Focus. That’s what child prodigies seem to have. And support. The capacity for extreme focus on one thing and the support of adults and culture to pursue the object of that focus.
This is a blog post about child prodigies and the precocious development of exceptionally advanced talents among young or very young musicians. This is mostly based on my 30-plus years as a music educator, but I’ll also cite some studies where the findings have highlighted similar characteristics. My experience is based on largely middle class or relatively financially well-off young people in Australia, north America, western Europe, and Asia.
I’ve noticed one profound prerequisite for high achievement: focus.
Most kids seem not to focus on any single thing very much at all except, sometimes, certain sources of instant gratification like computer gaming. Instead, they develop childhood versions of portfolio careers: a portfolio childhood. They do ‘a bit of this’ and ‘a bit of that’, flitting from one thing to another. Video and television for children and young people is fast paced with very rapid edits. Parents segment childrens’ daily lives into multiple small chunks, ferrying youngsters from one to another of a series of out-of-school activities. Even in school, days are broken into small segments of time: a little bit of mathematics, fifteen minutes of reading, some games, lunch, an hour of art, and so on. Common wisdom is that kids ‘that age’ can’t concentrate for more than half an hour, and hour, and so on.
The children themselves, in classes and in lessons, do not focus. They want to ‘mess around’, go ‘off-task’, chat, disrupt, attention-seek, and so on. Teachers will testify to the negative consequences of classroom misbehaviour on learning. It can take so long for groups of children or teens to learn simply because they waste most of their time ‘mucking around’. They don’t focus.
Increasingly, and disturblingly in my opinion, many children struggle to focus even in private one-on-one music lessons. They misbehave in that context just as though they are in a larger group. They don’t focus and that kills their potential. For as long as individual kids and classes lack focus, they put on hold their chances of – in the case of music – getting good.
Child Prodigies and Talented Children
I am going to distinguish between prodigies and talented young people only to the extent that they seem to occupy different relative spots on the same continuum. With more focus and more adult support, the ‘merely’ talented could become progidgious. One team of researchers, Ruthsatz et. al. (2014), define a prodigy as ‘individuals who reach a professional level of achievement in a culturally relevant domain before the age of 10 or adolescence’ (p.11). That is a useful definition, though ‘western’ childhood seems to extend into young adulthood now, so I will expand the definition to encompass teens as well as preadolescents. The idea that if you haven’t made it by age 10 (or adolescence for the really slow) then you aren’t a prodigy but simply clever at music seems harsh.
Child prodigies and young musicians who get very good unusually early seem to have two key things: focus and adult support. They spend the time that is needed to reach extremely high levels of performance and they get the support that is needed to do so. Researchers Feldman and Goldsmith (1990) did case studies of six child prodigies in a range of disciplines including music. One of their main findings highlighted the sustained effort and support needed to realise prodigy. They found that ‘prodigies work with passion, determination, and commitment to realize their gifts, assisted in this endeavor by dedicated parents, teachers, and mentors.’ (Feldman & Goldsmith, 1990, p. 13).
Feldman and Goldsmith also concluded that
‘contrary to popular belief, prodigies’ accomplishments are not produced effortlessly or instantaneously. Their talents, however extraordinary, develop only in the context of an enormous amount of personal effort and assistance from others … Between the initial indication of strong interest and ability and the subsequent exceptional achievements, there were literally thousands of hours of hard work and assistance from a number of other people’ (1990, pp. 10-11).
Ruthsatz et al. found that prodigies, especially in music, exhibited far above average working memories. In their study of the cognitive profiles of 18 child prodigies, ‘every music prodigies’ parents reported that their child began to reproduce from memory music that they had heard; the ability to read music came later in their development’ (2014, p. 14). So, memory also seems to be important. However, I would argue that memorising requires focus. Without focus, there can be few complex feats of memorisation, and no prodigy.
In other words, the young people in these case studies had extreme and sustained focus and the support needed from adults to spend the time needed to develop their skill.
What holds most kids back?
