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Musically Gifted: Tools to Help Parent

Grow a Generation - Musically Gifted

Jacquee and Lexi – Melody Nation

Do you believe your child is musically gifted? They may

–       think in terms of chords or harmony,

–       look at numerous lines of music on a page and hear it in their head,

–       quickly learn to read and play music,

–       show creative improvisational talent,

–       enjoy composition,

–       live as though they had a perpetual soundtrack playing in their head,

–       can name a tune from only a few notes,

–       have an extreme sensitivity to sound, sights or experiences,

–       experience deep feelings and emotions, something others can let go of can consume them with feelings of devastation or ecstasy,

–       able to reproduce accurate pitch from what they hear in their head,

–       have a high level sense of rhythm they can reproduce at will,

–       hear vertically, such as harmony and complex musicality

–       have an innate perfectionism in regard to music, with discipline to do the repetitive tasks and work and work at something to get it right.

–       produce a pleasing and emotionally evocative tone whether on an instrument or voice (beyond mere pitch and rhythm, beyond musical analytics and technique, expressing creativity and beauty, what Benjamin Zander calls one buttocks playing)


They don’t have to have all these qualities. Defining giftedness is difficult. How do we tell it apart from precocious (children who prematurely developed certain abilities or proclivities yet track at grade level five years later)? The talents of students who are musically gifted unfold and reveal nuance and musicality. Many do not demonstrate the showmanship skills of an entertainer yet remember and repeat everything they hear. Some are driven to write their own music using influences from what they’ve heard. As your child explores their musical gifts and places those gifts at the service of more and more opportunities, they will discover their life as a unique organic symbiosis that grows in ways that no one before has done before.  This blog will bring to light resources that help you look for the kind of opportunities that can benefit the musically gifted. Each child is unique and a formula for success cannot be standardized, yet they all share the need to find the space and chance to grow.

Musical giftedness should not find its definition based merely in technical skill, rather the emotional love and passion for music should be a balance and check. All the co-authors agree that the dynamic balance between instruction for developing technical competency and the facilitation of creative expression is delicate.  This balance is not merely unique to each child, but also shifts and changes with that child’s personal development. From the perspective of healthy growth, well-being and thriving, the end point must not be competition-based but a form of lifelong creative disclosure. Each child must be inspired to share their gift in their own special way.


Exceptional and Profoundly Gifted

Helen Lancaster gave a keynote address at the Thai National Center for the Gifted and Talented on Identifying the Gifted in Music. I will leave it to experts to classify and quantify. I would like to refer parents of profoundly gifted students to the Davidson Institute and assure them the days are coming when geography will no longer dictate what teachers our children have access to. Yamaha’s amazing technology was beautifully demonstrated at the 2010 Intel Visionary Conference by profoundly gifted Calista Frederick-Jaskiewicz in her long distance lesson with pianist and composer Jarrod Radnich.


The relationship of math and music

Mathematically gifted children may be musically expressive. They may be enrolled in gifted or honors math programs, and gifted in music, yet find the spark of passion only in one and not the other. Music is full of mathematical patterns and the relationship between the two is has been explicit since the time of Pythagoras. That said, extraordinary mathematical ability is not necessary to being musically gifted. The need to foster foundational skills while simultaneously ensuring creative opportunities requires an individualized plan that takes into account the other gifts and talents that overlap a child’s musical giftedness.


The relationship of the brain and music

It is beyond the scope of this blog to share even the highlights of recent neuroscience research into musical giftedness, recreational music, and the development of musicality and musical intelligence. One of our co-authors, Dr. Barry Bittman, is the director of the Yamaha Music and Wellness Institute that studies the changes that happen in a person’s mind, body and emotional abilities to relate to others when they recreationally make music. Another co-author referenced research in human musicality, particularly the article by Jaffer’s Developing Musicality Formal and Informal Practices.  The bottom line is that music is an important component to every individual’s growth and thriving.  The musically gifted are challenged to see their gifts as just that, gifts, but not something given to them to enjoy, rather something they are to give to the community and the world to bring joy, express sorrow, reconcile injustice, invite belonging, and inspire bold visions. This outward facing mission challenges parents of the musically gifted to beware of the trap of only focusing on your child’s musical gifts and not offering them a broad range of competencies. As parents, we want to look for and enroll our musically gifted children in new experiences, opportunities where our child can take their music or journey without it, but an experience that will stretch them in ways that music alone cannot.


