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Musical Prodigies: Perilous Journeys, Remarkable Lives by Claude Kenneson (1998). Amadeus Press, Portland, Oregon.

"My earliest musical memories are from the time when I was a baby and crawled under my dad's piano. While he played I remember lying there looking up at the struts and sounding board, and the sound would come down and envelope me. I loved being there under the piano while he practiced. . . ." (Bejun Mehta, p.336, from Musical Prodigies (1998) by Claude Kenneson).

The author makes clear throughout this fascinating examination of the development of musical prodigies that family environment interacting positively with the unfolding of the child's natural abilities are the most important factors in developing young, highly gifted musicians. But the individuals Kenneson discusses are beyond giftedness. They are so extraordinary as to defy current explanations from developmental and educational psychology. The early lives and precocious achievements of many of the great ones are discussed here -- Mozart, Paganini, Clara Schumann, Heifetz, Casals, Piatigorsky, Rubinstein, Gould, Argerich, Cliburn, du Pré, Yo-Yo Ma and many other concert artists of the violin, piano, cello, string bass and guitar. Precocious composers (e.g., Mozart, Samuel Barber), conductors (e.g., Pierino Gamba, Lorin Maazel) and a singer (Bejun Mehta) are also included.

Kenneson, a music professor emeritus at the University of Alberta (Canada) attempts to make sense of these "miraculous" early achievements by describing his experiences in teaching two young children to play the cello -- Eric Wilson and Shauna Rolston. In the chapter entitled, "Reader's Guide," Kenneson discusses some of the common features of the prodigies he has taught and studied for his book, such as: early rapid development, intensive encounters with music in a family environment that supports musical accomplishment, the nurturing influence of families that rearrange their lives and work to foster their child's musical development, and the importance of using music in a playful manner during the early years. What is clear to this reviewer is that successful musical accomplishment at a young age (beginning at three or four years) requires intensive early exposure to musical performance, primarily through at least one parent who is a skilled musician. Additionally, music teachers other than the parent(s), come into the picture early in the young prodigy's musical life beginning at three to eight years. These teachers appear to be almost as important (or in later years, more important) than parental influences. The combined influences of parents and private music teachers produce a synergy effect in these precocious children's lives that advances their musical accomplishments to the highest possible levels.

Kenneson has done a great service to educators and parents by writing this excellent book. What positive use can they make of his pertinent descriptions and insightful conclusions? First, it is clear that numerous opportunities for the growth of these extraordinary children must be provided through schools of music, music teachers and music programs in public and private schools. Unfortunately, the public schools of America are currently ignoring their music education programs to the detriment of children who range from very capable to highly gifted to extraordinary accomplishment. In most cases, the burden must therefore fall on perceptive parents and teachers who are sensitive to musical ability at an early age, and to great music institutions such as Juilliard and the Curtis Institute.

For many years, this reviewer has been concerned with the role of children's sensibility levels in their mental development as expressed through heightened awareness and responsiveness to particular aspects of their environment such as tones, rhythms, melodies and musical performances. Clearly, musical prodigies have sensibility levels to musical sounds and rhythms that are far beyond those of average children. In addition, they are endowed with advanced sensori-motor abilities that enable them to use a violin bow or strike piano keys in a coordinated and rhythmical manner. Their accelerated cognitive development also leads to facility in reading music notations. Can children's interest in and responsiveness to music be enhanced by the proper types of exposure to music at a young age? From reading Musical Prodigies and other related works (described below), it appears that young children benefit from organized music programs. But the rare musical brilliance described by Kenneson is a different story -- unique types of mental development must also be present (as a result of the child's genetic, psychological and physiological makeup) to bring musical aptitude to the level of a prodigy.

Other books that will help to illuminate the reader's understanding of musical prodigies are as follows:

Developing Talent in Young People by Benjamin Bloom (1985, Ballantine Books) and Music Talks by Helen Epstein (1987, McGraw-Hill). Both of these books emphasize the role of music education during the child's formative years. Bloom's book (based on psychological studies and interviews) has several chapters on the lengthy and arduous music education of concert pianists. Epstein has interviews with many outstanding musicians such as Itzhak Perlman, Cho-Liang Lin, Midori and Yo-Yo Ma. She also describes the work of the violin teacher Dorothy DeLay (Juilliard School of Music) with violin prodigies.

