Practice More Than Innate Ability Makes the Musically Gifted Child

Image Caption: From Luc Dionne’s film 'The Child Prodigy'
Graham Strahle
| August 14, 2017

What does it actually mean when a child is described as being ‘gifted and talented’ at music? Is it, for example, the ability to sing in tune, remember a melody, sight read, or attain a technical level of performance that is ahead of their years? Over the eons society has celebrated children who are able to perform adult-like feats on their instrument or in singing, but always the question is whether this ability is inborn or acquired through intensive teaching and practice.

A good background paper on this subject was written by music education researcher and policy advisor Helen Lancaster in 2003, entitled ‘Identifying the Gifted in Music’. In it she observes that “In the West, we are amazed by the virtuoso, capable of performing at levels unimagined by renowned experts in various fields”, but she says there can be no hard and fast ways of measuring musical giftedness because different cultural practices and understandings of music make this impossible.

Yet what we have seen in the one-and-a-half decades since that paper was written is a whole educational edifice that has been built up around the notion of giftedness. State education departments around Australia offer a range of materials that are aimed at assisting both parents and teachers with ‘gifted and talented’ children, including lists of specialist schools, dedicated associations and other educational pathways that cater for their needs in music and other subjects. Find a directory of them across the country here.

Maybe some questions need to be raised. It could be argued that every child, in their own individual way and taking into account their social or cultural background, is gifted and talented at music. Their particular abilities just might not show up in the standard ways.

One theory is that practice, rather than innate ability, is the real driver of high achievement in children. In ‘Why there’s no such thing as a gifted child’, The Guardian’s Wendy Berliner explains why. Co-author of the new book Great Minds and How to Grow Them (Routledge), she says that decades of research in neuroscience and psychology show that diligence, practice and a positive working attitude are the key to ‘high performance learning’.

Berliner writes: “Children very quickly understand their parents’ expectations of them,” which in turn can supply motivation and the desire to succeed. But it all depends on an effective practice routine at home. She refers to what she calls ‘automaticity’ and speed and accuracy, saying that learning efficiently can enable children “to do some things so well that they can do them without thinking – automatically – because that saves them mental time and space.”

It applies as equally to maths, music or any other area, Berliner believes. Quoting Anders Ericsson’s book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, she writes: “After research going back to 1980 into diverse achievements, from music to memory to sport, he doesn’t think unique and innate talents are at the heart of performance. Deliberate practice, that stretches you every step of the way, and around 10,000 hours of it, is what produces the expert.”

The label ‘gifted and talented’ is a vexed one. For those children so labelled, it undoubtedly serves as a confidence booster. But it is only a label, and for all those others not so labelled, it can carry negative messages about their abilities and potential. They can feel blocked out and their interest dented. In an already over-taxed educational system, surely all children are equally deserving of our teaching and learning resources.

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