Music Education
There are National Standards for Arts Education endorsed by the National Association for Music Education adapted by each state. They include items such as

  • Singing challenging solo and ensemble repertoire with technical accuracy and expression.
  • Performing challenging instrumental repertoire in ensembles and solos with
    technical accuracy and expressively.
  • Improvising in variety of styles.
  • Composing and arranging
  • Readingand understanding full score notation
  • Understanding whole musical experiences
  • Evaluating for aesthetic qualities
  • Comparing and contrasting other curriculum concepts
  • Describing music from other cultures and the traditions that influenced them


Like many standards in modern education, they do not reflect the exponentially different technological and social landscapes of the 21st century.  Fundamental music skills, technical ability, and an understanding of music history and tradition are now interwoven with editing, audio correcting, and understanding copyright laws in new digital domains in order to bring about some worthwhile unique self-expression that comprehends the technique and goes beyond.

Music programs, sadly, are being cut from many schools. This is particularly sad when new opportunities are arising to make the arts even more accessible to the whole student body through social media, web 2.0, and technological developments. Many community orchestras and choruses are opening themselves up to advanced high school students. One parent used to locate garage band parents to organize regional ‘battle of the bands’ competitions to give their kids a venue to play in public. Some local music teachers have paired students in their studio to form traditional chamber music groups and non-traditional Cello Fury type groups.

As a parent supporting an existing school music program, consider volunteering so that it becomes increasingly interwoven with alternative school programs:

  • Are performances recorded, remixed, and placed out on web 2.0 or burned for distribution (get copyright permission if using for fundraising)?
  • Can musicians offer background musical accompaniment to morning announcements, online training videos, or the digital newsletter?
  • Are the sine waves studied in physics connected to the harmonic resonance of a particular performance that year?
  • Are musicians invited to prepare soundtracks for video game design course projects?
  • Do the music performance groups get out and perform at the local nursing home, community fair, or foster care facility?
  • Does the architecture class get to study the acoustics of the performance room and offer inexpensive solutions to problems discovered?
  • Is there a coffee house night for musically gifted students to showcase their talent outside of preprogrammed material?
  • Does the history teacher invite the musically gifted students to present a period piece when introducing a new era?
  • Are lyrics (particularly from pieces currently being performed) read and evaluated in the literature class?
  • Does the school have its own YouTube channel with invitations to students to contribute (with approval)?
  • Have members of the music ensemble volunteered to entertain waiting participants before a school board meeting?
  • Is there a music and marketing club that has students wishing to go into the music industry learning how to write press releases, packaging and design techniques, branding, copyright permission, business planning, and entrepreneurship?

Many parents opt to pay for private music lessons for their children.  The Music Teacher’s National Association has a comprehensive list of questions to ask in searching for a qualified music teacher for your child. As with the definition of musically gifted, there is no standard list of questions that will surface the perfect music teacher.  Take cues from your child.  Are they learning?  Is there a balance between technique and creative expression? Are they discovering joy in music? Are they challenged to struggle through failure, criticism, improvement, and mastery? Flexibility is required, as the teacher’s innate ability to tap into the strengths of the child often determines the best path in the moment.  If a student has an auspicious talent in playing an instrument, it is recommended that you look for a teacher who is connected to a conservatory or university.  Julliard, CMU and many outstanding music colleges offer pre-college programs for those who have the resources to attend.

Is it time to look for a college? If your child wishes to major (or minor) in music, ask them to take the time to journal and explicitly write out what they are hoping to accomplish in the end (teaching? performance? alternate career?) and look up the career numbers associated (make sure they know that average salary does not mean starting salary!), to read through the online biographies of the teachers in their particular instrument at the school (and listen to their performances if available), to list the solo and ensemble opportunities (they may need to email the department for these), and Google the school in the news, particularly “graduate of SCHOOL NAME” to see who claims them for an alma mater.  Finally, please read together the NY Times article on school loans. Be aware before entering and wasting a semester the tremendous burden the costs can bear after graduation.


Portfolio Suggestions

Having the sheer talent or innate ability is not enough and by no means will guarantee a musical career. Luck and timing, of course, are huge factors.  For Malcolm Gladwell fans, we know that luck and timing often go to the individuals with 10,000 hours or more of effort into their craft. Geoff Colvin in his book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else speaks to the need for deliberate practice. Your child’s talent is his or her responsibility to develop. While young, they are dependent on us, their parents, to find the opportunities to practice and play.  We can help them begin a portfolio of experiences and teach them how to catalog their

