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How to Recognize, Support and Teach Musically Gifted Kids

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Check out four amazing musical prodigies in performance, and learn from educators what you can do to help your future musicians grow their skills.

By the time Mozart was five years old he could play piano and violin, and he had already begun his career as one of world’s greatest classical composers. His is an amazing story from the dusty pages of music history, and while he may continue to be one of history’s greatest child prodigies, he is not the only one.

YouTube is brimming with musicians and songwriters of all ages who are hoping to get noticed and share their talent with the world. Some have studied for decades, some are young and clumsy, but a few are defying expectations and norms. These kids are pretty amazing.

We talked to some of these young prodigies as well as some experienced music instructors to find out what makes a kid really, uniquely talented, and how parents and teachers can best support and teach them.

Brass Jazz Jake

Jake Labazzi

Jake Labazzi chose the trumpet from a list of available music lessons when he was six years old, and hit the ground running.

It was just by chance that I started to learn the trumpet. Mum, Dad and I looked through a list of possible music lessons running through the Haringey Music and Performing Arts Centre, and I just picked the trumpet from a list! A trumpet teacher used to come into my local school every week, and teach me (and some other kids) for 20 minutes. After 18 months of lessons, I had a teacher—Michael Ibsen—who contacted my mum to say that I needed more music lessons than he could give me, and that maybe a Saturday music school would be good for me.

By the time Jake was nine years old, he was favoring jazz, and applying and auditioning for a more prestigious music education. A year later he joined the Royal Academy’s Junior Jazz Saturday School in addition to his regular education:

 

Jake is remarkably humble for someone who has so much talent, and he has worked incredibly hard to develop his skill at such a young age.

I still have a lot to learn and would like to continue with my jazz education, and study for a degree in jazz. After that, I am not quite sure yet!! I love performing on stage and also doing some recording in studios, so maybe some session playing. I really enjoy the opportunity to play with well-established jazz musicians, and learn so much from them.

He has definitely set an aggressive pace, and it seems he intends to keep at it.

Avery the Whiz Drummer

Avery Molek
© J&J Digital Images

Avery Molek started playing drums when Santa Claus brought the then-two-year-old a tiny drum set and guitar for Christmas.

My parents did not know that I would be any good at it, but it turned out that I was learning and keeping beats all on my own.

A couple of years later he was taking drum lessons, and his YouTube channel was already growing. When he was five, he performed on stage—with a live band, in front of a live crowd—for the first time. He was hooked. Now, at the age of seven, his drumming prowess continues to grow as this video attests:

 

In 2012, the “Out of the Basement” tour took Avery to 40 performances in four states, and in 2013, one of his cover videos went viral. Because of his young age, his parents declines most interview and appearances requests except for Good Morning America.

Avery has big plans for the future:

My dream has always been to have my own band some day. It would be a combination of metal and rock. Also, I hope that Kiss will invite me to play with them on stage. I would literally freak out!

Keep an eye out for his future performances both online and onstage.

How to Recognize Gifted Musicians

Avery is an only child, and his parents are not musicians.They didn’t know that what he was doing was extraordinary until they saw the reaction of other parents at a daycare talent show when he was three. Similarly, Jake’s parents just supported his weekly music lessons until a teacher pointed out that Jake had unusual talent.

If you’re a parent or music teacher, how do you recognize exceptional talent in a young person, especially if you’ve never seen it before?

Robbie MacKinnon

Robbie MacKinnon is a music teacher in Vietnam. Born and raised in Scotland, he studied music education at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and has taught in several countries since 2008.

At our school we have small classes which come to me once a week. I also see the children in an additional weekly singing lesson, plus many of them come to me for extra-curricular clubs. Therefore, I get to know the children quite well. Through the initial getting-to-know-you games, gifted children early on demonstrate their capacity for rhythm and pitch. I use my own judgement to identify the children who are working above the ability of their peers. In addition to this, many children opt to sit for ABRSM (Associated Boards of the Royal School of Music) examinations which are a clear indication of musical ability.

Mary Barrios

Mary Barrios has been in education for over 30 years, and currently teaches gifted preschool and grade-school children at Quest Academy in Palatine, Illinois.

A musically gifted student is usually able to recognize patterns easily, can sing on pitch and hear when something or someone is out of pitch, has a passion for learning/producing/listening to music, enjoys practicing or at least has the self-discipline to practice to improve, and is able to play (or sing) musically—with emotion. A musically gifted student often lives, eats, and breathes music!

Sunny D’Apice earned her Master of Music degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She has completed several postgraduate violin studies, and played with four professional orchestras in several states. D’Apice has been teaching at The Hockaday School in Dallas for ten years.

When I teach a piece to a violin student, the musically gifted usually learn the piece anywhere from within a few minutes to a few days—with correct notes, pitches and dynamics. Average students would take at least a few days to a few weeks to learn the piece. The musically gifted always play with correct intonation, and learn musical concepts and dynamics right away after the first suggestion.

Teachers and musicians can look for a natural inclination for rhythm and pitch in musically gifted children. But even parents who may not know much about music can recognize when a child takes a particular interest in music. If yours enjoys or relies on music more than his or her peers, you might have a natural talent on your hands!