Gifted Children: Myths and Realities by Ellen Winner (1996, Basic Books). The author provides detailed descriptions of children who have exceptional musical abilities, and she makes insightful statements about the nature of musical giftedness. She tells the story of one child who began playing the electric guitar at eight years. Another child began sight reading at age five and liked music theory and notation. He began composing music at seven years.

Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius by Peter F. Ostwald (1997, W.W. Norton & Co.). This highly eccentric pianist and expert on Bach clearly exhibited many positive and negative characteristics of his personality and musical accomplishment. Ostwald describes these characteristics in detail from Gould's early life as a musical prodigy to his later tragic years as a neurotic, isolated individual who suffered from severe hypochondria.

Nature's Gambit: Child Prodigies and the Development of Human Potential by David Feldman (1986, Basic Books). The author discusses the psychological research concerned with the development of intellectual precocity. Many sections of this book concentrate on musical prodigies.

Isaac Stern: My First 79 Years by Isaac Stern, written with Chaim Potok (1999, Knopf). Here is the extraordinary life and professional career of this joyous, world-renowned musician. Stern's family immigrated from Russia to San Francisco where he began his accelerated progress and success on the violin starting at about eight years.

These books, in addition to the one written by Kenneson, will provide teachers and parents of the gifted with an extraordinary story of musical prodigies. They should be read to understand the importance of skilled music teachers in these children's lives.

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"All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem." From On Writing Well (1998, p. 49) by William Zinsser.

As a college teacher of English, I am puzzled about how obviously gifted students have difficulty writing. These students express themselves insightfully about the short stories they read, or they are highly capable in mathematics and the sciences. However, there appears to be a mysterious malady lurking in their psyche when they have to write an essay. They still have to struggle even when they tape record their comments, and all they have to do is transform these comments into written form. William Zinsser has eagerly and elegantly responded to the challenge of helping students overcome mental blocks in writing.

Zinsser has two books dedicated to the problem of developing critical writing skills. They are On Writing Well (1998) and Writing To Learn (1988). His approach is now used in many public schools and colleges, and is known as "Writing Across the Curriculum." He discovered that many gifted people cannot write well because writing instruction primarily occurs in English departments. As a student, he was unable to do well in science and mathematics. However, when he started to read expository writing in these subjects, he transcended his limitations. A good example was his reading of Charles Darwin's works. Zinsser learned that when he wrote about topics such as the Theory of Evolution, he began to understand more about scientific subjects because excellent writers such as Darwin inspired his own writing. These experiences led Zinsser to conclude that the major literary form of our times is nonfiction rather than fiction. Some of the examples of outstanding nonfiction that he discusses in both books are as follows: Lewis Thomas on biology, Oliver Sacks on neurology, and Stephen Jay Gould on geology. Zinsser also found stylistic models in the journalism of individuals such as H.L. Mencken. In addition, he has written books on memoirs and biography (Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, 1987; Extraordinary lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography, 1988).

Zinsser advocates that writing across the curriculum should function as a motivational tool which initially enables students to write about their interests. When they can adequately write in their specific discipline, a transformation occurs in their attitudes about writing. Zinsser describes writing as an instrument for constructing logical thinking and achieving clarity in a particular subject. He perceives this dynamic as "learning to write and writing to learn."

The approach to teaching writing in most schools of education is without any literary models and inspiration. Thus, student teachers learn a method aimed at achieving points on mandated, standardized writing exams rather than how to help future public school pupils transform their attitudes about writing. Besides Zinsser's books, there are other works that can help teachers and their pupils make the transformation to better writing - The Elements of Style (1999) by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, and Zen in the Art of Writing (1992) by Ray Bradbury. This is one of the most important challenges in gifted education, teaching students to write well in order to learn more deeply and critically.

Maurice D. Fisher, Publisher, Copyright © by Gifted Education Press, December 1999-January 2000