I have already mentioned the generalist nature of most childhoods, the portfolio-style of learning. This is consistent with what Australian sociologist Sharon Aris has called an ‘allrounder’ disposition to parenting and education (Aris, 2020), parents who place much importance on ‘their children achieving multiple attributes and achievements from schooling … becoming ‘well-rounded’ as a person’. In a series of case studies of parents’ school choice for their children, Aris notes that, for allrounder-style parents, becoming well-rounded includes ‘the development of a collection of social attributes and achievements from schooling as well as sufficient academic success to ensure a progression to professional life’ (Aris, 2020, p. 118). That is, such parents want their children to develop a portfolio of attributes and skills that will help them socially, academically and, later on, professionally.
While the idea of a well-rounded child is appealing and makes good sense, maybe it also risks precluding what many such parents (and teachers) might see as excessive focus on one thing, such as music. ‘What about your maths?’ they may ask, or ‘you need something to fall back on’. Focus is diluted and children’s attention is spread more thinly over many competing activities, jacks of all trades. This raises the question of whether this is a problem.
It is probably a good idea for young people to become well-rounded. It surely offers the best way into the skills, dispositions, social, and cultural capital needed to access professional careers and comfortable middle-class lives. I am surely not the only person to have encountered highly focused musicians who are astonishing performers, but appalling people with a deficit of other skills. There are exceptions, of course, but my point is that high achievement does not appear from out of nowhere. It is not magic nor is it, as Feldman and Goldsmith show, just a ‘gift from God’ that will emerge spontaneously.
If you want your child to be good at music, or anything else, they need to focus on it, and you need to support that focus. Just because a child spends seemingly unreasonable hours concentrating on music does not mean they won’t learn to read or write. They will learn those things but can also get great satisfaction and pleasure from playing music. For people not used to such focus, it could be easy to forget that extraordinarily focused people can do many things very well.
If your kid wastes time in lessons, rehearsals, or class misbehaving and disrupting, they are crippling their own potential as well as stealing opportunities from their peers. If you enable that behaviour by denying that your child is ever out of line, then unfortunately you are handicapping their potential to succeed as well as harming their peers or classmates. It seems unfair at best. As soon as young people, student ensembles, or school classes start to focus, in the absence of a genuine learning disability, they begin to make rapid progress.
Culture and Child Prodigies
An important aspect of the adult support that prodigies and high-performing young musicians need is wider cultural support for what they do. Feldman and Goldsmith note that ‘the culture at large must value and support the effort to pursue study of the child’s special domain. Without some form of support at this level, the child will fight an uphill battle for the simple privilege of learning’ (1990, p. 12). They note that, at the time of their study, an American child with a keen interest in chess was far less likely to receive support and encouragement than a child in Iceland where chess is a national pastime (p.12).
In Australia, it seems relatively acceptable for a child to specialize in sport or ballet, but less so in music. I have heard of very few children being encouraged to focus on jazz or allowed to develop jazz playing to a very advanced level. Instead, children are routinely discouraged from jazz until they are older, often due to misconceptions such as it being too difficult or that children must play classical music first to properly develop the fundamentals of music. Both notions are false and unfortunate but seem widespread.
Conclusion: prodigies require focus and support
Many parents like the idea that their child is gifted or talented, but probably don’t really want a musical prodigy. Who really wants their child to become a professional jazz drummer instead of a lawyer, dentist, or international golf star? But even if we set aside the idea of prodigy, to get really good at music, or to play jazz well, or to excel at anything requires sustained focus from the young person and support from the adults in their life. Parents and young musicians must decide what balance they are comfortable with between the more thinly spread allrounder and the highly specialized prodigy.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also like this post and video about the marketing of child prodigies in jazz vs the reality of everyday teaching and learning.
Aris, S. M. (2020). Understanding school choice: what parents prioritise in high schools. University of Sydney. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/2123/22995
Feldman, D., & Goldsmith, L. (1990). Nature’s gambit: Child prodigies and the development of talent. Indianapolis: Indiana State Dept. of Education. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED323686.pdf
Ruthsatz, J., Ruthsatz-Stephens, K., & Ruthsatz, K. (2014). The cognitive bases of exceptional abilities in child prodigies by domain: similarities and differences. Intelligence, 44, 11-14. Read online: here (opens a PDF).