Thursday, February 19, 2015

Is shame holding back your musically talented child?

Why would musically talented children refuse to develop their potential?

Everyone loves music. Right? So you might think that musically talented children would embrace their abilities and immerse themselves in music study. You also might assume that these children would feel welcomed, appreciated and accepted. This may be true when that talent aligns with pop music culture. But it can be a vastly different experience for serious young musicians who don't fit these norms.

Sometimes shame holds them back.

There are many definitions of shame in the field of psychology, but the Merriam-Webster dictionary offers a simple and basic description of shame: "a feeling of guilt, regret or sadness that you have because you know you have done something wrong; ability to feel guilt regret or embarrassment; dishonor or disgrace."

Talented young musicians know they are different from their peers, have an unusual and exceptional ability, and may feel pressured to live up to others' expectations. Even though they have done nothing wrong, they still may feel embarrassment and shame about who they are, what they do, and what they have not yet accomplished.

The following are some shame-based concerns that may arise for gifted young musicians:

1. I am ashamed of being so different

While their peers idolize popular icons in rock, hip hop or country music, talented classically trained students who excel in a medium outside of these realms may feel shunned and even bullied. Although recognized for their talents, they may be viewed with a mixture of curiosity, awe and suspicion. How did he get so good at something so difficult? Why would anyone want to play that kind of music? She must be really different from us.

Performing, studying, and actually enjoying classical music may be a source of shame and embarrassment, especially for gifted teens. Often they feel compelled to choose between continuing their studies or stopping so they can fit in with popular teen culture. What other extra-curricular activities must be routinely sacrificed in order to achieve popularity? Certainly not sports, art, dance (for girls), or martial arts, for example. While these may require effort, dedicated practice and extended time away from other activities, they don't carry the same negative stereotypes. It seems that formal music study carries an unyielding stigma, and many classical music students forfeit this creative outlet, their musical potential, and possibly a future career to avoid shame and isolation.

What to do: Find as many "normalizing" experiences as possible that provide an opportunity for acceptance and a sense of community. Musically talented children benefit from summer music camps and festivals, and local youth music ensembles, such as bands, musical theater, choirs or orchestras where they can meet like-minded peers. At these venues, they can find a refuge where others share similar musical interests. struggle with the same challenges, and truly understand what it means to feel so different. While cost may be prohibitive, many programs offer scholarships, and some programs in larger cities may be free of charge. If this is not an option, advocating for collaborative music events across school districts, or even communicating in online forums, might provide some opportunities for finding a sense of community.

2. I did nothing to earn this talent

Despite the recent growth mindset trend, some researchers still point out that exceptional talent springs from intrinsic ability. No amount of hard work and effort will propel an individual forward without innate talent. While the ease with which these children learn and master new repertoire can fuel further excitement and inspiration, it may remind them of their unique differences. No one has to tell them how talented they are; it becomes obvious when they compare themselves to their peers and see others' reactions to their abilities. They may feel guilt or shame because of how easily they progress despite exerting little effort. They may cringe when praised for their talents, and retreat from any attention focused directly on them.

What to do: Just as parents need to explain what it means to be gifted to their intellectually gifted child, you will need to help your child appreciate the opportunities, choices and responsibilities inherent in possessing musical talent. Help her appreciate that she is not responsible for, and has no need to apologize for her talents.Remind her that she didn't choose to have this ability; it doesn't make her better than anyone else, and may even delay learning the importance of hard work. But you can still share in her excitement over mastery and achievement, even while still reminding her that she is fortunate to have options unattainable for many other children.

3. I am a slacker

Many musically talented children slack off. They do this because they can. They get away with it, even though most know that without serious and consistent effort, they will eventually fail. Although the ease with which they achieve mastery can make performing a joy, they may start to feel like imposters, since they know they are functioning well below their potential. They face the same emotional struggles as intellectually gifted underachievers. When praised for a performance, they often feel ashamed and undeserving. They may lose faith in teachers or peers who appreciate their skills and don't "see through them." They may wonder when they will get caught.