Meet Ukulele Mandi

Mandi Huchingson

Mandi Huchingson, aka Ukulele Mandi, started playing piano when she was six, and her mom—also a musician—did notice an unusual talent for rhythm.

I asked my mom to teach me to play the piano when I was six. She taught me chords and she noticed I was playing a rhythm that she had not taught me. She asked me how I knew how to do that, and I told her, “I just watched you.”

Three years later, in the spring of 2011, she fell in love with the ukulele, and used money she had recently won in a talent show to purchase one. She learned two songs before she even got it home, and spent nine hours the next day singing along as she learned chords and strum patterns.

 

When asked about the future, Mandi keeps it simple:

I mostly just want to enjoy making music. If it makes other people smile that would be good too. I always want to use my talents to bring glory to God. Maybe it will be in church or in a Christian band, or maybe just at home with my family.

At the end of 2012, she released an EP with four songs that she wrote with the help of her ukulele instructor. She’s well on her way.

Ethan, Early and by Ear

Ethan Bortnick

Ethan Bortnick does not come from a musical family, but his parents recognized an unusual talent when he was only three years old, and acted on a good hunch.

I was three years old and asked my parents for piano lessons. They said no, because I was only three years old. After that, they said that I picked up a small toy keyboard and started mimicking everything that I heard on TV and radio. When they saw what I was able to do, they decided to get me piano lessons.

Ethan began composing two years later, at age five. He has been featured on many TV specials, scored a full-length feature film, set the Guinness World Record for Youngest Solo Musician to Headline His Own Tour, and has hosted two concert series on public television. Tickets for his 2014, 50-city tour are on sale at EthanTickets.com.

This video clip demonstrates his amazing skills as both a pianist and singer with enormous stage presence:

 

It’s enough to keep anyone busy, and Ethan focuses on taking things one day at a time.

I am only 13 years old, so I try not to worry too much about the future. I can tell you that I would love to continue doing what I do now, and using music to help other people. I love writing music based on things that inspire me. I would love to do more of that too.

Since his younger brother’s open heart surgeries, and seeing other children in hospital beds, Ethan has used his musical talents to raise over $30,000,000 for charities worldwide.

How to Encourage and Inspire

Discovering a young protege is exciting, but then what? How do you nurture their passion and abilities without overwhelming them?

Encourage Them to Create

Most early music lessons teach children how to play what someone else has created, because that is how music is learned. But it’s also never too early to encourage creativity.

The musically gifted student often needs little encouragement from me as his/her classroom teacher to practice and improve. What I like to encourage them to do is to create. They are learning to perform, to play what their private teachers are interpreting for them. I want them to begin to interpret for themselves and to create their own music, even if it is nothing spectacular or worthy of the five o’clock news. I want them to take risks, to start putting their own ideas out there.—Mary Barrios

As children are allowed to interpret music and write their own, they begin to understand and appreciate music in new ways.

Encourage Them to Listen

Everyone should learn to appreciate different styles and genres of music, but especially gifted children.

I encourage my musically gifted students by giving them a wide range of pieces, and encouraging them to attend musical performances, symphonies and operas at an earlier age. I also encourage them by playing duets with them, introducing them to chamber music, and encouraging them to enjoy a wide range of styles.—Sunny D’Apice

You never know what’s going to inspire your protege. Just because she started in one genre or on one instrument, doesn’t mean she won’t go even further with something else!

Encourage Them to Perform

A “performance” can be on stage for a big crowd, or in your living room for your family.

I try to enrich the music curriculum through timetabling specialist instrumental teachers; organizing concerts, talent shows and musicals; and opening up the orchestra and choir to any child who wishes to take part. I encourage children who are musically talented to take every opportunity they can to perform. This may be in the music classroom in front of their peers, in a school production, or in a formal competition setting. I design tasks to stretch the more able children, and I personalize their learning by requesting they bring in their own instruments.—Robbie MacKinnon

Performing for audiences big or small will build a child’s confidence and encourage him to continue learning.

Create Balance, and Learn to Love Paperwork

We asked some of the kids for their advice to parents too. They’re remarkably practical.

I think the best thing they could do is be as supportive as possible. They need to remember that all kids are different and just because they are musically gifted doesn’t mean that music is all they want to do in life. We are still kids and my mom and dad say that my life needs to be balanced and they do a good job at it!—Avery Molek

I would say that parents tend to do a lot of the research on places to study, admin, funding and driving us around! There are options out there for young musicians of any standard, and support for any financial background. Funding is available for talented musicians, but there is a fair process to this—application forms and possible auditions in front of funding panels—but if music is what your child wants to learn, and he shows a clear talent, and money is the only barrier, then you have to do it!!—Jake Labazzi

When teachers and parents work together, and everyone has the child’s best interests at heart, you can’t go wrong.

The Power of Music is for All Children

It may be true that every parent thinks his child is gifted, but if yours demonstrates an easy understanding of rhythm or pitch—or even just an unusually keen interest in music—you might have a natural talent on your hands. If you’re a teacher with a student who seems to do everything faster or easier than the others, you might have a protege to work with.

The important thing is to encourage their enthusiasm and continue to gently challenge their skill level. Who knows? Maybe the next Mozart is right under your nose, but even if that’s not the case, every child will benefit from a well-rounded musical education. Either way, you won’t regret giving them the opportunity.

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