  • Creative Endeavors (recording of recitals, mp3 of original music, games and videos in which they’ve provided a soundtrack, and CD Baby projects)
  • Academic Pursuits (courses in music theory, biographies and books on music, articles written about music, as well as instructors he or she have studied under)
  • Collaborative Partnerships (bands, ensembles, orchestras, church groups, stepping in as a sub in a performance)
  • Personal Milestones (occasions when they took a risk and failed, the stories do not necessarily need to end with success, rather lessons learned. This is a good place to demonstrate an ability to accept criticism and use it for development)
  • Community Service (volunteered to perform at Church or community functions, played taps for Veteran funerals, played solo or ensemble at nursing homes or elder care facilities)
  • Leadership Roles (did they start a Viking heavy metal garage band or Celtic chamber ensemble to play at weddings, do they run a summer camp in your backyard where kids learn about music, serve as a teacher’s assistant at a local Art Center in a ‘make your own instrument’ class)
  • Dreams and Goals (what or who is your child hoping to compose, perform, or play with)

Are there careers available in music? Let’s face it, only a small percentage of musicians can ever make a living by performing. And what if your student doesn’t have the inclination or the temperament to teach? What else is out there? Is she forever relegated to a boring job to pay the bills, while her true passion remains a weekend hobby?

The music industry is undergoing dramatic, seismic shifts in how talent is defined, how art is produced and sold, and how income is generated.  All this is happening as traditional music ‘jobs’ such as teaching in a public school, becoming a music therapist, a church organist, or playing in an city orchestra are diminishing. Take the time to explore the following books and websites for creative and thought provoking ideas of what the future will hold for kids and adults who are musically gifted.


Artistically and Musically Talented Students (Essential Readings in Gifted Education Series)  by Enid Zimmerman and Sally M. Reis

Is artistic talent a matter of nature or nurture? What are the best methods for identifying potential in the arts? How can educators and parents encourage and support artistic development? From identification to the empowerment of teachers of talented arts students, the readings within Artistically and Musically Talented Students offer the best practices the leaders in the field have to offer.

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks explores the place music occupies in the brain and how it affects the human condition. In Musicophilia, he shows us a variety of what he calls “musical misalignments.” Among them: a man struck by lightning who suddenly desires to become a pianist at the age of forty-two; an entire group of children with Williams syndrome, who are hypermusical from birth; people with “amusia,” to whom a symphony sounds like the clattering of pots and pans; and a man whose memory spans only seven seconds-for everything but music. Illuminating, inspiring, and utterly unforgettable.

A Case of Brilliance by Rebecca Lange Hein

A parent to parent memoir that chronicles the unusual ways her profoundly gifted children learn, perceive and think and her journey to empower and homeschool them.

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitan

In this groundbreaking union of art and science, rocker-turned-neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explores the connection between music, its performance, its composition, how we listen to it, why we enjoy it, and the human brain. Drawing on the latest research and on musical examples ranging from Mozart to Duke Ellington to Van Halen, Levitin reveals an unprecedented, eye-opening investigation into an obsession at the heart of human nature.

Blogs and Articles

Performing Arts Instruction for Exceptionally and Profoundly Gifted Children by Beth Wright

What special considerations do parents and educators need to make when planning performing arts instruction for exceptionally and profoundly gifted (hereafter referred to as eg/pg) children?

Williams Syndrome: A Study of Unique Musical Talents in Persons with Disabilities

Smiling, sociable, and often musically adept, persons with Williams Syndrome (WS) have only recently been recognized as a distinct group of people with talents and needs that may differentiate them from people with other disabling conditions

The Green Room

is the blog serving From the Top — the preeminent showcase for the nation’s best young classical musicians. In addition to sharing behind the scenes information about From the Top and updates on our alumni, we hope to foster discussion through this blog  – so please tell us how we’re doing and feel free to respond to posts and suggest topics for future entries. RSS and newsletter feeds.


Play games, make your own instrument, explore the orchestra

Explore music theory

Learn music theory, history, styles, professions, instruments, games, links, and meet the Treble Rebels

TED Talks

Benjamin Zander on music and passion

Benjamin Zander has two infectious passions: classical music, and helping us all realize our untapped love for it — and by extension, our untapped love for all new possibilities, new experiences, new connections.

Adam Sadowsky engineers a viral music video

The band “OK Go” dreamed up the idea of a massive Rube Goldberg machine for their next music video — and Adam Sadowsky’s team was charged with building it. He tells the story of the effort and engineering behind their labyrinthine creation that quickly became a YouTube sensation.

Jakob Trollback rethinks the music video

What would a music video look like if it were directed by the music, purely as an expression of a great song, rather than driven by a filmmaker’s concept? Designer Jakob Trollback shares the results of his experiment in the form.

Robert Gupta: Music is medicine, music is sanity

Robert Gupta, violinist with the LA Philharmonic, talks about a violin lesson he once gave to a brilliant, schizophrenic musician — and what he learned. Called back onstage later, Gupta plays his own transcription of the prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1.

David Pogue on the music wars

New York Times tech columnist David Pogue performs a satirical mini-medley about iTunes and the downloading wars, borrowing a few notes from Sonny andCherand the Village People.