What to do: Find out why your child is not working up to his potential. Is this a familiar pattern in other areas of study or behavior? Does he struggle with chronic procrastination, or thrive on meeting deadlines at the last minute? Is he bored, frustrated or afraid to take risks that might lead to failure? Is he in a class/music ensemble/course of study that is not challenging him? Once you find out what contributes to the problem, you can address it directly. If he needs a more challenging teacher or music ensemble, see if that can be arranged. If he would benefit from a music camp or festival, see if he can attend. If his problem is behavioral or emotional, you or his teacher could speak with him about his roadblocks and offer suggestions. And if it fails to resolve, sometimes working with a licensed mental health professional can be beneficial.

4. I feel ashamed when I fail

Some talented young musicians become their own worst critics. If they have low self-esteem or base their identity on being a "musician," any failure can strike a blow to their self-worth. Like other perfectionistic gifted children, some musically talented children place unreasonable demands on themselves and expect to control all possible outcomes. They may feel devastated if they are not accepted to a music festival, lose a competition, or even get a less than desired orchestra seating. In fact, their definition of failure is often distorted, as anything slightly less than perfect is seen as flawed. Some also feel pressure from family, schools and teachers and don't want to let them down. At its worst, unrelenting perfectionism can result in abandoning music altogether because of the shame that ensues when high expectations are not met.

What to do: Intervene as soon as possible to ensure that your child does not develop a chronic pattern of perfectionism, overachievement and self-blame. Ask her teacher to work with her and help her loosen the demands she places on herself. And, of course, if her teacher or music director uses shame or harsh criticism as a motivational tool, address these concerns directly, and if they are not resolved, find another music venue for her. If her self-criticism and fears are unrelated to external pressure and are primarily internally driven, she may benefit from meeting with a licensed mental health professional who can help lessen her unreasonable expectations.

A final note: Parents of musically talented children also feel shame.

Parents also experience a wealth of emotions in response to their child's musical talents, ranging from pride to anxiety. They may feel just as isolated as their child, and grapple with the same questions parents of intellectually gifted students face: how do I share my joy, fears, and concerns without sounding like I'm bragging? They may doubt that others truly understand the uncertainty they face, and are reluctant to share their concerns.

Feelings of shame may arise, for example, when parents question how their expressions of pride, worry or frustration are perceived by others; when they question or doubt their motives, efforts or ineffectiveness in helping their child progress; or when they harbor competitive feelings toward other children or families who seem more successful.

What to do: Parents benefit from conversations with others who understand the highs and lows of raising a musically gifted child. Finding opportunities to share these experiences with other parents of young musicians will normalize their feelings and provide much needed support. Forming contacts through band parent associations, volunteer activities through school, or even meetings with parents after recitals, for example, can be an essential step toward building a supportive community.


  1. Another excellent article, Gail. Musical talent is one aspect of giftedness that is not often talked about, but can affect many. I've often questioned why my son who was an exceptional pianist just up and quit playing. How can a child with such clear talent for playing the piano not want to play anymore? I see your list of shame-based concerns and I can see some relation with my son. Thanks so much for this!

    1. Thank you so much, Celi. Most people think it's easy for kids choosing a musical path, but unless they are immersed in rock or hip hop, it's another difficult social chasm to cross. And since many musically gifted children are also intellectually gifted, like your son, they also struggle with those issues. There are only SO many differences any child can manage. So appreciate your comments.

  2. My cousin's son is an exceptional violinist and then suddenly gave it all up. I'll have to pass this on to my cousin. My son is studying music composition, so it's a little different for him. He has learned to play the clarinet, piano, flute, violin, and now the harp. He's not an exceptional musician with any of those instruments, but is able to learn to play nearly any instrument quickly and easily --- he just doesn't practice any of them enough. He wants to compose. He also has a beautiful bass voice and enjoys singing...but doesn't want to do that professionally either.

    I will also add that he had an exceptional music program in his high school, which helped tremendously. Support is always so important.

    This is a great article. I love it.

    1. Thanks, Carol. I agree that support from school and the quality of the music program is critical. Schools can set the tone by supporting the arts as much as they support sports or other activities. I hope your cousin's son sorts out what he wants.


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