Identifying and Nurturing The Child Gifted in Fine And Performing Arts
By Kandi Chong
My highly gifted daughter doesn’t appear that way to most people. While some parents of gifted children are frantically searching for an algebra text for their eight year olds, mine is just starting to learn her multiplication tables. While other parents are trying to find books that are intellectually challenging, yet appropriate in content for a profoundly gifted five year old, my daughter was slow to read and prefers The Adventures of Mary Kate and Ashley to Oliver Twist. At gifted conferences and round tables, I often sit silently; having nothing to contribute to a discussion of early college admissions or the trials and tribulations of getting my eight year old into the high school science class. In fact, I often wonder if the tests and evaluations were wrong. She just doesn’t fit the picture of the average gifted child.
And yet… she knew the plot of every major ballet by the time she was five. She could tell you everything you wanted to know about Rudolf Nureyev by the time she was six. Now at age eight she will tell you quite frankly, that George Balanchine was the greatest choreographer of the modern age – much better than that hack Frederick Ashton. She is also more than capable of performing complex ballet moves with ability unusual for her age. Eight year olds aren’t supposed to be able to do one pirouette, much less three. She choreographed her first ballet, a pas de tois for herself and two teenage girls when she was six.
Welcome to the world of the creatively gifted, the world of the child gifted in the fine and performing arts. While most if not all gifted children enjoy the arts and many excel at it; there is a small subset of children who seem not to be interested in anything else. These children most resemble Feldman’s child prodigies as discussed in his book Nature’s Gambit, but often they are not. They are not Yo-Yo-Ma’s or Paloma Herrera’s - young prodigies gifted beyond measure in a narrow domain. They may not give concerts at five or even ten, but they do share a passion for creating and a joy in expressing themselves through the arts that often eclipses their interest in more academic subjects.
As such, these young actors, musicians and dancers are often a puzzle to the adults around them. Obviously bright, eager to verbally share their passion with others, they baffle parents and teachers by being able to remember entire lines of text from their favorite play, but can’t seem to remember how to spell “what” correctly. Precise down to the smallest detail when it comes to choreographing a dance, they can’t be bothered to check over their math homework. Unfortunately, in a school setting, these bright creative youngsters are at risk of having their intelligence overlooked as they display mediocre academic abilities and may daydream a lot.
Being more right-brained than most children, school becomes a dull and dreary place where they are forced into a mode of thinking that is unnatural for them. And because art programs have been curtailed at most schools, they have no outlet for their energies, no respite from a relentless, left-brained approach to education. All too often, they become the underachievers, the dropouts, their talent unappreciated and ultimately lost.
Of course, some children are lucky to have parents who can afford to pay for private lessons after school, but even these forays into the creative world can be fraught with frustration for the gifted student. Drama, dance and music classes follow the prevailing patterns and segregate students according to age. Even when young, talented students show a high level of ability, they are not promoted for reasons unrelated to their accomplishments. Couple that with their high aesthetic sense and their natural tendency to be perfectionistic and you may cripple the child’s internal drive and turn passion into disgust.
So what can be done for these quirky children? Having dealt with my own creatively gifted child for the past eight and a half years, I have often thought the best thing for parents to do is treat their children the way they would treat a child similarly gifted in mathematics. Understanding that your child is gifted, even if it is not in the conventional sense, is the first step towards helping them achieve their goals.
The National Association for Gifted Children recognizes giftedness in the visual and performing arts, but many school districts do not. Teachers recommend students for assessment and enrichment based on their high-ability in academics -- not on their uncanny ability to perfectly mimic the teacher. If a child is a good student and a good actor, she may have her ability recognized and thus her needs met; the child who shows obvious dramatic gifts but receives low academic grades may well be out of luck. The fact that the child sees no use for math on stage doesn’t cut any ice with a teacher.
Homeschooling, an option that is often taken by families with prodigies, is an excellent option for these quirky kids. Homeschooling allows them to go at their own pace without any notes coming home about “Johnny not living up to his potential.” It also gives them what they most crave, the opportunity to be creative and pursue their passion.
Parents should keep in mind that a child who can play Mozart with passion and a high level of ability is probably gifted -- with all that comes with the gifted “package,” including asynchrony, sensitivity, and so on. They need to be treated with the same understanding as children gifted in academics or other areas. In particular, children gifted in the fine and performing arts may be focusing on fields that place a lot of emphasis on tradition and technique… and like most gifted children, if their needs are not met, they will become bored and frustrated by obstacles in their path. Just as an academically gifted child may need an educational plan tailored to her needs, so the artistic child needs instruction tailored to hers.
Beth Wright points out in her article, Performing Arts Instruction for Exceptionally and Profoundly Gifted Children, that, “Performing arts instruction must meet the eg/pg child’s cognitive-ability level. Finding such instruction can be tricky for subjects that involve sequential repetitive skill mastery. Since music, voice, and dance instruction is best presented in a manner that trains the student to develop muscle memory, repetition is necessary. How can a teacher meet the eg/pg child’s need for intellectual challenge while simultaneously ensuring that proper technique is acquired?”
In my own daughter’s case, the teachers continually reinforce the point that she is advanced beyond her years but refuse to accelerate her for fear that her technique, which in ballet must be near perfect, will suffer. They say that she will somehow learn bad habits that might be unbreakable, as she gets older.
The problem with this approach – which is found in other artistic disciplines, as well – is that it does not take into account the extraordinary amount of brainpower these children bring to bear on the discipline at hand. Because they are able to comprehend what constitutes good technique and bad technique, they strive always to perfect themselves and refuse to let themselves develop bad habits. However, like any unchallenged child, they can become bored and their technique will suffer simply because they are on autopilot while other children are concentrating as hard as they can. The only option for most parents is to advocate for acceleration and risk being branded a stage parent. Another option is to keep searching for a mentor for the child who understands the child’s unique needs and abilities and is willing to challenge the child while simultaneously working on the basics.
A similar approach applies to schoolwork. Even though these creative children are not interested in academics, they are extremely intelligent and can move through an academic program more quickly than the average child. The trick is to present the material in a creative way or to allow them to go through the material at their own pace. In our home we have developed a system whereby my daughter spends two hours a day on academic subjects, leaving the rest of the day free to pursue creative topics – mostly she creates dances but every once in a while she initiates a science project or two. Ultimately, dealing with a creatively gifted child is no more or less complicated than dealing with any gifted child. Most gifted children crave challenge of some kind, and while your artistically gifted child may not seem academically inclined, he or she has a great deal of potential and deserves to have those gifts recognized and nurtured as well.
Kandi Chong is a freelance writer. She has one creatively gifted child who lives and breathes for the ballet.