Supporting Musically Talented Children: Challenging Social and Emotional Roadblocks to Success

By Gail Post, Ph.D.

Raised in a family of professional musicians and immersed in intensive musical training as a child, music has been a part of my life since an early age. Although I pursued a very different path as a psychologist, music still forms the foundation of my thinking, my writing, and my perspective on all things aesthetic. My children, both young adults, pursued intensive musical training as well. Participation in various youth orchestras and bands provided a connection with like-minded peers, disciplined focus, and creative engagement. One of my kids chose to major in music at college--along with a more "practical" major. While sometimes costly (although at other times, highly affordable or even free), the education they both received and what they gained from their involvement and immersion in music was priceless.

As a licensed psychologist and parenting coach with a specialization in intellectually and musically gifted individuals, I witness the struggles many families encounter. Musically gifted children need their family's emotional support and encouragement, along with a music education tailored to their development level and skills.

Musically talented children often face an uphill battle when trying to maintain enthusiasm for their studies. What typically starts with excitement and focused effort can end in boredom, apathy, and disappointment. Several authors (e.g., Haroutounian, 2002; Parncutt & McPherson, 2002) have offered ideas for enhancing musical training and motivating young musicians. Yet, parents often question how to support and sustain their child’s passion when interest starts to wane.

Along with offering training that enriches their musical education, it is just as important to anticipate, challenge, and eliminate social and emotional barriers to success. While the technical challenges and demands of music performance are an ever-present reality, children need help navigating the emotional pressure and uncertainty that may arise at different stages of their progress.

Offering emotional support to musically talented children is often as essential as the music instruction itself.

Some of the emotional roadblocks parents and teachers may need to address to support gifted young musicians include the following:

1. BoredomRepetitive practice, musical studies that spark little interest, and distraction can erode the drive and passion in any aspiring young musician. Attention span varies depending on the child’s age; younger musicians may need more breaks and shorter practice time, and adolescents may require an environment free from competing distractions, such as electronics, phones, and other interruptions. Capturing their interest and engaging their creative spark is essential. Adolescents often seek a sense of purpose, and need a rationale for the practice methodology. They may quickly lose interest if they dislike, misunderstand, or dispute expectations in relation to their daily practice. Some rudimentary understanding of music theory may help to spark their intellectual curiosity and help them stay motivated.

2. Perfectionism – While music performance ultimately requires perfecting one’s repertoire, some gifted young musicians develop unrealistically high standards for themselves. They become frustrated, self-critical, and despairing if they fail to achieve their goals. Any real or perceived setback may undermine their confidence and overall sense of well-being. While a goal-oriented approach and dedication to one’s craft are admirable, this can be a curse for a child who buckles under pressure to succeed beyond what is reasonable.

Perfectionism is a characteristic often associated with giftedness. Although "striving for excellence" can be a catalyst toward achieving success, and not necessarily a sign of emotional disturbance, true perfectionism is devastating, and contributes to increased anxiety, depression, and despair. When musically talented children hold unrealistically rigid and perfectionistic expectations, they may succumb to the weight of these internalized demands, become anxious, or may give up on music entirely. Sometimes, counseling with a licensed mental health professional is indicated when perfectionism triggers apathy, anxiety, or depression.

3. Performance anxiety – Fears associated with performing can include anxiety about being judged, freezing under pressure, making mistakes in public, forgetting a part when performing from memory, or even reluctance to being the center of attention. While a problem that often plagues even accomplished musicians, Kemp & Mills (2002) pointed out that performance anxiety certainly affects young musicians as well. A variety of cognitive-behavioral, mindfulness (see Cornett, 2019), and imagery tools can help manage the effects of anxiety. Green (1986) offers an excellent resource for challenging thoughts and behaviors that contribute to these fears. If performance anxiety interferes significantly, counseling also may be beneficial.

4. Disappointment – All musicians eventually face rejection. Helping children handle disappointment requires significant effort from parents, as children typically lack the developmental tools for understanding how “unfair” the world can be. Gifted children, in particular, have an acute sense of what is fair and just, and may become outraged or disillusioned if they believe that someone has been mistreated. Adolescents may give up their musical goals altogether if disappointed, choosing to abandon their dreams rather than suffer another rejection. They also may grapple with feelings of envy, bitterness, or shame when others surpass them. Adults can help children put their feelings into perspective, and encourage them to focus on their own progress, recognize what they can change, and develop a plan that will help them to reach their goals.