Wednesday, December 13, 2006


As a belated birthday present to myself, I went to a matinee performance of the Nutcracker today. New York City Ballet has been performing this Christmas masterpiece for over 50 years now, ever since George Balanchine stamped his vision on Tschaikovsky's music.

Starring several children, the Nutcracker is always a crowd pleaser. But it was watching the young adult principal dancers of the NYC Ballet company that really got me thinking. In fields like ballet, becoming a top-tier professional takes decades of practice. With dance, especially, you have to commit to training your body into the correct form and technique quite young -- often, younger than a child could rationally make a decision about wanting to be a professional dancer on her own (well, all of us probably did want to be professional ballerinas at some point -- but before a child could rationally size up the situation and decide it was feasible). Unless the child's parents make a decision that they will commit the child to that kind of intense training, the child will not become a principal ballet dancer years hence.

Other fields don't have quite the same unforgiving age elements as dance, but certainly it is easier to learn to play an instrument and read music when our brains are new enough to learn other languages easily. Early problem solving training also makes new mathematical leaps second nature. All of these issues raise the question for parents: When are you being a pushy parent when you allow or encourage a child to spend hours a day training in a subject, and when are you trying not to cut off a child's future career choice?

It's a tough question. Certainly if a child hates an activity, or is even indifferent, making big commitments of time, money or energy toward a future career is silly. Making a living as a musician or a dancer is almost impossible. If the child doesn't love it, he'll never survive. So following the child's interests is key. Asking for an evaluation from a trusted adult who's had a career in the field is important. Maybe 2 or 3 adults. Prodigies I've interviewed also recommend allowing "breaks" from time to time. If the child gets truly frustrated with her instrument or her arabesques (not just tempted by what's on TV), don't force it. If you force it, the kid will quit for good. Children who love what they're doing will eventually come back to their avocation, maybe with a different teacher or a different approach.

Beyond that, I guess it just has to be a gut decision -- and one with no guarantees. You can study ballet intensely for decades and still never wind up in the NYC Ballet program. But if you don't study intensely for decades, you definitely won't.


dinnerdee said...

Great observations about children & the arts. I came up through the ranks of youth orchestras, 8+ years of private music lessons and even a specialized Youth Performing Arts School, in conjunction with an advanced academic program in high school. It did pay off in full scholarships to college, but the musical future was cut short by bell's palsy(partial facial paralysis). I was glad to be well-rounded and have other options in life.
Now I am mindful with my own children in regard to giving them opportunities to excel, without living vicariously or demanding excellence that overstresses them. The drive to sacrifice that enables those dancers in the Nutcracker, for example, must come from within to be sustained. The sole motivator cannot be lack of any other life skills.
Also, thanks for Genius Denied. It describes the plight/challenge of the gifted child's parent so eloquently. We are fortunate to have found a truly phenomenal private school for our children in a nearby city.

M LaMar said...

As a mother of a gifted pianist (7 years old) I have been struggling with these very issues. I do not want to force my son into music as a career, yet I have worried that if I do not help him develop his talent he may regret it later. I think the issue is complicated by the fact that it is natural to be proud of having a talented child. I am constantly questioning my own motivations when I make decisions about his musical development. Am I doing it for him or for me?

Thank you for your comments! They were quite helpful. As it happens he is taking a break from lessons right now and will start with a new teacher in January.

Anonymous said...

I have my kids in piano lessons to help them be well-rounded. There is not much music education in schools and I figure it's just a way for them to casually learn something else. I do not believe my kids are prodigies in music, and do not expect them to continue taking lessons forever. I just want them to have an opportunity and learn appreciation for another art form.
HOWEVER, my 10-yr old son has been taking piano now for 5 years and his enthusiasm has definitely waned. He hardly practices (though I do not pressure him about it, except to say, "Your recital is this weekend, so you'd better memorize that piece.") My husband insists he take piano through middle school (another 2.5 yrs). I think my husband is one of those who wishes his parents made him continue lessons, because now he'd love to play.

Anyone have suggestions for what I should do? Support hub or try to convince him to let my son drop it and try something different?