Wednesday, October 23, 2013

For parents of musically gifted children: Get out of your own way so your child can flourish

Part Two: Get out of your own way so your child can flourish.

Parents of gifted young musicians can support their child’s musical growth by understanding their own reactions and feelings. As noted in Part One, parents often experience strong emotions in response to their child’s musical talent, and these emotions warrant scrutiny and management. By understanding their feelings and motivations, parents can avoid counterproductive responses and behaviors that might interfere with their child’s progress.

As hard as it might be to admit, most parents of musically gifted children experience some emotional reactions that could negatively influence their child’s progress. To be blunt, parents sometimes project their own needs, wishes and anxieties onto their child’s study, creating unnecessary confusion and conflict for their child. The potentially negative effects these emotions might have can be mitigated by recognizing, understanding and challenging the feelings and the behaviors they elicit. Some questions to consider include:

  • Are you making the music too important? Has your child’s musical talent become the repository of your hopes and dreams? If you find yourself becoming overly invested in the importance of your child’s musical accomplishments, you may inadvertently convey this attitude. As a result, your child might feel compelled to pursue music primarily to please you, or conversely, might rebel and quit in protest.
  • Are you expecting too much? Do you compare your child’s accomplishments to those of other young musicians, and feel frustrated that he or she is not as successful? While success in music requires dedication and diligent practice, some children lack the drive and motivation to follow through with this degree of effort. Each child progresses at his or her own pace, a product of talent, opportunity, drive and education, and comparison with other children only fosters resentment.
  • Are you using misguided motivational tactics? Do you find yourself regretting harsh words and arguments over practice? Do you cringe over shaming statements and criticism that you thought might motivate your child? While you may have been influenced by some teachers, books or the media to believe that harsh discipline is a necessary part of musical instruction, it is more important to appreciate its impact on your child. The best learning comes from excitement, inspiration and intrinsic desire, not drudgery or a “boot camp” approach. While short term gains may be achieved, the long term effects can damage your child’s love of music. More importantly, it can hurt your relationship with your child.
  • Do you set unrealistically high goals for your child? Are your expectations unrealistic? Do they create too much pressure and stress for your child and family? Just as intellectually gifted children may display asynchronous development, where social development lags behind intellectual abilities, musically gifted children also may not be developmentally prepared to tackle the rigorous demands required to advance their musical talent. Excessive pressure may create resistance or anxiety in a child who, frankly, needs more time to play with his or her friends.
  • Do you downplay your child’s musical interest? Do you have mixed feelings about your child's participation in musical activities? Does it worry you that music may be a distraction from more productive/useful/socially acceptable interests? Are you worried about music as a future career path? While it is reasonable to express valid concerns to your child as he or she matures, especially those involving peer influences or potential career paths, communicating ambivalence without explanation is unsettling and confusing to most children.
Admitting to any of the behaviors listed above is hard enough for any parent. Understanding how your child’s musical talents evoke unmet personal needs for fulfillment, a desire for approval from others, a drive for perfection, or a range of other emotions is even more difficult.  Yet, recognizing when your own needs and wishes differ from what is in the best interest of your child is critical to your child’s musical success, and to a healthy parent-child relationship. You can avoid “acting out” these emotions with your child by trying the following:

Get informed: 
Speak to a trusted music teacher or musician about what to expect from your child at different ages and stages of musical development. Do some reading that could provide some useful information. Books such as “Kindling the Spark” and “The Musician’s Way” are a good place to start.

Seek support: 
Reach out to family and friends for help with reactions and frustration. They know you best and will hopefully provide honest, caring feedback about what might blind your judgment. Seeking support from fellow parents of young musicians is also invaluable. Look for opportunities to join organizations such as band parent associations, for example, or form relationships with parents you meet at recitals. If your worries seem excessive, overwhelming or persistent, counseling with a mental health professional would be helpful.

Monitor your child’s behavior: 
Most importantly, remain attuned to your child’s adjustment. Pay attention to whether your child truly enjoys the music. Every young musician loses interest in practicing and gets frustrated at times. But if your child repeatedly complains, or cries and becomes angry about practice or lessons, it may mean he or she needs a change. As with most aspects of parenting, raising a musically talented child involves being aware of your own feelings, but ultimately remaining attuned to your child’s needs.

Parents: what has been most helpful with your musical child?

Haroutounian, J. (2002). Kindling the Spark. New York: Oxford University Press.
Klickstein, G. (2009). The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance and Wellness. New York: Oxford University Press.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Thanks for your ideas. I find that it's hard to realize that maybe I am acting out of my own anxiety sometimes with my daughter. Your post forces me to think about this - I don't like to do this, but I guess I need to!

  3. Anonymous, I realize it is uncomfortable to face difficult aspects of ourselves. However, the more we understand about our own needs and motives, the more we can help our children. Good luck with your daughter.


  4. I was a guitar shredder in the '80's and studied guitar for many years. My 12 year old son has been playing for less than a year and has already surpassed me. I can't believe how lucky I am to have this connection to my Son, but I'm struggling with jealousy as well as the right path for him to take. I feel to self-conscious to even pick up a guitar around him. I know the steps to take to help him to succeed, but I'm worried that at some point my jealousy will hold him back.

    1. James, It's great that you have insight into your reactions. Hopefully you can remain aware of them and get the support you need so you can continue to encourage your son.

  5. My son is 6 years old. He always liked music and songs since 2 and could tell the names of songs with just a few notes. In the last couple of months, after mommy taught him the keys on the piano, he started playing out the music he's familiar with and even new songs he just heard. He doesn't play perfectly, but usually captures all the notes. He also sings out the notes of songs he heard (without ever seeing the music sheet) like do-le-me. It amazed me and his mother. How gifted is he?

    1. I can't say how gifted he is, but it certainly sounds like he has a connection with music and takes to it easily. He would probably love some kind of lessons or other exposure to music if you can afford it. If not, continue what you're doing - just encouraging his love of music and providing him opportunities to explore, listen and participate in musical activities. Good luck.

  6. My son has been tinkering with piano since 1st Grade. We are financially strapped so lessons are irregular as I can afford them. I finally got him a full size keyboard, an inexpensive model. He started 1 year ago with lesdons regularly. He is blind in one eye from coats disease. But Im curious, he can play without reading music. Fir example, we went to see End Game. After we got home from the movie, he sat down at his keyboard and played the music to Tony Starks fineral scene. It blows my mind when he does these things. Im trying to keep him going with lessons so he can learn to read music. His father can do the same thing, but not as quick. Jonathan can hear a song and play it. He is now 14 and plays what he hears. But not reading music yet. What I want to know is. What is this? Is he unusual? Is this common? I am in no way musical. But I am trying to help hom grow. What can I do for him? He LOVES to play EVERY DAY! He wants this and I want to help him but not sure how.