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Nurturing giftedness

Volume 7 Number 7 July 11 - August 7 2011

Tiffany Poon aged 14 and four (inset)
Tiffany Poon aged 14 and four (inset)

Professor Gary McPherson has been working with 14-year-old pianist Tiffany Poon as he researches musical giftedness. Katherine Smith reports.

When pianist Tiffany Poon was very young, her father and a friend set about building a high fidelity sound system. Although neither was trained in western music, they were aware that recorded piano is the best test of sound reproduction quality, so CDs of works by Chopin and Beethoven were played.

Then, at two years of age, Tiffany was given a toy piano and to her parents’ surprise, began to play along. Between the ages of four and six she listened to piano CDs, and within a number of weeks had memorised and was able to play by ear complex works that would challenge more established musicians.

For Melbourne Conservatorium of Music Director and Centre for Mind, Music and Wellbeing researcher, Professor Gary McPherson, Tiffany’s story is a matter of fascination and an opportunity for him to further his research into the mechanisms of giftedness. Since his initial meeting with the girl in Hong Kong seven years ago, he has observed her rising star, especially after she successfully auditioned for a scholarship at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music’s pre-college program in New York.

“Tiffany is a prodigy,” he says, “and when she plays at the Melbourne Recital Centre on 19 July, she will blow her audience away.”

Prior to the recital, Professor McPherson will give a talk – ‘Musicians: Born or Made?’ in which he will explore ideas of nature/nurture, and the environmental pre-conditions and personal predispositions that go into making up the gifted child performer.

After her initial immersion in piano music as a very young child, and several local teachers later, Tiffany’s parents approached Professor McPherson after a lecture he gave at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts.

“Mr Poon asked if I would see Tiffany, and, with the usual alarm bells ringing in my ears when parents talk about their ‘gifted’ children, I agreed to meet the little girl.”

Professor McPherson says what he saw was a child with an astonishing emotional engagement with music, very expressive gestures, and obvious intellectual curiosity.

“She was not just playing the piano, but performing,” he says.

After initial tests to assess the level of her music reading ability using eye-scans to see how far ahead she was reading – which was significant at four or five notes ahead – Professor McPherson agreed to work with her and guide her development.

“In Tiffany’s case, the catalyst for her ability was that toy piano and her early immersion in music,” Professor McPherson says, “but the essential ingredient is her own sense of motivation and discipline.

“I believe that her ability and interest in music is a learned, or acquired behaviour. There is scientific evidence to suggest that if children become intensely motivated in a particular area early in life, that developmental pattern is replicated in other parts of the brain and fundamentally ‘laid down’. This means that as the child grows they are able to build on the equipping skills of concentration and self-determination established while young, which is then reflected in their level of ability.”

Professor McPherson says there are three key psychological drivers related to giftedness.

“A gifted person typically will take great pleasure in their own sense of competence.

“In addition a strong sense of connectedness and relatedness is vital. In Tiffany’s case she gets lots of support and enjoys a mutually satisfying relationship with her parents and her teachers, through the medium of her piano playing.

“And thirdly and perhaps most importantly, a feeling of autonomy is important. Tiffany studies hard and pushes herself because she wants to, not to please anyone else.”

An example of what happens for the gifted person if these three fundamental needs are not met is Tiffany’s refusal to go to teachers at around age six.

“At that time for Tiffany the relationship between teacher and student was no longer sustaining,” explains Professor McPherson. “Her competence was not being improved by her instructors – most of whom she was probably better than by then – and she didn’t feel she was doing what she wanted. At Juilliard she is now very receptive to her teachers, whom she respects and who are of great benefit to her skills.”

At 14 however, Ms Poon is approaching a critical time in her ‘career path’, although Professor McPherson points out she is in the safest hands at Julliard, where a supportive environment for young musicians is carefully cultivated.

“Many gifted children will experience a ‘mid-life crisis’ between the ages of 14-16. To have attained true performer status requires around 10,000 hours of deliberate, intentional practice, and this happens for most musicians at the age of 19 or 20, when maturity can protect them from burn out. When so much else is changing in the lives of gifted children during adolescence, many will start to ask whether they want to ‘do this’ for the rest of their life.

“And that is OK too. Our job is to make sure they have the best chance to optimise their talents, so they are well placed to make intelligent decisions when those choices come.

“Giftedness is a complex and fragile thing, and through our research we ask ourselves what we can do to support the child, and nurture the unique talent they possess.”

Tiffany Poon will perform at the Melbourne Recital Centre on 19 July, preceded by a 20-minute talk from Professor Gary McPherson on giftedness and how to nurture it. The event launches the ‘Music on the Mind’ series which will also include exploration of music therapy, how the brain ‘hears’ new music, music and teenage behaviour, and what happens in the brain when we sing.

More: www.cmmw.unimelb.edu.au