How to spot a musical prodigy

From Upbeat, 1:30 pm on 23 August 2017

Have you thought your child might be the next musical prodigy? There’s at least one in this country, if the research is anything to go by.

The likelihood of your child being a musical prodigy is about one in every three to five million, according to University of Melbourne’s Conservatorium of Music Professor Gary McPherson, who’s studied music development of children for more than 20 years.

But he says parents are quick to judge the ability, or lack of, in their children, and their encouragement often diminishes and lessens the likelihood of future development.

Pianist Lang Lang at Carnegie Hall

Pianist Lang Lang at Carnegie Hall Photo: Richard Termine

All the “stars must align” just right for a prodigy to blossom. They need, according to McPherson, an underlying love of music, the natural ability to learn and memorise music, and the right environmental factors.

A child could have all the natural talent in the world but if they aren’t being supported, or receiving the right coaching, their love of music might die.

“A true prodigy [has a] love for music and [is] consumed by it… and is learning vast amounts of repertoire before the age of 10,” McPherson says. “Some people are good at learning a second language. I think it’s a parallel to music.”

Being pitch perfect, and having perfect physical dexterity are also two important factors for prodigies. They need the speed, balance and endurance to perform the intricate movements that complex music requires.  Those, combined with environmental factors, including encouragement from parents and teachers can do a lot.

But McPherson says many parents make snap judgments about their child’s ability before the child has even made up their own mind about music.

In his research, McPherson studied parents’ encouragement of children who were just starting to learn music. He found parents decided within the first four or five months if their child had any talent.

 “What we found is that very early on the parents were making assumptions whether their child had it or didn’t,” he says. “So in a sense they were giving up on the child’s progress before the child felt the same way.”

It’s natural to protect children and parents are likely to steer their children into other hobbies they feel they might be better at, but McPherson says perseverance is the key for both parents and children. “Don’t pre-empt,” he says.

The stereotype is that parents of prodigies can be overbearing. One pianist, who later became world famous, was told to jump out a window by his father when at the age of 10 he failed to gain entry to a top music school. McPherson says this is the exception to the rule.

Children need to feel like they are in control of their musical learning. McPherson says having a teacher they can relate to and work well with helps; giving children confidence that they are mastering their skill and a sense of autonomy are also important. He recommends allowing children, with the guidance of their teachers, to choose the music they want to play. That will keep the passion alive, which, according to McPherson is one of the most important things.

He’s identified two types of passion, harmonious passion and obsessive passion. Those who have harmonious passion do something because they want to do it. They are also better at persisting and overcoming obstacles and failure.

Those with obsessive passion feels the activity controls them, which can lead to stress and burnout.

“[Passion] that’s the underlying force that sustains them through periods where they need to rally through a difficult time in their life,” McPherson says. “If they haven’t got that – the love of music – they will burn out.”