Bobby McFerrin hacks your brain with music

In this fun, 3-min performance from the World Science Festival, musician Bobby McFerrin uses the pentatonic scale to reveal one surprising result of the way our brains are wired.

Maya Beiser(s) and her cello(s)

Cellist Maya Beiser plays a gorgeous eight-part modern etude with seven copies of herself, and segues into a meditative music/video hybrid — using tech to create endless possibilities for transformative sound. Music is Steve Reich’s “Cello Counterpoint,” with video from Bill Morrison, then David Lang’s “World to Come,” with video by Irit Batsry.

Eric Whitacre: A virtual choir 2,000 voices strong

In a moving and madly viral video last year, composer Eric Whitacre led a virtual choir of singers from around the world. He talks through the creative challenges of making music powered by YouTube, and unveils the first 2 minutes of his new work, “Sleep,” with a video choir of 2,052.

Charles Limb: Your brain on improv

Musician and researcher Charles Limb wondered how the brain works during musical improvisation — so he put jazz musicians and rappers in an fMRI to find out. What he and his team found has deep implications for our understanding of creativity of all kinds.

Thomas Dolby: “Love Is a Loaded Pistol”

For his first studio album release in decades, musical innovator Thomas Dolby has been composing music in the uniquely inspirational setting of a restored life-boat. Here he premieres a gorgeous, evocative song from that album — about one night with a legend. He’s backed by members of the modern string quartet Ethel.

Michael Tilson Thomas: Music and emotion through time

In this epic overview, Michael Tilson Thomas traces the development of classical music through the development of written notation, the record, and the re-mix.

Tod Machover and Dan Ellsey play new music

Tod Machover of MIT’s Media Lab is devoted to extending musical expression to everyone, from virtuosos to amateurs, and in the most diverse forms, from opera to video games. He and composer Dan Ellsey shed light on what’s next.

John Bohannon: Dance vs. powerpoint, a modest proposal

Use dancers instead of powerpoint. That’s science writer John Bohannon’s “modest proposal.” In this spellbinding choreographed talk from TEDxBrussels he makes his case by example, aided by dancers from Black Label Movement.

Gideon Freudmann 

Composer and electric cellist Gideon Freudmann enjoys an international reputation for his innovative compositions and unique style of playing. He is a founding member and composer for The Portland Cello Project. His art is inspired by the best of classical, modern, jazz, eastern European and blues traditions, and his music is both immediately accessible and richly detailed in its nuance and complexity. His compositions are heard on numerous award-winning film and TV soundtracks. Gideon has released 17 albums to date—eleven solo and six collaborations.

J.J. Abrams’ mystery box

J.J. Abrams traces his love for the unseen mystery –- a passion that’s evident in his films and TV shows, including Cloverfield, Lost and Alias — back to its magical beginnings.


This site has wonderful tools and a systemic review of music theory.

The new ipad owners app buying guide for music theory apps

Android Apps include music tutors, piano assistants, piano keyboards, metronomes, guitar chords, and drum sets.

Pianist iPhone app

Pianist transforms your iPhone into a full fledged 88-key piano.

Bloom iPhone app

Bloom lets you create music and melodies by simply touching and tapping on the screen.

Pocket Shaker iPhone app

Pocket Shaker is turns your iPhone into a cool percussion instrument.


Questions to ask your child

Parenting a musically gifted child is a challenge. Many parents of children who exhibit profound technical talent tend to push their children toward music, and there are some students in which the emotional passion is not present. It is difficult to tell this at a young age. Parents should keep an open mind and allow their children to pursue music at his/her own pace. Below are some questions to consider as you drive with your child to and from a lesson or finish a difficult practice session. Listen for your child’s heart.
1.    Do you like music?

2.    Do you hear music in your head all the time?  Is it a soundtrack?

3.    How does music make you feel?

4.    What do you like to do if you can choose an activity?

5.    Do you get tired of playing/practicing music? If so, when and why?

6.    Do you respond to music? Does it change your mood?

7.    Do you enjoying getting physically involved when hearing music?

8.    Do you understand harmony?

9.    Can you hear the vertical relationships in music?

10. Do you understand rhythm in music? Does it make sense to you?

11. Do you naturally see and hear the patterns in music?

12. Can you remember a tune after hearing it once?

13. Can you accurately repeat pitches and intervals?

14. How can music be part of each moment of your life?

15. What type of music helps you relax and heal?

16. What can we listen to (or better yet, play) together?

Special thanks to Ruth Catchen, Tracy Martin, Dr. Barry Bittman, Stephen Cantazarite, and Marisa Youngs as co-authors and contributors to this week’s blog.


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