Gifted young musicians need to be reminded of their goal, find meaning in their practice, and build in breaks where they have contact with others to alleviate feelings of isolation. Frequent participation in music ensembles can provide much needed relief from isolation, providing shared purpose and goals, a sense of unity with others, and an opportunity to meet friends with similar interests.

5.  Anxiety about career paths – Many adolescent musicians realistically question whether music is a viable career path. They are aware of the job market and the highly competitive struggle to find meaningful work. Parents and teachers can help them identify whether their talent and passion may be sufficient to sustain the challenge of pursuing a performance career, or if they are temperamentally suited to pursue another goal, such as music education, music technology, or music administration. Rather than dismissing their dream of a music career, providing realistic information about costs, salaries, job prospects, and lifestyle factors is important in guiding them to the right decision.

Offering emotional support to musically talented children is often as critical as the music instruction itself. Many potential careers have been thwarted by disillusionment and anxiety, and might have been salvaged with some clear support and guidance. It is not an easy challenge for parents or teachers of theses remarkable students, but must be considered an essential component to their success.

* An expanded version of this article is published in the National Association of Gifted Children Arts Newsletter, Vol. 1, Issue 1, Fall, 2013.


Green, B. (1986). The Inner Game of Music. New York: Doubleday.
Haroutounian, J. (2002). Kindling the Spark. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kemp, A. & Mills, J. (2002). Musical potential. In Parncutt, R., & McPherson, G. (Eds.) The Science and  Psychology of Performance, (Pp. 3-16). New York: Oxford University Press. 
Parncutt, R., & McPherson, G. (Eds.) The Science and  Psychology of Performance. New York: Oxford University Press.
Silverman, L. (1999). Perfectionism: The crucible of giftedness. Advanced Development, 8, 47-61. 


  1. It has been difficult sorting out how much to push our child with practice and what role to play as parents. We don't want to make him rebel and lose interest, but realize that keeping up with practice is so vital, and sometimes don't know what to do.

  2. Nancy,
    You highlight a difficult dilemma many parents face. So much depends on your child's age, level of interest, how he responds to encouragement and limit-setting, and a range of other factors that perhaps you can discuss with his teacher. Good luck.

  3. I consider personal example to be the best way to bring up the children. If parents are persistent and hardworking treating their jobs and hobbies, the children will be the same. And they should always feel your emotional support. Thanks for accenting this.

  4. I remind myself to encourage my 13-yo son's *efforts* and not (just) his talent. I point out that I was impressed with how he worked on that difficult passage and got through it, etc. I can do better with that, though. He also has a wonderful teacher who burned out in his 20s and left music, only to return in his 30s. He has a good perspective on keeping my son interested - in a slow and steady pace - pushing just enough without overwhelming him.

    Thank you for these articles. There are 100s of articles about academically gifted but very few on musically gifted.

    1. Blackbelt, Thank you for your kind words. It sounds like you have a good perspective on practice and encouraging your son. Another good site with articles about the challenges of practice is, and is helpful regardless of the instrument.